Tissot details a turn to a new life in her memoir
‘Kicking Leaves,” by Caperton Tissot, a resident of Saranac Lake, is a time capsule presented to the reader in the shape of a memoir.
The book details the life of Caperton, a young socialite destined for debutante balls and ivy league education until in an awakening similar to that of the Buddha, she is alerted to the inequalities of social class and the ugliness of racial prejudice. She rebels against the life prescribed by her conservative parents but doesn’t know how to abandon it completely. She foregoes a college degree to travel around Europe in an “impoverished” manner. (At times impoverished means renting a cot in a bathroom in an Alps ski resort as opposed to a bedroom.) In her travels she moves around France, Italy and Austria and then finally lands in the Netherlands where she meets her future husband, Wim. Over the objections of both her family and Wim’s, the lovers marry. Soon after, Caperton definitively turns away from her old life in a symbolic and actual gesture. She gives away her debutante dresses to a neighbor who works as a prostitute. The clothes were apparently fancy enough to be good for business.
The newlyweds begin a nomadic existence that is to be their married life until the present day of the memoir, years after Caperton has settled in Saranac Lake. She and her husband cycle through new jobs, new children, and more new homes than one can count. Each change is underscored by lack of financial excess and lack of flexibility. She is unwilling to compromise her opinions for comfort and at times the reader feels she might be proud of her obstinance and contrarian approach. That is what it takes to exact change, she implies.
The gem of the book is the detailed description of the era in which she matured in a post-war Europe and later through the Vietnam War era of protests and societal upheaval in the United States. There are precise descriptions that are instructive for generations who might not understand what international travel meant in an era before WhatsApp.
But as much as the writing is flawless and the descriptions precise, the time capsule reporting can feel too segmented at times, and the memoir lacks one literary necessity. There is no dragon to slay. Yes, there are social injustices, and yes, Caperton finds herself on the right side of moral arguments, but there is no singular problem within the memoir that keeps the reader riveted to discover the climactic outcome.
There are pictures, and there are hints that perhaps there were dragons to battle, if not large ones, then perhaps smaller ones that could have been used for that literary purpose. For example, the author hints at and provides a picture of a kayak rescue in rough open waters. What happened to that? a reader will wonder. Instead of telling, the author uses generalities and semi-platitudes to resolve what are critical existential musings. She writes that her pottery, her writing and her children are what she has contributed to the world. True, one might reply. But that statement comes in the midst of continued angst about her own parents and it seems as if since she hasn’t found any other solution, those things must have been enough. The idea has already been undercut. Earlier she wrote through any hope the reader might have had along those lines when she referenced the title of the book. Her protests and cries for social change were nothing more than kicking leaves she says … a futile disturbance that might make a whirl of activity, but ultimately leaves society and events to settle down again as if there never was an effort made to change things.
“Kicking Leaves” is the diary of a nomad, trying to reconcile herself to her upbringing and her purpose in life. Unless the author has purposefully stated her thesis in the hopes that readers will argue vehemently against it, one is left unsettled and thinks that surely she has left something unsaid or should at the very least believe what she wrote about her ultimate contribution. It is an interesting book, although its conclusion leaves much to be desired.