The Long Field, by Pamela Petro, is a memoir wrapped around musings on hiraeth – a Welsh word that approximates to homesickness. The author spends much of the book attempting to more clearly define the word for a wider variety of uses. The writing is also a paean to Wales where Petro, an American, studied for her MA in 1983. In the intervening years she has made more than 27 trips to the country – for work as well as pleasure – and she now directs the Dylan Thomas Summer School in Creative Writing at a small campus in Lampeter, linked to the University of Wales. The school attracts students from a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds – unusual in this remote and insular location. As well as teaching, Petro hopes to inculcate at least a few of her charges with the deep and abiding appreciation of the place, something she felt from the outset.
The author was born and raised in New Jersey, by loving parents who longed for their daughter to find the settled family life they had enjoyed. Petro, however, fell in love with a woman she met in Paris – Marguerite – although she never openly came out to her parents. She tried dating boys in Wales but did not find her happy ever after. What she did find was a feeling for the country that altered her profoundly.
“Wales was an ancient nation with one of the oldest languages in Europe, a proud, parochial, working-class, mostly rural place … I was a suburban, middle class, liberal, naïve American kid. And this place felt like home.”
Petro is eager to learn the Welsh language and muses on the importance and benefits of keeping local cultures alive. She delves into ancient history, particularly around the stone-age megaliths of the region, discussing how traders and invaders brought supposed progress that may have made life easier but also different. Successive changes over time shifted the balance of power, often at a cost to the indigenous population.
Fond as she is of the Welsh countryside and customs, she cautions against blind nostalgia.
“A good friend of mine might be able to travel to Italy, but her grandfather’s rural village of family stories – always conceived by her generation as a future destination – is now a suburb of Naples. The village only exists in memory and imagination. Hiraeth speaks to the salveless ache of immigrants and their descendants.”
To a degree, however, such longing can bring benefits if considered in wider context.
“To be able to put a name to what refugees are experiencing in exile as they seek safety far from home means that we who are already home can more easily put ourselves in their place.”
The author’s ponderings on language, stories, conquest and loss meander through the pages. There is much repetition as she tries to capture the subjects that intrigue her. Despite her obvious love for this small, damp country in western Britain, she comes across as, and admits to being, very American in expectation and outlook. Her positive perspective barely skims the surface of the lives of residents whose choices are stymied through being unable to afford to leave.
Petro is obviously a skilled writer. She provides a clear and concise analysis of Trump’s victory. The historic and literary elements of the book are fascinating. I learned much about the legend of Arthur, and other myths that were once believed. I would, however, have preferred a pithier version. In rambling so freely and repetitively through place and time, engagement occasionally waned.
Perhaps, for me, this memoir would have worked better as an addition to the publisher’s fabulous Monographs series. There is much beauty within its pages but I prefer the threads of a tale to be more tightly woven than this. Having said that, the meandering fits with Petro’s years of trying to pin down an idea that is hard to translate. A thought provoking if somewhat long read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Toller.