Nov 6 2022
EAST WINDS: Charles Rammelkamp reviews a romantic memoir by Rachel Rueckert which is also a travel-guide and a critique of Mormonism
Subtitled “A Global Quest to Reckon with Marriage,” Rachel Rueckert’s East Winds chronicles a year-long honeymoon around the world in which the Mormon-raised author both bonds with her husband, Austin, whom she’d met in Boston, and also tries to come to terms with the concept of “marriage.” The account is divided into three large sections, South America, Asia and Europe, and explores the cultures she encounters, provoking philosophical responses.
Why “East Winds”? In an early chapter titled “East Winds,” Rueckert describes the destructive east winds of her native Utah and characterizes them and herself as “restless.” It’s a dead-on self-description that is evident throughout the narrative; Rueckert is always in search of answers, never completely satisfied with the ones she gets.
The story begins in Bogotá with plenty of insight into Rueckert’s complicated relationship with Mormonism and its idea that a temple marriage is the “pinnacle” of choices a woman makes in her life, a choice that is necessary to reach the highest degree of heaven. We learn early on that Rueckert is the child of divorced parents, and this adds to the tension and to her skepticism. The first two sections – South America and Asia – end with humorous but cynical “Advice Given at My Wedding,” including such bromides as “Be happy,” “Kiss for at least sixty seconds a day,” “Remember, SEX IS FOR BABIES,” “For better or worse but not for granted,” and “Always make time for fun with each other.” Pressure, much?
While skeptical of the whole Mormon outlook on marriage and a woman’s purpose on earth, Rueckert does stay within the tribe and so all of her serious romantic interests, including Austin, whom she marries in the Salt Lake City temple with all the rituals, are Mormon guys. This, of course, keeps the spotlight on the issue. “My dating of non-Mormon men had never progressed into anything serious,” she confides in the Asia section when her teacher observes that among his people marriage is easier if you are from the same tribe. “I felt like I had too much to explain.”
But before he goes off on his mission in Canada, for instance, her high school boyfriend gives her a promise ring and his swim-team letterman’s jacket and asks her to “wait for him.” Only, when he returns two years later, he bombards her with questions about her purity (“How often do you swear now?”) and her feelings about motherhood – she’s still a kid, remember. (“Do you even want to be a mom?”)
Rueckert pawns the ring to help pay for a plane ticket to India. “My travels, from the beginning, seemed to be in direct conflict with prioritizing marriage.”
She goes to college – where else? – at Brigham Young University, where the pressure to lead a conventional Mormon woman’s life continues. She confides that she actually audited a marriage preparation class three times. Her college boyfriend, Ethan, whom she really falls for (describing her lovesickness for him while she is away in Dharamsala in the Himalayas doing research) also wants her to live a conventional Mormon woman’s life, as a “faithful daughter of God” who desires only to bear and rear children, a nurturer who knows how to honor covenants. Is it any wonder Rueckert’s impulse is to flee?
Rueckert writes vividly and eloquently about her travels, her almost anthropological focus on the marriage customs and beliefs of the cultures in which she finds herself. For instance, in Cusco, Peru, at the start of her honeymoon with Austin, she encounters the tradition of the trial marriage, also known as sirvinacuy and watanaki and several other names, which dates back to pre-Incan and pre-Columbian times and which allows couples to live together for several months, or even years, before committing to a life together. When she writes about sexual compatibility, Rueckert amusingly writes in a parenthetical aside, “(Grandma, this is the part where you skip to the next chapter.),” before launching into a discussion of orgasms.
When Austin and Rachel move on to Thailand, spending several months in Chiang Mai, she encounters a teacher named Anan who enlightens her about the marriage customs of the Karen people. In India, her teacher is a man named Chaitra, from whom she learns about Hindu marriage ceremonies.
In Europe, the third section, after having landed in Bayonne, on the French Riviera, Austin and Rachel go to the Basque village of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. They hike through the Pyrenees with a group of pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela – aka, the Camino – a journey of over 800 kilometers. It’s a neat metaphor for the journey into marriage the year-long “honeymoon” represents. Again, Rueckert’s descriptions of the sights and sounds and the companions they encounter are vivid and captivating. At one point she recalls the nun near Pamplona, famous, of course, for the running of the bulls, that Hemingway had memorably written about in The Sun Also Rises, who says to her: “Blessed are you, pilgrim, because you have discovered that the authentic Camino begins when it is completed.”
All of which leads us to the central question: Does Rachel Rueckert come to terms with “marriage”? The book ends with a hopeful exchange with her husband:
“Well, good sir,” I joked. “It has been a pleasure traveling the ends of the earth with you.” “The honor has been mine.” Austin plucked two daisies at our feet and gave them to me. I tucked the stems into my notebook. “This has been the best year if my life,” he said.
The journey continues, of course, but the ending is provisionally happy. But for ever after? Stay tuned. The east winds continue to blow Rueckert around the world. Along with the philosophical discussion of marriage, East Winds is a really terrific travel book.