From the moment I saw the cover of The Blackberry Tea Club, I knew Barbara Herrick was a "succulent wild woman" of Sarkian proportions. There they were--four women hurling themselves with reckless beauty into the deep blue of Payette Lake. Their obvious joy reached out to me to like the smell of pie cooking, and the pages beneath this vivid slice were a fitting echo--stories about losing relatives, battling menopause, indulging in kisses, chocolate and hard-bodied raft guides and learning that knitting perfect scarves and wowing the church potluck crowd are the least of our worries.
The title and first chapter made me think Herrick's book would be in the same family as The Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Fried Green Tomatoes. But it is not the chronological tale of a girl growing into a woman, it a collection of literary pearls (the freshwater kind that refuse to be strung) about all women growing into girls, and, as such, each chapter is a new adventure not only in subject matter, but also in form. The prelude is a long, segmented poem about what it means to be a woman; there is a chapter of vignettes separated by a play-by-play of Herrick's attempts at making a 12-foot scarf; and there is a chapter sprinkled with subheads like "hunger," "sensitivity" and "sensuality." It's not an instructional manual, but it could be, because Herrick deals with the incredible and the mundane with equal grace and humor, always returning to that space within herself where the world makes sense and she is a radiant goddess among many other radiant goddesses.
After finishing a book that so inspired me, I was ecstatic to meet its creator. In fact, when Herrick poked her head into the Flying M for our meeting, I was set with several pages of questions and about a million hours of anecdotes, insecurities and, of course, praise. She just smiled in her wizened, matronly way through rainbow pastel-rimmed glasses and let me pour. I felt so connected to this woman who references Annie Dillard, Terry Tempest Williams and Pablo Neruda as much as I do. She even mentioned chocolate in the same obsessively worshipful way. I felt like the book had been written just for me, like an inside joke shared long ago. But that's the beauty of Blackberry and Herrick's craft in general--she knows how to speak to all people in a way that is at once deeply personal and totally universal.
"This book is about your other self, that very big self trapped in the little body self. Sometimes the great big self pokes through, you just have to get quiet, sit and listen for it. It has your best interests at heart--it will lead you," she said.
The bigger self has always poked a little more through Herrick's skin than most. At the age of two, she was already composing what she calls "odd stories" to amuse her family at the dinner table. There was storyteller in her blood on both sides, and many years of sharing helped Herrick develop a smart, self-deprecating sense of humor. However, that didn't stop her from going through a misunderstood, ornery poet stage.
"When I was in high school, I went to the dark side. I thought I wouldn't be successful unless I was chock full of angst. My mother said nobody would read my stories, and she was right," Herrick said, glancing at the cover of her brand new book. "This one heads toward the light."
Although Herrick has been an author most of her life, Blackberry is the first of her babies to go national. She explained that she started writing it and had no idea where it was going--it was just an amalgam of women talking about bad Internet jokes, success and family. Nine years, 45 drafts and endless rejection letters later, the book is a success, and Herrick has been overwhelmed with the delicious aftermath.
"Life's fondest settles over you in times like these. Conari Press was so generous in the invisible ways they promoted this book," she said, adding that the rejection from Viking was the nicest and most apologetic she has ever received. Despite, the book is a masterpiece of insight into just about every corner of the human soul, and Herrick should be proud of every word. She is, but not so much that she has Oprah on speed-dial--yet. "Nothing is impossible," she laughed. "I'm still waiting for the call."
Barbara Herrick's Blackberry Tea Club is available locally for $12.95 at Barnes & Noble and at Book & Game or online at www.conari.com.