Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Story
By Dierdre Wolownick
Publisher: Mountaineers Books
Published: Apr 1, 2019
Some books you read because they are about climbing. Others you read because they tell an inspirational or relatable tale. And then there are those books you pick up because they peek into the life of someone famous. The Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Story by Dierdre Wolownick ticks all of those boxes. On top of all that, it’s a smooth, easy page-turner. Let’s dig into each of these elements a bit more, so you can decide if this is a book for you.
A peek into the famous: Dierdre is the mother of Alex Honnold – yes, the renowned free-solo climber featured in the Academy Award-winning film Free Solo. And, yes, the book answers some of those burning questions that pop into your mind when you watch Alex free-soloing on the wall: “Man, I wonder what his mother thinks?!”; “Wow, what was Alex’s childhood was like?!” ; and "Jeez, what was this guy like as a kid?!” Naturally the book isn’t all about Alex, it’s about his mother and her personal story, but Alex (and his sister Stasia) are integral parts of the tale and peek through in some interesting and entertaining ways.
A book about climbing: Dierdre not only informs us about how rock climbing entered into Alex’s life, she takes us on her journey of tying into the sharp end of a rope – at the age of 58. Dierdre includes tales of how she progressed from a new climber, and all the normal fears that come along with that journey, into who she is today – fully immersed in the sport in her own way on her own terms. The author also shares some vivid tales of her and Alex climbing together, pushing her own personal boundaries - even if those feats are comparatively simple for her son.
A relatable and inspirational tale: According to the Outdoor Industry Association the average age of indoor rock climbers is 26 years. (According to some other sources that number is older for outdoor climbing.) But, no matter how you slice it, rock climbers are generally young – or at least they begin when they are young and then age into the sport (Fred Becky kept climbing well into his 90s.)
Starting to climb at the age of 58 (and even running her first marathon at over the age of 50), is comparatively unusual and can serve as an inspiration to any who are curious about climbing and may have doubts about their abilities. In this book, Dierdre illustrates the accessibility of rock climbing.
In addition to serving as an inspiration for the older climber (or even younger climbers who may be intimidated), Dierdre tells a relatable story for middle-aged and older women who married young and at a time when women defined their lives around their husband and children. Although Dierdre did well to follow her passions and curiosities (like learning seven other languages on top of English, teaching, playing music, and even conducting a local orchestra), she was still trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship. This book takes you into that world and how she navigated it.
It's a smooth, easy page turner: Dierdre’s text keeps you engaged. It weaves through the past and the present, before climbing, and after climbing. It’s like a tapestry that comes together to create image of a complete person – back-and forth, back-and-forth. This weaving of the various story lines keeps the book moving along. There wasn’t any point where I found myself wanting to skip a chapter to “get to the good stuff.”
If there is one critique I have of the book it’s that I didn’t feel deeply reeled-in on an emotional level. There were a few examples where she powerfully illustrated an absent and emotionally neglectful husband, and my heart ached for her. But, I still found myself wondering about the author's emotional well-being through all that - and what, if any, mental toll it took on her. But, the book doesn’t really go down those paths. I guess it doesn’t have to have you crying in your coffee to be a successful and enjoyable read. The story is developed enough that I felt empathy for Dierdre's circumstances, I was rooting for her successes, and admiring of what she accomplished.
All in all, reading The Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Tale is like hopping on an inner tube and cruising down a river on a hot summer day. Basically you are chilling and having a good time. The river is carrying you along at a good pace, without hitting bottom and getting stuck on a sandbar. There are also some fun rapids that inject a bit of thrill at the right moments. So, if you are looking for a smooth, enjoyable read that includes the elements I describe above, definitely give this book a go!