Crossing Fifty-One

Not Quite a Memoir

Non-Fiction - Memoir
318 Pages
Reviewed on 05/04/2023
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Author Biography

Debbie Russell is a lawyer turned writer. She spent twenty-five years as an Assistant County Attorney in Minneapolis, prosecuting numerous high-profile cases and fighting off several nervous breakdowns. At age fifty-five, Debbie took early retirement, giving up a full pension for the freedom of time. She now spends that precious time writing, restoring her property to native prairie and wetlands, and training her rambunctious retrievers.

    Book Review

Reviewed by Jamie Michele for Readers' Favorite

Debbie Russell's Crossing Fifty-One: Not Quite a Memoir is a touching reflection on familial history that doubles as a personal exploration of the author's own identity. The book follows Russell's journey as she faces her father's terminal illness, exploring her ancestry as a means of coming to terms with her grief. Through her research, Russell uncovers a volume written by her great-grandfather, a man of ego and destiny, whose characteristics mirror her own. Russell goes on to examine the scientific basis of her genetic traits, a concept that she believes is informed by both the men and women in her family. Her grandfather, a medical doctor, passed down a wealth of knowledge to her father who, in turn, passed on his loving nature to Russell. Ultimately, Crossing Fifty-One serves as a reminder that our familial histories are often deeply ingrained within us, shaping who we are and who we will become.

I am a person who deeply believes that there is more to ourselves from a scientific perspective than we allow a less informed world to lead us to believe. If you ask some members of my family what their religion is, they will tell you it is academia. While that is only half of my stance, coming across the unique idea behind Debbie Russell's Crossing Fifty-One wasn't a tough sell to me. Here is an author who had done some serious homework and all I had to do was pick a comfortable chair and let her tell me how it went. The writing is exceptional, and the delicate balancing act between the tangible science and the emotional journey is really, really well done. I found myself choked up multiple times and had difficulty putting the book down even though it was past my bedtime. For me, Russell shines as an author when she is up to her elbows in the history of her grandparents. Memoirs are tricky when their subject isn't a famous person or someone we know. Russell simplifies this because, truly, she doesn't know them either. We know how the part with Dad will end, although I admit I almost had to take a day off work after the business with Muffin, but I can't blame Russell for that. As she says, “It’s much harder to dig inside ourselves and try to figure out how we contribute to our own problems. It’s my current struggle. Every. Single. Day.” Very highly recommended.

K.C. Finn

Crossing Fifty-One: Not Quite a Memoir is a memoir in the autobiographical and family issues subgenres. It is best suited to the general adult reading audience and is penned by Debbie Russell. In this heartfelt portrayal of complex family dynamics, long-buried secrets, and introspective questions, we explore the life of the author and the legacy of her grandfather, Dr. Ralph Russell, who entered a federal drug-treatment facility known as a narcotic farm in the 1950s, sparking a series of events that would later affect both her parents and herself. So begins a journey of discovering who you are and who you can be once you let go of familial expectations.

Debbie Russell lays it all on the line in this interesting and original memoir concept, which also has many layers of mystery, intrigue, and storytelling woven seamlessly into the threads of the biographical chain of events. This makes for easy reading from a talented writer, as if one is delving deep into a novel, but then the emotional and psychological toll hits and we are reminded of how painfully real and challenging life can be. This delicate balance is achieved well as Russell paints cinematic portraits of the people who have had both positive and negative impacts on her life. Her narration discussing her struggles feels like a friend talking to a trusted confidant. Overall, Crossing Fifty-One is a profoundly moving work that I highly recommend to fans of unusual memoirs and emotional family dramas.

Viga Boland

How can a memoir be “not quite a memoir”? The answer to that question will become obvious in the first few chapters of Crossing Fifty-One: Not Quite a Memoir by Debbie Russell. This book is indeed her memoir, where the age of 51 is especially significant. Although her grandfather Ralph (referred to as Papa throughout the book) “crossed fifty-one and only made it to 59…” her beloved dad “crossed fifty-one and made it all the way to 89.” In Debbie’s case, when her father was admitted to hospice, suffering from Parkinson’s, she was 51. That event precipitated a crisis of identity for Debbie that was so severe she began seeing a therapist. It’s also the point at which the analytical lawyer she had become began investigating her forebears, primarily her “Papa”, a doctor who voluntarily admitted himself to a “narcotics farm” for his addiction to Demerol. Was her current mental crisis linked in some way to her grandfather?

The method Debbie Russell chose to explore this connection makes this work “not quite a memoir’. Russell unearths and shares with readers numerous letters sent between her hospitalized Papa and his family. Through those letters, she learns much about her father’s relationship with his father. While secrets emerge, what is significant for Russell is the optimism, coupled with the love and acceptance between the two. These letters help clarify why she and her father shared a similar relationship, in sharp contrast to the unpleasant relationship Russell had with her mother. She and her mother were worlds apart in so many ways, and yet later, with her father growing weaker every day, somehow these two women needed to work together, however impossible that seemed most of the time.

For me, the best part was the universal truths and conclusions Russell draws about family interactions and the intentions behind secrecy. We hide the truth to protect loved ones from worry and pain, but is that the wisest thing to do? Crossing Fifty-One prompts readers to reflect on their family relationships. Perhaps by looking more closely at our forefathers, we can find explanations for our behavior and the volatile relationships with those we should love most. At the end, there is a long series of questions book club members would enjoy discussing. While reading letters with lots of family details and trivia might not appeal to all readers, their inclusion gives this memoir its uniqueness.