The fascinating construction of a life. Book review of The 12-Foot Teepee by Marilyn Armstrong




Marilyn Armstrong is a widely read blogger on WordPress, and that’s how I became aware of her. I thought, ‘anyone who writes this well must have written at least one book.’ The 12-foot Teepee, in fact, is the name of the book and the basis of the blog’s URL,

Tempus fugit, especially for daily bloggers. Marilyn tells me, in correspondence, that she’s no longer quite the same person as the one who wrote the book. As a former resident of Jerusalem, though, she says she once lived near a place where archaeologists found “a Canaanite temple, on top of which (pillar on pillar) stood a Greek temple. On top of which (pillar on pillar) was a Roman temple. On top of which was – you guessed it, pillar on pillar – a synagogue.” No doubt today’s Marilyn stands pillar on pillar on the one who wrote this book, and I think that that keeps the book current. A life contains its own archaeology, and what is an autobiography (as I assume this is, in essence) if not a tell?

Protagonist ‘Maggie,’ as a child, was sexually abused by her father. That revelation is how the book begins. I worked for an LGBT newspaper in the 1980s and kept current on feminist and lesbian literature during the period when the magnitude of familial incest was first being disclosed to the world. I’ve read many dozens of accounts – brief, elongated, literary, plain, agonized, detached – by people who endured this experience. Also, I’ve read numerous complex bestsellers embedding the theme, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin and Anne-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees. I noticed right away that Marilyn was somehow overcoming the saturation factor and writing highly readable text. Perhaps it was her style of writing – plainspoken enough to be nodded at by Hemingway, yet subtly full of craft. Her approach was fresh, and witty at appropriate moments. Perhaps there was some engaging mystery, too, in the enigma of her father as an inconspicuously, but almost incomprehensibly, evil man. I’m not sure if I would even have credited Marilyn with restraining herself from exaggeration if I hadn’t read M. Scott Peck’s monograph on such folk, People of the Lie. I knew that such individuals really do exist. In any case, Marilyn’s way of telling the tale with judicious truth but without a show of anguish, and without the jargon that is now often used in such accounts, made the difficult events completely readable.

The book then progressed through subtly interwoven anecdotes to the unveiling of related tales: the construction of a knock-off Sioux-style teepee as a project for self-healing and for spending quality time with a lively granddaughter; the concurrent battle with spinal problems and surgeons of greater and lesser competence; and the challenges of new-found poverty for Massachusetts people caught up in the tech bust of the 1990s. This all sounds daunting, not to mention rather random and terribly personal, but Marilyn makes it as vivid and coherent a piece of writing as you will find anywhere. She wins your heart. The feeling that you want things to go well for her (I don’t know her personally at all apart from a couple of emails back and forth among fellow bloggers) turns out to be a waterslide of suspense that runs you right through the book from beginning to end. She also integrates a spiritual journey from secular Judaism into Christianity that is neither dwelt upon nor glossed over – it has its time and place in the story – and it also arouses interest – regardless, I should think, of the personal persuasion of the reader. The bottom line, though, is that Marilyn is a writer who can captivate you with a tale of how her son pieced together PVC pipe sections to make wobbly teepee poles. I can’t imagine what topic she couldn’t make interesting.

I think that this book deserves more attention than it’s had. Marilyn is not sure that it does – she says in her email that she has, to some extent, returned to religious skepticism in recent years. Life has gone on. The tell has mounded up further. Where a church once stood in her psyche, a big community teepee for comparative religion and degrees of religious belief now stands, pole on pillar. Its architecture is newer than the book.

If you have a sense of discovery, though, you still need to know how it got there, and this book is the only dig that’s been done.

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21 Responses to The fascinating construction of a life. Book review of The 12-Foot Teepee by Marilyn Armstrong

  1. How could I not absolutely love this — and you? Wowie zowie!!

  2. Glad you like it, and very glad I discovered you and your book!

  3. Reblogged this on SERENDIPITY and commented:
    A review of my book so wonderful I feel like blushing.

  4. Ruth says:

    Wonderful review! Found you via Marilyn’s post today.

  5. alienorajt says:

    Totally agree with this review, having just finished reading the book myself – will be writing my thoughts shortly. xxx

  6. catnipoflife says:

    I, too, have read Marilyn’s book and loved it! She is a very prolific writer. In her book, I found Maggie’s past laced with tough decisions, some of which led to positive results, others not positively directed. The paths crossed, the lessons learned, the camaraderie gained leaves you crying as she tries so hard to be accepted and laughing as she attempts to build the easy set-up, take-down dwelling place of the Indians. It is a remarkable story with tremendous insight.

  7. fictionfitz says:

    I was and am about half way through Marilyn’s book when I read your review. A very good review for a very good book. My recommendation will be to Marilyn to up the cost to $9.99. It will be worth every penny and more. Today a steal.

  8. Reblogged this on Sunday Night Blog and commented:
    Here’s a review of Marilyn Armstrong’s book I thought you should read.

  9. I STILL love it. Reblogged again by Rich Paschall.

    I haven’t been reading much of anything. There’s so much to do before I go in for the surgery. The biggest thing is the cleaning of this house. Just the 250 antique dolls have collected a staggering amount of dust. I have to do them myself. If something gets damaged, I don’t want to have anyone to blame but me. Then there’s the pottery. And thousands of books . DVDs, CDs, computers, gadgets, widgets. The piano, the organ. Pictures — paintings and photographs. And Garry’s awards.

    Every single thing needs to be cleaned. Every surface on which it stands. Daunting and I tire easily. Garry points out he’s about to turn 72 and I point out I’m younger, but far more decrepit. Yet the dirt has to be cleaned.

    If all goes reasonably well, I should be human again about a month from now. In the meantime, I wanted you to know I have not forgotten you. I’m just not able to focus on fiction right now. I’m not really focused on much of anything, actually.

    This review has some legs under it. It’s beautiful. I don’t want you to think I take it for granted. I don’t. Not even a little bit.

    • I apologize for being out of commission for a lot longer than I thought I would be. I get involved in mega-projects from time to time and just focus on them. Also, even though I’m always enthusiastic about something, I am in an ongoing cat-and-mouse game with a small degree of depression that struck me in 2007 and hasn’t yet let go. This means I get mental blocks about things, and these blocks are tough to shake off. So this long-delayed post shows that I’ve pushed through one. Seeing all the praise for Marilyn in these comments has a very healthful effect! Thanks to everyone who wrote!

      • I totally understand. I was depressed for 10 years … mildly depressed … and didn’t even realize what was wrong. FYI, I rescheduled my surgery for March 13th to give Garry a chance to recover from pneumonia.

  10. I’m glad I got back in time to wish you and Garry well. And I do.

    Did you ultimately do anything medical about the depression or were you able to rid yourself of it all on your own?

    • Both. 6 months of medication followed by figuring out where I needed my head to be and finding a way to get there. You can’t take meds forever, so once you know how you need to feel, you have to find ways to get yourself to the right place. It takes practice and patience, but if you keep at it and don’t give up, you get there. It took me a year or two to work it out,but now, when I get low, I know how to work my way out of it. Even when it’s really bad, I know I can dig my way out. It’s not easy or fun, though. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s simple. Everyone has to find his/her own path.

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