Early in her just-published memoir, local author Jennifer McGaha writes, “Someday we would refer to the time our house was foreclosed in the past tense.” But her book chronicling that experience — and her family’s subsequent decision to move to a hundred-year-old, mostly-off-grid cabin while they worked to get their finances back in order — was written in real time, in the midst of the emotional turmoil of the ordeal.
And yet, as harrowing and sad as some of the confessions are in Flat Broke with Two Goats, the memoir also contains the levity its title suggests. And, if it doesn’t necessarily wrap with a tidy, happy ending (this is real life, after all), McGaha has just celebrated her fifth Christmas in the once-despised cabin. “If I could go back and get that old life back … there’s just no way,” she says of her pre-cabin existence in a sunny, Cape Cod-style home. “The process of arriving wasn’t fun, [but] sometimes things happen that really shape our cores. That’s what memoir writing is about to me — identifying those things that have really shaped us and changed us.”
McGaha presents Flat Broke with Two Goats at Malaprop’s on Tuesday, Jan. 23.
The memoir took shape while the author was pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts in Writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (from which she graduated last summer), but McGaha has been penning and publishing shorter pieces about her grandparents — who lived in Canton — for years. “The way that they speak and the traditions [are] dying,” she says. “I’ve always felt this urgency … to preserve that part of our culture.”
After her grandmother’s death, the author brought inherited treasures such as a cast iron cornbread mold, a washboard and handmade quilts into the cabin that she was trying to adjust to. “While Ama [the goat] whispered to her unborn babies, my grandmother seemed so near, I almost believed I could reach out and touch her,” she writes, tenderly, of serving as midwife to one of her title animals.
McGaha’s heritage is deeply tied to this region and, in fact, advance review copies of Flat Broke with Two Goats included the subtitle “a memoir of Appalachia.” The book went to print without that description, but “I would like people to know it’s rooted in Appalachia,” the author says.
But it’s also rooted in a very personal journey — one in which McGaha writes unflinchingly of her feelings of failure when her house was foreclosed upon, questions about her marriage and an abusive early relationship that ultimately solidified the bond she shares with her husband.
Her work as a writing instructor played a role in crafting Flat Broke with Two Goats. “Our reading should inform our writing, our writing should inform our teaching and vice versa. To me it’s all interconnected,” McGaha says. “But teaching forces me to identify what I think is important in writing in a way I may not otherwise. When I see my students writing things that are brave or are hard or might be embarrassing, it certainly gives me the courage to write those things myself.”
The book is also bolstered by recipes. In some ways, it’s an unexpected pairing. For example, following a chapter in which a neighbor, thought to have a moonshine still, is shot in a standoff with Alcohol Law Enforcement agents, is a recipe for avocado gazpacho.
But, for McGaha, food is both a throughline and an anchor. “It felt like a natural fit to me [because] cooking is how I’ve always done homemaking,” she says. “Even when we lost our home, when we were finally fixing meals at [the cabin], it began to feel like home.” The chapter where she’s still cooking at the Cape Cod house and then racing hot pots and pans out to the cabin is followed by a recipe for taco soup accompanied by the edict that “since hot foods increase your endorphin levels, the more distressed you are, the more hot sauce you will need.”
“Whenever I talk about raising goats, people ask me, ‘How do you make goat cheese? How do you do this or that?’” says McGaha. “I thought [recipes] brought some levity to the tougher chapters.” Indeed, they serve as both a breather between emotional scenes and welcome instruction for a readership that likely will benefit from DIY instructions — such as the extensive recipe for goat milk soap.
McGaha — who is still raising goats as well as chickens, dogs and cats — is currently at work on a humor collection and a memoir about mothering.
WHO: Jennifer McGaha presents Flat Broke with Two Goats
WHERE: Malaprop’s, 55 Haywood St., malaprops.com
WHEN: Tuesday, Jan. 23, 6 p.m.