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Review: For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors by Laura Ester Wolfson

“For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors,” the winner of the 2017 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction, is just as quirky and curious as the title suggests. Made up of thirteen essays that range in topic from health and wellness to reflections on family to the power and confusion of loving someone who doesn’t speak your native language, the book functions more like a memoir than a collection, as the essays bend and weave together, forming an intricate portrait of a unique literary talent.

During the 1980s, author Laura Ester Wolfson studied Russian and worked in the USSR, building a successful career as a Russian to English translator and interpreter: “State banquets at the Kremlin, mafia trials, forgotten literary masterpieces, KGB files declassified under Yeltsin (later to be reclassified under Putin) – I translated them all.” 

Spending so much time in another language, she writes, was an experience “both freeing and confining,” and her essays involving language acquisition – and her marriage and divorce from a Georgian man who, before they married, didn’t speak English and had never been west of Montenegro – are among the books’ strongest.

But Wolfson’s life – and this collection – are about more than language and love. She honestly explores her struggles with a degenerative, sometime fatal pulmonary lung condition “whose name I cannot remember, let alone pronounce,” a condition so severe it derails her career as an interpreter and translator. There are essays about the beauty of commuting; about exploring her Jewish identity; about finding her own voice as a writer – beyond translating texts from other authors.

The final essay, “Other Incidents in the Precinct,” Wolfson uses the story of a trip to the dentist as the foundation for a larger narrative about her second marriage and a family secret, making for a beautiful, multi-layered work about resilience and self-preservation.

Because of the range of topics and the depth of exploration, it’s easy to come away from “For Single Mothers as Train Conductors” feeling as though you’ve known Wolfson all your life. It’s a marvelous debut, with hopefully more to come.