A Review of
Twirl: My Life with Stories,
Writing and Clothes
Reviewed by Alicia Brummeler
If you’ve ever owned a favorite shirt or pair of jeans or rockin’ shoes, you will find plenty that you can relate to in Twirl: My Life with Stories, Writing and Clothes by Callie Feyen. Scattered throughout the pages of this book are descriptions of favorite pieces of clothing and the memories associated with them. But, this isn’t just a book about clothes. It’s also a book about story.
As a reader and writer of story, Feyen draws us into her own narrative by sharing some of her childhood favorites. Anyone remember Where the Wild Things Are? Thank goodness for Mrs. Lewandowski and other wonderful librarians who recognize the power story has to reveal truth, beauty, and goodness. For Feyen, those early stories set the stage for a lifelong love for literature, and eventually, the desire to share this love with her students.
The book opens with Feyen standing on the side of the highway, thinking her car is on fire. She’s a teacher, on her way home from school when smoke begins to billow from under the hood. While waiting for the police to arrive, she describes the outfit she’s wearing. Throughout the book, these clothing descriptions give the reader clues about what’s happening below the surface for Feyen. In this scene, the reader learns that her current teaching position isn’t working for her. Feyen will continue to explore how this job is the wrong fit later in the book. This recognition also dovetails with her larger journey of figuring out who she is. Readers come alongside her as she explores and wrestles with the universal theme of “who am I?”
In a scene later in the book, Feyen writes about a versatile green dress. The dress embodies potential and possibility. Will she allow the dress, herself, a second chance? Or will stuff them back in the garbage bag? Scenes like these, where clothing choices represent more than practical coverings, are well-written.
Feyen’s writing is at its best when she writes about common human experiences. Who hasn’t been embarrassed or felt ashamed before? In “Into the Woods,” she narrates an encounter at school where a teacher called her out for an outfit she was wearing, suggesting it was inappropriate. I felt Feyen’s embarrassment and shame as she described the scene. I also felt angry at the way the teacher handled the situation. I cheered when her mom saved the day by decisively choosing another outfit for Callie to wear so she could return to school with some semblance of dignity.
In “Sunshine,” she recounts a time shopping for a Christmas gift for her husband. A friendly sales clerk compliments her on her yellow jacket. Suddenly, Feyen feels compelled to buy something because she wants to make the clerk happy and doesn’t want to hurt her feelings by simply leaving the store. She writes, “If I could change something about myself it would be to cut this habit out—stop matching myself to what I think others expect me to be.” Yes! I want to stop doing that too. I was with Feyen in both of those moments, experiencing similar emotions and reactions.
In the latter part of the book a shift occurs. Feyen has started a new job and the parts of her that she’s suppressed for a season, such as her blue cobalt twirl dress, start to reappear. In her new role as an At-Risk Literacy Specialist, she’s reacquainted with some of her favorite childhood stories and characters. Sharing them with her students, she reclaims the parts of herself that make her Callie. This process culminates in “Heroes Journeying,” when she’s back in Detroit close to her old school to hear author Gary Schmidt read one of his stories. Old memories flood her consciousness. She remembers the day her car caught on fire. She recalls the feeling of being parched and starved for story, having to teach and work in an environment that demanded objectives and outcomes, squeezing out the possibility for wonder and imagination.
Weaving together several stories in this final chapter, she writes about the hope of possibility. Even if she doesn’t know for sure what’s next on the horizon, a door has opened. She feels the freedom to explore and to ask questions. Likewise, she implicitly invites readers to do the same.
As a fellow reader, writer, teacher, and fashionista, I related with many of Feyen’s stories. I felt like we could be friends in real life. After reading the book, the title Twirl made more sense, but some readers may dismiss the book at first glance because of it. Personally, I wish the subtitle was the title of the book. The book covers a lot of ground in 155 pages. Some chapters contained a number of vignettes—perhaps too many. As a result, some of them felt less cohesive, making the reader work unnecessarily hard to make connections. Also, in places, Feyen tries too hard to craft descriptive passages instead of trusting her instincts as a writer to convey meaning without the extras. I don’t think this struggle is unique to her. Many writers, myself included, struggle with finding the right balance. What does come through clearly in Twirl is Feyen’s voice, which is honest, refreshing, and real.
Alicia Brummeler teaches English at The Stony Brook School, a Christian day and boarding school, on Long Island, NY. She is the author of Everywhere God: Exploring the Ordinary Places, a book about encountering God in the everyday moments of life. She and her husband have two young-adult children. Visit Alicia at aliciabrummeler.com.