Thursday, August 27, 2009

Summer reading: "The Girls from Ames" by Jeffrey Zaslow

I hadn't heard of The Girls From Ames until I saw it on the bookshelf one day, prior to my vacation -- but there were several reasons why I snapped it up right away.

First, I love biographies and true-life stories -- especially ones that span years & generations and tell me something about the time and place in which the people lived. This is "A Story of Women and a Forty-Year Friendship." The author, Jeffrey Zaslow (who interrupted his work on this book to help Randy Pausch with "The Last Lecture") calls it "the biography of a friendship" among 11 girls from Ames, Iowa, who grew up together and remain in close touch to this day. Perfect.

Second, I probably could have guessed from the cover photo (those hairstyles! those short-shorts!!), but when I started flipping through the book, I realized the 11 featured "Ames Girls" were all born around 1962-1963 and graduated from high school in 1981. I was born in 1961 and graduated in 1979, so they are more or less my peers. We watched the same TV shows, listened to the same music, wore the same fashions and hair styles growing up.

And finally, they're from Ames, Iowa. I have scads of relatives in Iowa (though none in Ames), and I grew up several hundred miles to the north, in small agricultural communities (even smaller than Ames, but still...) on the Canadian Prairies -- so I knew that not only did we grow up in a similar time frame but also in a similar setting.

The book had its genesis in a column Zaslow wrote for the Wall Street Journal, exploring why women, more than men, hang onto friendships throughout their lives. One of the women who wrote to him was Ames Girl Jenny, who described her lifelong friendship with the other 10 girls from Ames. Zaslow -- who has three teenaged daughters -- was intrigued by the idea of exploring the complete, inside story of a group of longtime friends, from its beginnings to the present day. He contacted Jenny, and the eventual result was this book.

Some members of the group were more open to sharing their stories than others, and while I think just about everyone is featured or quoted at some point in the book, there are four whose life stories are featured more prominently: Marilyn, the conscientious doctor's daughter; Karla, the first of the girls to become a mother; Kelly, the outspoken, free spirit of the group; and Sheila, who died at 22 under mysterious circumstances in 1986.

In some respects, it was easiest for me to identify with Cathy -- the only childless (unmarried) member of the group. "When the Ames girls trade waves of emails about their kids' attention-deficit issues or the monotony of a long marriage, it doesn't resonate for her," the book says.
At the reunion, the others often relate to each other mother to mother. They talk about being their husbands' wives. Sure, Cathy wants to know about their families, but after awhile, she wants more. As she explains it, "When Karen shows up, to me she's Karen, not Katie's mom. I want to know what's going on with her, not necessarily how her family is doing. I know she's a mother and a wife, but I also know who she is as a person besides that."

..."What keeps me going back to them? What is it I don't want to sever? I think it's this: We root each other to the core of who we are, rather than what defines us as adults -- by careers or spouses or kids. There's a young girl in each of us who is still full of life. When we're together, I try to remember that." (pp. 95-96)

Karla is very different from me in her personality and life experiences -- but I could very much relate to the grief she experiences when her teenaged daughter, Christie, dies of leukemia.

The Ames Girl I probably identifed with most was Marilyn. In the "cheat sheet" at the front of the book, which includes "then & now" photos & a two-line sketch about each girl (which was invaluable, because with 11 of them, it was hard to keep straight who's who at times), Marilyn is described as "earnest, risk-averse, a bit of an outsider in the group." I'm not a doctor's daughter, nor a stay-at-home mom, but I recognized myself in those three descriptors. The chapter about Marilyn begins with her in her role as unofficial photographer at the latest group reunion -- a role that allows her to be part of the group & yet apart from it, observing -- a role I often find myself in at family gatherings. Marilyn has an active conscience and a strong sense of guilt (sometimes to the point of being ridiculous) that kept her from taking part in some of the girls' wilder teenaged shenanigans. (Yup, me too. I always hesitated, because I knew that *I* would be the one to get caught!! while everyone else got off scot-free!)

The book follows the girls through high school, college, marriages, divorces, funerals and 21 children. Grief and loss plays a huge role in the book. Marilyn's parents went through fertility treatments to conceive her after the death of their son; the girls gather to comfort Karla after Christie's death (there's an image of the 10 of them, huddled together on Karla's king-size bed after Christie's funeral, that had me bawling). There are pregnancy losses, and the deaths of parents. Two of the girls have been battling breast cancer.

And of course there is Sheila. Near the end of the book, the girls reconnect with Sheila's family and learn more about her untimely and mysterious death. Portions of the book's profits are being used by the girls to establish a Sheila Walsh Scholarship at Ames High School, to be awarded annually to an Ames High senior girl nominated by her friends. One key qualification is that she be a good friend to others at Ames High — just like Sheila was.

More than the biography of just one group of friends, "The Girls From Ames" delves into questions of friendship that all of us can relate to -- how we stay connected, how we forgive each other. Zaslow even presents academic research on various aspects of friendship and its lasting value.

As I read this book, I found myself thinking of my own dear friends from childhood (another 40-year friendship!) that I've stayed in touch with (although, sadly, not quite as well as the Ames Girls have). It made me want to pick up the phone & call them. And send them a copy of this book.

I'd like to nominate this one for a future Barren B*tches Book Tour selection.

Check out the book's website. There you'll find updates on the girls, reviews, and a fun video montage of photos, set to the Bob Dylan song "If Not For You" -- but sung by Rod Stewart (and if you've read the book, you will immediately think, "of course!" lol).


  1. Looks like a great find, Loribeth, especially since I, too, am a peer.

    I'd vote for it for BBBB.

    Thanks for the great writeup.

  2. Hi,

    I went to university in Iowa and knew several women from Ames. Now in Toronto area, and you are just a couple of years older than I am. So I am a peer, too, particularly since I do not have children with one pregnancy loss. I will have to check out the book, Iowa still has a special place in my heart.


  3. Oh--we should totally add these (the Jodi Picoult one too) to the voting list. I heard about this on NPR.

  4. How have I never heard of this book?! Adding it to my queue. Thanks!

  5. @jjiraffe: I loved it! (as you can tell) Sadly, the author was killed in a car accident just last week. :( He has a new book out right now called The Magic Room, about a bridal salon in a small town in Michigan -- the people who work there & the women who buy the dresses. I heard about it via Kathy at Four of a Kind, & it's now in my "to-read" pile.