Book review

In simply sublime prose, Mary Elaine Skram used the power of the written word to share her life with her twenty-three grandchildren. Now, I Know I Am a Winner gathers these evocative writings to lay out a life finely lived, with compassion, heart, and gentle humor. Bringing to vivid life a time in this country that is long gone, this rich memoir reveals a piece of the heartland, and offers a rare vantage of twentieth-century America from the kind eyes of a wife, mother, and selfless caretaker.

Starting her narrative with tales of her forebears, I Know I Am a Winner traces her family from her Irish-Norwegian roots to Iowa, through a brief interim homesteading in South Dakota, and back soundly in Iowa. From there, the Knapp family prospered in good times, and persevered in the hard times of the Depression. In shimmering detail, the author offers up anecdotes and descriptions of daily life that paint vivid portraits of her gentle father Anton and entrepreneurial mother Lillian, weaving in their Catholic faith, commercial enterprises, and congenial family outings. From lean times to fur coats, the Knapps tell a story of the struggle and success of a solid marriage through the decades.

From there, she shares redolent recollections of aunts Rose and Mae, two distinctly devoted figures in Skram’s life, who each had convictions and generosity that shored their niece’s family in times challenging and celebratory. Skram also features sketches of her siblings, including the dynamic brother Dick and heroic younger brother Paul. She also dedicates a chapter to Kathryn, with an illustrative tale of her extraordinary conviction in getting Catholic religion classes to town, and baby brother Jack and his shenanigans. Sprinkled with sparkling musings and memories, her essays together provide a bright flavor of devoted family life in Mason City, Iowa.

In a segue into her adult life, Skram describes her deep friendship with teen “twin” Mary McLaughlin, who shared teenage mischief, first dates, and, ultimately, married Shirley, the brother of Skram’s husband. Skram also unfolds her experiences as a Depression Bride and beyond, including hiring girls throughout the years to lend a hand with her many children, Joe’s achievements in the meatpacking industry that lead them through the heartland and to Ankara, Turkey, and finally to her degree at the age of sixty in Sterling, Colorado.

Throughout, the family is frequently called to make the tough, right choice, whether taking in a family of nieces and nephews when their mother dies, or passing up career advancement when the company’s integrity is questionable. Always steadfast and correct, the family endures as a paragon of propriety and honor in a world that often calls for compromise.

Invoking the power of the written word to lift the veil on one life that was lived with grace and integrity, Mary Skram’s simply stunning achievement as a compassionate, inquisitive individual comes shining through page after page. Like a finely crafted patchwork quilt, this elegant memoir stitches together the colorful fabric of a meaningful life, resulting in a magnificent work that offers comfort, beauty, and inspiration.

I Know I Am a Winner by Mary Elaine Skram

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Mary Elaine Skram
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I Know I Am a Winner

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