Tina Ontiveros was born in Orofino in 1976 but spent much of her young life migrating around the Pacific Northwest because her parents were heavily involved in the timber industry.
Her recent memoir, “Rough House,” details many of these experiences. Ontiveros describes a childhood spent living below the poverty line, along with her and her family’s complex relationship with her abusive father. She recounts the struggle of coming to understand that her father was flawed and had abusive tendencies, but that he was also human and raised his children to become competent adults.
She was ultimately inspired to write “Rough House” as her thesis for her master’s degree in nonfiction writing, which she received from Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt. She did not intend to publish it, but rather saw it as an assignment to complete her degree.
“I just thought I’d write it about my dad because I always thought it would be something that would be an interesting challenge,” said Ontiveros, who lives near the bottom of Mt. Hood in Oregon. “He did a lot of really awful things. I had this list of 12 terrible things my dad had done, and I wondered if I could write a book that included all of those things and still make him look like a really lovable character, because he was so lovable and there was a reason we just adored him.”
Ontiveros eventually decided to publish the memoir after an eye-opening encounter with her niece, the child of one of Ontiveros’ siblings who has struggled to stay out of poverty. She volunteered to take the niece to school one day and saw a reflection of her own experiences growing up. She witnessed her middle school niece taking on large amounts of responsibility, such as feeding her baby sister and laying out her sister’s clothes for school, all while getting ready for school herself.
“I remember realizing that that was what it was like for us as kids growing up,” she said. “Kids who live in poverty don’t have the same freedom or ability to realize their potential because there are so many pressures on their lives all the time. I just thought maybe I should publish the book. I would love for (my niece) and other kids who live that way to see their stories in literature.”
While “Rough House” is a novel about Ontiveros’ experiences growing up in poverty, she feels that theme is often misunderstood. She is often asked by readers and journalists to talk about breaking the cycle of poverty.
“I never intended to try and tell a story about breaking the cycle of poverty,” she said. “I don’t believe in a meritocracy. I don’t believe everyone has the ability to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. I think the fact that I did is an anomaly, but it is really hard when you are generationally poor.”
Ontiveros will talk about “Rough House” and sign copies of the book next Thursday, July 22, at the Lewiston City Library. She hopes readers’ take away from the memoir is that while someone may disagree with the choices their parents made, that doesn’t inherently make them bad parents.
“People can make choices very different from the mainstream and still be good parents who are showing their children unconditional love and teaching them to be good citizens of the world,” she said.
“Rough House'' was published in September and won a 2021 Pacific Northwest Book Award. It was an October 2020 Indie Next Pick and spent more than 20 weeks on the Pacific Northwest Indie Bookstore Bestseller List. It is published by Oregon State University Press. Copies of the book will be available for sale at the library from And Books Too in Clarkston. It is also for sale at BookPeople of Moscow and online.