A book full of an author's poignant childhood diary entries sounds like a vanity project; blessedly, We Saw Scenery: The Early Diaries of Merrill Markoe is not that. The multiple Emmy Award-winning comedy writer has augmented some of her youthful jottings with drawings and snappy, bewildered and trenchant present-day observations, and the result is a marvelously oddball coming-of-age memoir with laughs and a talking hippo.
The entries begin in 1958, the year Markoe's parents moved the family, which included her brother, Glenn, from New Jersey to Miami. (The family later moves to San Francisco--another upheaval that young Markoe considers worthy of ink.) Several wittily vexed entries call to mind a Lynda Barry comic ("MARCH 3, 1961/ GLENN IS AN IDIOT and I can not live a good life without him teasing me every minute of the day..."). Other entries seem at first blush like the usual kid stuff ("JANUARY 29, 1959/ Then this evening our Brownie troop had a Girl Scout Fly-Up. I goofed up the whole show by giggling"). But as the entries accumulate, a picture emerges of a child negotiating more than typical tweenage insecurity about fitting in: Markoe's parents and teachers seem to delight in cracking down on her clowning. Her diary becomes a refuge where she can write the lines that the grown-ups in her life don't want to hear. As the adult Markoe puts it, her younger self was tailoring her entries for "an imaginary readership. It was the first sign that I was writing for an audience."
Markoe is surprised by how little she remembers of the goings-on covered in her diary, and several of We Saw Scenery's illustrations find her confronting a pink hippo--a stand-in for her memory-storing hippocampus. In art that has an invitingly unpolished look, Markoe insinuates her young self into a fantasy tableau with the cast of West Side Story, and she inserts her adult self into scenes in which she tries to convince her younger self not to put too much stock in boys.
Markoe the child couldn't have known that her diary entries would put in stark relief the way that the unladylike behavior of girls of her generation was all too often discouraged. Readers of We Saw Scenery will probably be nearly as overjoyed as Markoe when, in 1966, her parents drop her off at UC Berkeley, where she finally finds a crowd that wants to hear her jokes. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer
Shelf Talker: The Emmy-winning comedy writer has annotated and illustrated some of the funnier and more illuminating diary entries from her exasperating childhood.