For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors
(University of Iowa, 2018)
Laura Esther Wolfson’s literary debut For Single Mothers Working As Train Conductors is a thrilling and honest collection of personal essays spanning many years, countries, jobs, and relationships. Described by Wolfson as stories of failure, the book contains essays about Wolfson’s failure to stay married, failure to be a mother, failure to connect to her Jewish culture, and failure to fight her chronic illness. A longtime translator and speaker of English, Russian, and French, she illustrates her control of language with vivid imagery, playful word choice, and rhythmic style.
The winner of the Iowa Prize in Literary Nonfiction, For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors immediately demonstrates Wolfson’s natural talent and confidence in her own skill. Although it is her debut book at age fifty-two, it reads not like the unfocused journaling of a newcomer, but rather the patient and purposeful prose of a master. In the very first essay, she engages with the not-insignificant themes of regret, motherhood, and the Cold War; moving with ease between her personal life, world history, and an abundance of endearing characters. She maintains this difficult balancing act throughout the entirety of the book.
In one standout essay, “Proust at Rush Hour,” Wolfson discusses her attempt to master the French language, through the writing of Proust, while riding the subway in New York City. On that journey she gets distracted by a group of musicians: “The calm they radiate is not a natural fit with Times Square at rush hour, but, utterly at home in their music making, they carry it off… for the moment I am swept up. Where do these men live?” She attempts to return to her book, but cannot stop from wondering: “Behind me, the men—Did they grow up somewhere in east Tennessee? Did their group coalesce in a bar in Brooklyn before Brooklyn was hip? Are they Harlem-born and bred?—are still at it.” This passage, like the entire book, is permeated by a sense of radical curiosity about the significance of the choices we make and the paths down which they lead. Wolfson herself changes jobs and locales frequently, unsatisfied with staying in one place or relationship or position for too long. This restlessness is mirrored in the style and structuring of her essays, which engage playful language and a naturalistically nonlinear order.
Each essay carries an arc of its own, but Wolfson is a deft storyteller and altogether they paint a riveting portrait. The clarity it lacks without a straightforward narrative is more than made up for by creative flourishes that suggest exactly what you need to know about this writer. Following the path of notable memoirists who have come before, Wolfson is skilled in the difficult art of self-implication. She holds herself accountable in the failures of her life, yet is also wise enough to know that there were certain unavoidable obstacles over which she had no power. For example in both “Losing the Nobel” and “The Husband Method,” she is aware of both where she was at fault and where she had no control over her career setbacks or the dissolution of her marriage. In “Climbing Montmartre” and “Other Incidents in the Precinct” she demonstrates that she is unafraid to ask questions she cannot answer, oftentimes ending an essay seemingly with less certainty than she possessed in the beginning.
The eponymous essay, “For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors,” perhaps best exemplifies Wolfson’s modus operandi as a writer. After the realization that she had been misunderstanding a long-held memory, she concludes: “Of course, by the time I grasped this, the matter no longer pressed. It was a missing jigsaw piece, nothing more—one that fit very neatly into a puzzle long since stored on a high shelf.” Her writing is her attempt to arrange the disjointed series of puzzle pieces, which are the memories of homes and jobs and relationships that comprise a life, in a way that reveals meaning, or something near meaning. Unfortunately, the puzzle pieces usually do not fit together until long after they are of any use.
As a translator and mediator (both willingly and unwillingly) between different cultures, much of Wolfson’s life has been spent trying to find words for situations in which there are no easy ones, and trying to bridge gaps that seem too treacherous to others. As a result, her writing directly confronts the meaning of home, the tragedy of miscommunication, and the purpose of language. By the end of the book, the reader is left with the impression that we live in a wide world seldom fair but always interesting.