Swander, Mary 1950–
SWANDER, Mary 1950–
PERSONAL: Born November 5, 1950, in Carroll, IA; daughter of John Chester (an engineer) and Rita Marie (a teacher; maiden name, Lynch) Swander. Education: Attended Georgetown University, 1969–71; University of Iowa, B.A., 1973, M.F.A., 1976.
ADDRESSES: Home—Ames, IA. Office—203 Ross Hall, Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011.
CAREER: Lake Forest College, Lake Forest, IL, assistant professor of English, 1976–79; freelance writer in Iowa City, IA, 1979–81; writer in residence at Interlochen Academy of the Arts, 1982; Iowa State University, Ames, assistant professor of English, 1986–. University of Iowa, visiting professor, 1990–91. Massage therapist, 1982–; hypnotherapist, 1986–.
MEMBER: American Massage Therapists Association, American Association of Professional Hypnotherapists, Associated Writing Programs.
AWARDS, HONORS: National-Discovery Award, 1976, for poetry; Carl Sandburg Award from Chicago Public Library, 1982, for poetry; awards from Ingram Merrill Foundation, 1981 and 1986, for poetry; award for poetry from National Endowment of the Arts, 1987; Quill and Travel Award from the Garden Writers Association of America for best magazine writing in 1993; Whiting Writer's Award, 1994.
Needlepoint, Smokeroot Press (Cutbank, MN), 1977.
Succession, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1980.
Driving the Body Back, Knopf (New York, NY), 1986.
Lost Lake, Owl Creek Press, 1986.
Heaven-and-Earth House, Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.
Driving the Body Back (play), first produced, 1987.
(With Jane Anne Staw) Parsnips in the Snow: Talks with Midwestern Gardeners, University of Iowa Press (Iowa City, IA), 1990.
(With Christopher Frank) Dear Iowa (play), first produced in IA, 1991.
(With Cornelia Mutel) Land of the Fragile Giants: Landscapes, Environments, and Peoples of the Loess Hills (essays and artwork), University of Iowa Press (Iowa City, IA), 1994.
Out of This World: A Woman's Life among the Amish, Viking (New York, NY), 1995.
(Editor) Bloom and Blossom: The Reader's Guide to Gardening, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1997.
(Editor, with Patricia Foster) The Healing Circle: Authors Writing of Recovery, Plume Book (New York, NY), 1998.
The Desert Pilgrim: On Route to Mysticism and Miracles, Viking (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor of poems to magazines, including Antioch Review, Iowa Review, Missouri Review, Ploughshares, Nation, Pequod, New Republic, New York Times Magazine, New Yorker, Natural Health, National Gardening, and Christian Science Monitor.
SIDELIGHTS: Mary Swander's autobiographical poetry is rooted in religious faith and rural life. Her verses speak of natural wonders, of learning from the land, and of the people who live and work on the land. Her work has been greatly influenced by a serious medical condition, one that led her to take up a simple life among the Amish. She chronicled her integration into their culture in her book Out of This World: A Woman's Life among the Amish.
Since childhood, Swander had suffered with many allergies and food sensitivities. In 1983, an allergist's treatment, far from improving her situation, drove her into an autoimmune disorder called "environmental illness," a condition that causes the body to reject most foods, pollutants, and odors. A whiff of perfume or any common cleaning agent, or even a bite of non-organically-farmed food would send her into a severe reaction that might require a trip to the hospital. Just finding foods to eat in order to survive was a tremendous challenge, and it led the author to try such unusual meals as road-killed squirrel, yucca plant, and bear meat. Eventually, her quest for health led her to buy an old schoolhouse in an area of Iowa settled by the Amish, a religious group that practices a lifestyle free of modern chemicals and conveniences. Here she became dedicated to feeding herself by careful, organic gardening and raising her own goats and poultry.
The Amish are known for being a closed society, in fact referring to all who are not Amish by the term "English." Despite her "English" status, Swander found that she was, in fact, warmly welcomed by her new neighbors. "Where she expected a dour, humorless people, she found mischievous, often sparkling wit. Where she thought to find the inferior effects of an eighth-grade education, she saw a resourceful culture equipped to adapt to any natural condition," reported Rebecca Freligh in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "Swander had also believed that the Amish culture was oppressive to women. Instead, she writes, her neighbors had a thing or two to teach her about feminism." Eventually, Swander was able to adjust her body chemistry so that she could accept about 200 different foods and tolerate some of the common pollutants of everyday life. Elizabeth Cameron, a contributor to Natural Health, felt that Out of This World "is an inspiring, carefully and beautifully written memoir that nudges readers to make the same kind of discoveries in dealing with a difficult illness or other challenge as Swander made in learning to cope with hers."
The author's concern with health, healing, and natural food production has colored much of her work. For example, she has coedited The Healing Circle: Authors Writing of Recovery, a collection of essays by writers who have struggled with chronic or long-term illness. A reviewer for the Los Angeles Times called this a book that "deserves a very wide audience," including health-care workers, patients, and "any lover of good writing." Swander also edited Bloom and Blossom: The Reader's Guide to Gardening, which features a collection of works about gardening. "Readers won't learn any techniques in this volume but will find an affirmation of the emotional benefits of working the soil," reported Molly Newling in Library Journal.
Swander's poetry collection Succession has earned praise and sparked comparisons with the work of Southern author Flannery O'Connor. Like O'Connor, Swander uses country scenes and details to "deal with the interiors of characters and with the fact, and mystery, of death," wrote Joyce Coyne Dyer in Iowa Woman. Swander writes with "precision and brilliance" about people and places she has known, creating "a poetic genealogy that is invested with emotion."
Swander's Driving the Body Back shows her skill in creating a narrative stitched together with authentic characters and idioms. Like a Midwest version of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying or Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Swander tells stories which Dyer, in Poet and Critic, called "sometimes outrageous, often entertaining, and always emotional." Louise Erdrich, in the New York Times Book Review, noted how Swander's "novelistic form is direct and interesting" as she details, through the voices of nine eccentric and vivid family members, the driving of the poet's mother across Iowa to be buried in the town in which she was born, giving the reader "a unique perspective on the minutiae of everyday rural and small-town life." In Heaven-and-Earth House, Swander "steps up into the big leagues of her art," according to Pat Monaghan in Booklist, as "her poems attend to life's small joys: a muddy road, calm weather, spicy apples." The critic for Publishers Weekly found that the poems create a "music of Midwest rural encounters" as the reader walks along "a pathway with 'common' language: the rhythms of weather, humor and talk."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Antioch Review, winter, 1987, p. 84.
Bloomsbury Review, May, 1990, p. 18.
Booklist, May 15, 1994; July, 1995, Kathleen Hughes, review of Out of This World: A Woman's Life among the Amish, p. 1840; March 15, 1997, Alice Joyce, review of Bloom and Blossom: The Reader's Guide to Gardening, p. 1214; March 1, 1998, Whitney Scott, review of The Healing Circle: Authors Writing of Recovery, p. 1069.
Christian Science Monitor, May 25, 1990, p. 13.
Country Journal, January, 1992, Patrice Crowley, review of Parsnips in the Snow: Talks with Midwestern Gardeners, p. 81.
Entertainment Weekly, July 21, 1995, Margot Mifflin, review of Out of This World, p. 58.
Horticulture: The Magazine of American Gardening, April, 1991, Ann Lovejoy, review of Parsnips in the Snow, p. 98.
Iowa Woman, spring, 1984.
Library Journal, March 1, 1980, Margaret Gibson, review of Succession, p. 618; May 15, 1994, Frank J. Lepskowski, review of Heaven-and-Earth House, p. 77; April 1, 1997, Molly Newling, review Bloom and Blossom, p. 114; July, 2003, Jan Blodgett, review The Desert Pilgrim: En Route to Mysticism and Miracles, p. 90.
Los Angeles Times, April 27, 1998, review of The Healing Circle, p. 4.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 23, 1986, p. 3.
Natural Health, January-February, 1996, Elizabeth Cameron, review of Out of This World, p. 142.
New York Times Book Review, June 1, 1986, p. 36; June 10, 1990, Allen Lacy, review of Parsnips in the Snow, p. 13.
Philadelphia Enquirer, March 25, 1990.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), August 13, 1996, Rebecca Freligh, review of Out of This World, p. 1E.
Poet and Critic, fall, 1986, pp. 55-60.
Poetry, May, 1986, p. 100.
Publishers Weekly, February 14, 1986, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of Driving the Body Back, p. 61; January 26, 1990; March 28, 1994, review of Heaven-and-Earth House, p. 88; June 5, 1995, review of Out of This World, p. 48; June 30, 2003, review The Desert Pilgrim: En Route to Mysticism and Miracles, p. 74.
Small Press Review, February, 1987, p. 4.
Wisconsin State Journal, August 21, 1996, William R. Wineke, review of Out of This World, p. 1C.
Mary Swander Home Page, http://www.maryswander.com (September 15, 2004).