Once in a while, a book comes along that redefines the concept of family. Frank McCourt did it with Angela’s Ashes; Annie Dillard did it with An American Childhood. In Nobody Rich or Famous, author Richard Shelton (b. 1933) immerses us in the hardscrabble lives of his Boise, Idaho, clan during the 1930s and ’40s. Using a framework of journals, road trips, and artful storytelling, Shelton traces three generations of women. We meet his mother, Hazel, a model of western respectability, who carefully dresses in her finest clothes before walking into a bar and emptying a loaded handgun in the general direction of her husband. We meet his great-grandmother, Josephine, who homesteads a sod shanty and dies too young on the Kansas prairie. We follow his grandmother, Charlotte, as she grows from a live-in servant girl to a fiddle-playing schoolteacher who burns through two marriages before taking up with the iceman.
Known for his storytelling, Shelton crafts a tale of poverty and its attendant sorrows: alcoholism, neglect, and abuse. But the tenacity of the human spirit shines through. This is an epic tale of Steinbeckian proportions, but it is not fiction. This is memoir in its finest tradition, illuminating today’s cultural chasm between the haves and have-nots. In the author’s words, Nobody Rich or Famous is “the story of a family and how it got that way.”