Annie Dillard begins her memoir by recalling her father’s decision to leave the family for awhile (with his wife’s permission) and take his boat down the Allegheny River to New Orleans—a goal he developed from reading about boat trips in a book. At the time, Annie is reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure novel, Kidnapped, and she too feels like she is awakening into a world where she can both observe and be observed.
Dillard paints a portrait of Pittsburgh in the early 1950s, in the years after World War II when families seemed to want things to get back to normal. In her privileged community, women stayed home rather than working, and Presbyterians and Catholics (not to mention Jews) remained very much apart from one another. At five years old in 1950, Annie is preoccupied by the monster in her room, which turns out to be a shadow cast by light from a passing car. She’s amazed to discover this, and it teaches her that she can use her imagination, but also master and direct it through reason when she needs to. Annie also fixes her attention on other images and sensations, from her parents’ skin (which she feels doesn’t fit their bodies) to her neighbor Jo Ann Sheehy skating through the frozen streets at night. Before she learns to read, Annie wanders around the neighborhood, playing football with the boys and throwing snowballs—at least until a car stops and the driver chases her and her friend all around the neighborhood. Slowly, the narrator Dillard says, she’s “waking up,” discovering the external world beyond her own mind, even as she also lives to a large extent within her own head.
Annie’s parents are energetic and exuberant: they treat joke-telling as an almost professional process, and include the children as they tinker with ideas and performances. Dillard also introduces her father’s parents, Oma and Frank Doak senior, who invite Annie and her younger sister Amy (their youngest sister, Molly, is too young to be included for most of the memoir) to their summer house on Lake Erie, where Annie spends idyllic weeks.
As Annie grows older, she begins to recognize the many layers of history that Pittsburgh embodies, from the ancient past of dinosaurs to its habitation by American Indians, to its use as a fort during the French and Indian War and its role in the American Revolution. She is impressed by and proud of that history, but it remains literary and exciting to her: she doesn’t often think about the death and suffering that are also part of Pittsburgh’s past.
Annie begins to embrace drawing as a hobby, spending one entire August sketching a baseball mitt in many different ways over and over again. She begins regular visits to the Homewood Library, which is in a relatively poor area of town: she makes her way through much of its stacks, though largely at random. Books seem to her to be entirely private—she never imagines that reading could be something shared among people. When she’s ten, in the fall of 1955, Annie begins to attend the all-girls Ellis School, and also begins to attend Friday night dancing school with boys. The children invited are all from a select, exclusive group of Presbyterian Pittsburgh families, though Annie can’t understand how the process of invitations works. Annie likes dancing school, but she also enjoys playing baseball with her neighbor Ricky and watching Little League. She also plays games about Indians and war with her friend Pin Ford. It’s a time that Dillard remembers being exhilarating: Annie felt happy and energetic simply to be in this fascinating, wide-open world.
Annie reads Sherlock Holmes and decides that she wants to become a detective and remember every detail of her life. But she’s also drawn to different ideas and interests: as a result of attending church camp for several summers, for instance, her head fills with “religious ideas”—she thinks the Bible is far more subversive than adults, who look benignly on children who like reading, understand. She then grows fascinated by a rock collection that she inherits, third-hand, from a neighbor, and she begins to investigate how to identify everything she owns. She marvels at how the earth itself holds natural treasure, hidden underground right around where she lives. Annie receives a microscope one Christmas, but after racing to tell her parents what she found under its lens and finding them to react without enthusiasm, she begins to recognize that her knowledge will be precious to her because it will be hers alone.
During this time Annie also spends time with her friend Judy Schoyer, who has an intellectual family that invites Annie to spend time with them at their country house in Paw Paw, West Virginia. Annie loves these outings. Meanwhile, her interests move from rocks to insects to disease and epidemiology: she’s fascinated by the fact that it was in Pittsburgh that the polio vaccines was created, and she is optimistic that with hard work, everyone—including her—can succeed in whatever they put their minds to. Her family is moving up in the world, too: after Annie’s grandfather dies and Oma moves to Florida, they buy Oma’s house atop a hill, and no longer associate as much with the neighbors down below.
Annie’s reading tastes move to the historical: she is fascinated by novels, histories, and analyses of World War II. It’s now the Cold War, and her family has created a comfortable bomb shelter in the basement: Annie imagines living there if nuclear war breaks out. She begins high school, where dancing school yields to country club dances, though all with the same people. Annie also begins to feel restless and frustrated around this time, raging against the strictures imposed upon her by her family, her school, and the church (which she quits by writing a formal letter to the minister). She dives into the French Symbolist poets, whose dramatic verse and early deaths seem romantic and suited to the way she views the world.
At the same time, Annie begins to better understand her own city and American history overall. While her father continues to believe that people who are successful become so because they work hard, and those who don’t work as hard end up in worse situations, Annie begins to pay more attention to the plight of the poor in Pittsburgh. The memoir goes into some detail about industrialists like Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie made millions from steel, gave almost all his money away and founded great institutions of learning, art, and science—but he also paid his laborers very little and instituted a standard of harsh working conditions and stingy benefits. Annie begins to feel scorn and suspicion for the well-to-do families that have inherited Pittsburgh’s wealth; but as Dillard, the narrator, also points out, she fails to apply her considerable powers of imagination to thinking about the complex inner lives of her neighbors, schoolmates, and friends.
As Annie reaches the end of high school, she begins to get into trouble, crashing a car at a drag race and getting suspended from school for smoking cigarettes. She reads poetry in translation and thinks about starting a rebellion against her schoolteachers. Ultimately, though, the memoir ends with the news that she’ll be attending Hollins College in Virginia. She hasn’t learned much about Pittsburgh as a place, nor its inhabitants, but Dillard notes that she feels she needs to leave in order to be able to regain a sense of curiosity and openness toward the world. In the epilogue, Dillard contemplates the relationship between a life and the places in which it’s lived, as well as the process of growing up—which involves striving toward something new without quite knowing what that will entail.