Pulling the Chariot of the Sun: A Memoir of a Kidnapping by Shane McCrae
Audrey Shipp, September 21, 2023
A salient literary technique in the book Pulling the Chariot of the Sun: A Memoir of a Kidnapping by poet Shane McCrae is the author’s use of rhythm.Audrey Shipp
As someone who chose poetry as my entry into the craft of writing, I’m curious about how poets approach the creation of long-form prose. Should we fill novels with metaphors and similes? Or must we drown our memoirs in sensory description? A salient literary technique in the book Pulling the Chariot of the Sun: A Memoir of a Kidnapping by poet Shane McCrae is the author’s use of rhythm. He molds his prose into a conduit for continuous remembering that is reminiscent of waves at the seashore. His long sentences push forward in time as he remembers, then recede to the past as he un-remembers, only to churn and form a new wave that rushes into shore as he attempts to recollect again. He affirms facts, and then he denies them. His confession about the uncertainty of events in his life and the order in which they occurred led me to question if we really remember anything in our own lives with accuracy. As the title affirms, this is a memoir about a kidnapping; and the kidnapping involved physical abuse. Yet McCrae also confesses to not remembering a single beating at the hands of his kidnappers. He says that his mind has gnawed through his memories and consumed them. The manner in which McCrae lays bare the fallibility of recollection reminds me of memoirist Annie Ernaux in her statement at the end of A
Girl’s Story: “The memory of what I have written is already fading. I do not know what this piece of writing is. Even the thing I was pursuing by writing this book has dissolved (tr. Alison L. Strayer).”
Given that the title, Pulling the Chariot of the Sun, alludes to sun myths, I felt compelled to do a bit of research on legends about the sun. Pertinent to McCrae’s title is the myth of the Greek deity Helios who rides in a chariot that fiery horses pull across the sky every day. He has an illegitimate son, Phaeton, who was born to a mortal woman, Clymene. According to the myth, once Clymene tells Phaeton that Apollo is his father, the youth begins boasting to his friends about his godly progenitor. The disbelief and insults of his friends spur the son to seek out his father. Once he finds him, the son asks his father if he can drive his fiery chariot. A reluctant Helios, now recognizing his son’s legitimacy, gives in. Initially, Phaeton follows the advice of his father to be cautious, but then he begins driving the fiery horses at a high rate of speed. His wayward hounding of the horses causes them to soar too high creating the Milky Way Galaxy. And his recklessness too close to land results in the blackening of some parts of the earth (Africa) and its people (Ethiopia). An angered supreme god, Jupiter (Zeus), kills Phaeton with a lightening bolt.
After reading these legends about the sun, it became apparent to me that the Apollo myth, like McCrae’s memoir, is about family trauma. But who was Shane McCrae’s family? The author was kidnapped from the Oregon home of his Black father at the age of three by his White, racist grandparents. His maternal grandmother, who was of Austrian descent, had, at one time, sided with the Nazis. His grandfather, the fifth husband of his grandmother, was not only a white supremacist, but he was also physically abusive. On one occasion he stabbed his stepdaughter, the author’s mother, in the hand with a fork when, as a youth, she refused to eat her food. Despite his captors’ attempt to replace his parents and to raise him to hate his Black father, McCrae never felt like the child of his bigoted grandparents. His memoir is not only an attempt to recollect the facts of a kidnapping, but also to remember his father. McCrae’s quest to discover the accounts of a disappeared relative is similar to the recent memoir I Am Still With You by Nigerian author Emmanuel Iduma. But whereas Iduma sets out to uncover the history of a disappeared uncle, McCrae is a disappeared son in search of an erased father.
As McCrae emphasizes, the task of kidnappers is to turn the victim into their protector. One way the grandparents achieved this goal was by lying to their grandson and telling him that he never lived with his father. After abducting him, they moved him across the state borders of Oregon, Texas, and California. The author safeguarded his grandparents by not telling anyone (as far as he remembers) about the beatings he suffered at the hands of his abusive grandfather. He was mum about the cruelty out of fear he would be taken away from his grandparents’ home. His mom, who at one time lived as close as one hour away, never asked him if the grandfather physically abused him. And she later told him that she didn’t think her stepdad would beat him like he beat her. Given his traumatic family life, it’s not surprising that the young McCrae slept with the light on for eight years out of fear of being attacked. It wasn’t until the grandmother feared her husband would kill him as a teen that she sent the author to live with his mom. When his mom confided to McCrae that he was indeed a victim of kidnapping, the author was finally able to stop hating his dad.
In addition to silencing the author about their abuse, his grandparents’ ultimate goal was to get him away from the blackness of his father and raise him in a social environment replete with whiteness. They ensured McCrae was designated as white on his birth certificate, and they gave him his grandfather’s last name. Their irrational thinking led them to believe that blackness was such a condemnation that it required a black child be doubly condemned to the isolation of kidnapping and to the lack of authentic and tangible parentage. They taught him that his blackness was the worst thing about him and that he should hate all Black people. In an odd way the actions of the grandparents parallel the historical events surrounding African enslavement in the Western hemisphere. Historically, the Portuguese, French, Spanish, English, and Dutch kidnapped Black people, disregarded our humanity, and often rationalized that by extracting us from the African continent, they were saving us from far worse conditions amongst the Black masses.
Despite his grandparents’ attempt to raise him in isolation, his interactions with his childhood peers allowed him a different perspective. As all of us know too well, we form our sense of self not just in the homes of our guardians but also amongst our peers. McCrae confesses that school—a place where he had trouble making friends—was a challenge, and all his childhood friends were white. Although the children who surrounded him didn’t know who his father was, by nine, or ten, or eleven years of age, they knew who his father wasn’t.
One group of companions—his skater friends—may have been responsible for leading the teenage McCrae to his father. They seemingly played a similar role to the friends of the mythical Phaeton, son of Apollo. The author started skating at the age of eleven. Or maybe twelve. And it’s quite possible that his grandmother gave him his first board. He said he considered going pro and was so in tune with his sport that he felt he could communicate with the curb. In any case, a teenage McCrae was with his skater friends when he took the risk—pulling not a chariot, but at least riding a skateboard, towards the sun—to knock on a random door in Oregon; and that action gave him clues concerning the whereabouts of his father. And while on the topic of skating, it is worth noting that the last fifty pages or so of this memoir is a skater’s book, and I hope skater aficionados find this volume.
While it is presumptuous to assume that his skating friends led him to psychological or emotional closure, it’s safe to suggest that writing did. This isn’t a memoir about McCrae’s writing life, but the author includes details about his experience encountering poetry. He states that at age fifteen, he started to live inside poetry. In another ironic twist, it was his racist and abusive grandfather who sent him The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. The author eventually began writing poetry which led to prestigious recognitions such as the Whiting, PEN, and Lannan awards and NEA and Guggenheim fellowships. As you read this book, the human experiences in Pulling the Chariot of the Sun: A Memoir of a Kidnapping will draw you in. The rhythm of Shane McCrae’s language will carry you along in waves that push forward and recede so that when you finally reach shore and visualize the light at the abrupt end of the journey, it will feel as if finally, the night has ended.