Change Me into Zeus's Daughter is a haunting and ultimately triumphant memoir about growing up poor and undaunted in the South. With an unflinching voice, Barbara Robinette Moss chronicles her family's chaotic, impoverished survival in the red-clay hills of Alabama. A wild-eyed, alcoholic father and a humble, heroic mother along with a shanty full of rambunctious brothers and sisters fill her life to the brim with stories that are gripping, tender, and funny.
Moss's early fascination with art coincides with her desire to transform her "twisted mummy face," which grew askew due to malnutrition and lack of medical care. Gazing at the stars on a clear Alabama night, she wishes to be the "goddess of beauty, much-loved daughter of Zeus." Against all odds, the image of herself surfaces at last as she learns to believe in the beauty she brings forth from inside.
The hardships related here are both familiar and unique: the Christmas presents exchanged for drink money, the failed businesses, the decrepit shacks that served as temporary homes, the disturbing early-morning discipline. Under the tyrannical rule of a father who "inflicted pain recreationally, both physical and emotional," the only bright spot in Moss's childhood was her mother, Dorris. Slavishly devoted to her husband ("she seemed to crave him as much as he craved alcohol"), Dorris held the family together by absorbing most of the abuse. But in the end she lacked the courage to leave him, and her children had to act as their own protectors. As if poverty and her father's mistreatment weren't enough of a burden, Moss also had to contend with a face disfigured by malnutrition. As a result, she sought refuge in whatever elusive beauty she could find: the poetry her mother taught as a substitute for material things; the fertile, red Alabama soil; the love of her baby sister Janet. Her urge to create beauty and her longing to embody it culminate in surgery that transforms her face but brings with it a crisis of identity.
In her outpouring of memories, Moss occasionally gets lost in her tale, embedding flashback within flashback. More problematic is the portrayal of her father: he's relentlessly cruel until a near-fatal beating, after which he begins to briefly connect with his children. For us, it's too late, and we can only react to his death with a sigh of relief. But these minor quibbles are just that. Moss's extraordinary memoir enthralls us from its alarming introduction--in which Dorris feeds her starving children a meal of potentially poisonous seeds--to its poignant conclusion. --Lisa Costantino