There is an underlying theme of aching loss in Eau Claire native Courtney Kersten’s new memoir, “Daughter in Retrograde.”
When writing about grappling with the death of a parent, that would seem to be at the forefront.
But her memoir, aptly described by Kirkus Reviews as “refreshingly quirky,” also finds moments of humor — something she hopes anyone who reads it while dealing with loss might be able to relate to.
“It (the book) can widen the narrative of what grieving can look like,” Kersten said. “It allows people, if they are grieving, to be okay with moments of levity and humor, or stepping outside themselves and seeing how something might be more light-hearted.”
Kersten’s debut memoir was published by UW Press in April.
She is a Memorial High School graduate who is currently working toward her PhD in creative and critical writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
She received her Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing at the University of Idaho and was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to Riga, Latvia, where she researched Baltic performing arts and literature.
Her mother, Victoria, was diagnosed with lymphoma in her brain in 2013, and died just a few months later. Coming to terms with that, Kersten said, was a reckoning not only for her, but her brother, father and step-mother.
“It is the defining narrative of my adult life,” she said. “My mother was the anchor for all of us, she took care of us. I think her death was really hard.”
But one thing that surprised Kersten, looking back, was her ability to laugh. No matter how deep the pain got, she said she and her family — in part her brother, Donny, who she said is “hilarious” — still stumbled into light-hearted moments.
“There were moments underneath all of the doom and gloom that were actually really funny,” she said. “There were moments where things were so strange that you could only laugh.”
Just about a year after her mother’s death, Kersten began writing about their relationship, and the two had a great one. When Kersten, at a young age, discovered her interest in alternative spiritualities — looking to the stars and planets for meaning — her mother was the one who indulged her and by doing so encouraged her to pursue it.
So when Kersten lost her mother, she not only had to grapple with the death of a parent but struggled to remain faithful in her spirituality as well.
“I put my faith into these things, so what does it mean now that the person who was my center is gone?” Kersten said. “How does that invert or rupture my belief of what the universe was? I had to figure that out.”
Through a journey with her mothers ashes that takes her from the lake in This Place (her unnamed hometown that could be any northwestern Wisconsin small town) to a beach in Split, Croatia, and, finally, to Riga, Latvia, Kersten is able to answer those questions for herself.
“Daughter in Retrograde” is darkly comic, but at its core it is a daughter, filled with wanderlust and yet deeply attached to her mother, learning to navigate the world after losing the person who kept her balanced.
It’s also a story about family and grieving and, beyond all of that, about putting your faith in what you believe in, no matter what that is.
The title, about the phenomenon that occurs when a planet viewed from Earth looks as though it is moving backwards, when in reality its path is altered based on the Earth’s alignment with the planet.
“Retrograde is a really good metaphor for what it’s like to grieve,” Kersten said. “You feel sort of stuck, but you’re really not. You have to evaluate who you are, what this person meant to you and how to move on with your life from that person.”
In the midst of all of that is This Place, which Kersten doesn’t name in the book, but said she spent her young life in Eau Claire, attending both the middle school and Memorial High School.
This Place is complete with friendly neighbors who bring over cheese curds and casseroles as Kersten’s family grieves, the local bar where everyone hangs out and the extra-long winters that skip right to summer northwestern Wisconsin folks know well.
The book will resonate with readers in many ways, but its Midwestern charm is an added bonus for anyone familiar with the area.
Perhaps it is her deep familial roots, but though she’s been all over the world, she said the Chippewa Valley is still her home.
“Growing up in the Midwest has been really formative for me, and, especially now living in California, it’s really thrown it into stark contrast how deeply Midwestern I feel,” Kersten said. “Even though I’ve lived lots of different places, I still feel really comfortable and really love it here.”
For more on her book, visit courtneykersten.com or listen to Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Spectrum West” at 10 a.m.today, where she will be a guest.
“Daughter in Retrograde” is available through booksellers such as Books-A-Million, Barnes and Noble and online atAmazon.com.
Contact reporter: 715-833-9214, firstname.lastname@example.org, @KatherineMacek on Twitter