Home as Found
- By Lara Stecewycz
A Review of The Long Field: Wales and the Presence of Absence by Pam Petro (Little Toller [UK], 2023)
In her memoir The Long Field, Pamela Petro reflects on her early adult years, which were spent in Wales redefining old notions of home and rediscovering herself, through a quiet exploration of her own sexuality and a distant, closeted relationship with her parents. The book follows a semi-chronological narrative, which frequently jumps forward to the stories and mindset of a mature Petro, learning how to shape her life and surroundings, and then back to young Petro, still in search of herself. What ties Petro’s accounts together is their connection to the Welsh word hiraeth. Hiraeth lacks a direct English translation, but is loosely translated as “homesickness” or the presence of absence, and, literally, as “long field.”
Petro takes a moment to explain how she initially intended for her memoir to be a story about Wales for Americans. But she began to reconsider, after an unusual experience in which an elderly woman outside of Petro’s mother’s nursing home told Petro to go find Pam by the pond. When she found no one, she grappled with what she believes may be the loss of an unknown, alternative future—one belonging to the “Other Pam”—in which she’s a poet. She reveals that, ultimately, after living in Wales and developing an understanding of hiraeth, she was able to make room for creativity—and herself—in her memoir and “think like a poet.”
While an undergrad, Petro spotted a poster advertising a program called “The Word and the Visual Imagination,” offered by the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. On a whim, she decided to leave her childhood home in Verona, New Jersey and travel to Lampeter, Wales. Leaving home helped her to bridge this gap between finding her younger and current self.
Most striking about this book is Petro’s passion for studying and educating her readers about Wales. Drizzled throughout the memoir are mentions of the constant rain (though Petro doesn’t mind it) and descriptions of the gorgeous landscape:
I’d hike through these heavy dusks to some quiet spot on the edge of a field outlined by thickets and hedge groves. [. . .] Was I waiting for some kind of confirmation? Was I trying to taste and smell what I called in my journal “the vague, sweet-smelling” blueness of twilight? Was I trying to see into the past or intuit my future? I don’t know. So much happened here.
She also describes the houses she lived in, including a mud-walled cottage, and wearing blankets while dancing around to keep warm.
Petro attempts to spell out proper pronunciations for Welsh words, while tying in surprising stories about the language’s use in Wales. Petro notes that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, children were punished for speaking Welsh in school.
Her passion for language connected her with social advocate Menna Elfyn, a member of the Welsh Language Society. The society famously protested against the English-only road signs of Wales, demanding that the Welsh translations be included. (Eventually, they were.) In 2014, Petro and Elfyn launched a new program in Wales designed for Americans, the Dylan Thomas Summer School for creative writing.
Petro’s personal and familial stories ground the book, following a more traditional memoir format and being more accessible than some of the complicated and strictly Wales-focused content. Petro was unable to openly speak with her parents about her sexuality, settling for a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach. Additionally, after her father suffered from a stroke and mother developed dementia, it became more and more difficult to communicate with them. Petro grew frustrated and continued to distance herself from them, physically and emotionally, in search of other definitions of home.
Another significant part of the book is Petro’s involvement in a terrifying Amtrak train crash, which occurred two years after her first trip to Wales. She’d spent the holidays with her relatively new partner Marguerite, and was returning to Verona. Petro emerged from the crash severely wounded and without vision, unable to notify her parents, who were waiting at the station, of her whereabouts or condition. Before boarding, she’d sent a letter emphasizing her commitment to Marguerite, who she now feared would “get a letter from a dead woman.” Despite the near-death experience and long-lasting trauma, Petro’s telling of the accident takes up a surprisingly small amount of the book.
For this reader, Petro’s personal history merits as much exploration as the history of Wales. The former becomes overpowered when Petro explores the presence of absence in Welsh history, even though there are opportunities to expand and connect her own history to hiraeth. At times, the book lacks cohesion in content, bouncing between lengthy Welsh histories and anything that is of pleasure or curiosity to Petro. But there is cohesion in form, given how Petro frequently refers back to hiraeth, its meaning expanding yet also solidifying with each new anecdote.
Ultimately, this book is thorough, well-written, and well-researched, and, from the point of view of an American, a love letter to Wales. Petro’s writing style is conversational; the readers are listening to a friend who’s come back from a long trip and eager to share. Petro notes at the start of the memoir that, prior to traveling to Wales for her master’s program, she neglected to do her own research. She writes, “I didn’t read George Borrow’s classic travel account, Wild Wales, devoured by my parents and, I later discovered, some of my fellow students. I didn’t even look up Wales in an encyclopedia.”
This choice makes Petro’s story all the more unique: she tried and failed to find home in New Jersey and with her grad school partner and almost-fiancé Andy. But after serendipitously discovering her love for Wales and finding home with her now longtime partner Marguerite, she realized that hiraeth’s presence of absence has lessened. Her connection to Wales seems to substitute for her connection with her childhood home. In this sense, home for Petro is not given, but found.
LARA STECEWYCZ is a Ukrainian-American full-time student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is a member of the Commonwealth Honors College, majoring in both English and psychology, with a concentration in creative writing. She is an editorial assistant at Arrowsmith Publishing Press and has just completed her internship at The Massachusetts Review. She worked as a volunteer reader at The Common Magazine and the associate editor of the Jabberwocky Journal, the student-run literary journal of UMass Amherst. Her poetry has been published in Jabberwocky Journal, as well as in a chapbook created with six other UMass Amherst students. Her essays have been published in Arrowsmith Journal.