Gateways to History: Borrowed Names

Borrowed Names: Poems About Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C.J. Walker, Marie Curie, and Their DaughtersSometimes it doesn’t take much for me to be completely sold on a book.  For this one, I just needed the title: Borrowed Names: Poems about Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C. J. Walker, Marie Curie and Their Daughters.  Written by Jeannine Atkins, I see this book as a gateway to learn more about some amazing women. 

For many readers, I’m guessing Laura is the hook.  After all, almost everybody has heard of her.  Last year, I finally read Ghost in the Little House (a book filled with controversy for fans, but it made me really, really interested in Rose), so I was curious how Atkins would handle their complicated relationship in a way that wouldn’t completely alienate fans of Little House that know nothing about Rose.  My favorite poem in this section is the last one, “Truth.”  Because I am a complete sap, I might have teared up at these last lines:

Maybe one person can’t shape truth

into a story,

but handing orange notebooks back and forth,

a mother and daughter put ordinary girls into history.

And then we get to Madam C. J. Walker.  I first met her back when I was an intern at the Women’s Museum.  Her story was part of the central exhibit, and I helped unpack jars of her hair cream and other “miracle” products.  While writing my thesis, I got very, very interested in beauty culture, especially in the African American culture during the 1910s and 1920s.  And Madam Walker just kept popping up.  Around the same time, her great-great granddaughter was doing all kinds of things to tell that wonderful story.  But I don’t think it’s a story that’s really made it to the mainstream.  So to have her story in a book like this was really, really exciting.  Madam Walker did things that few women, especially black women, were doing at the turn of the century.  And we should all know about her and love her.

Atkins starts near the beginning of Walker’s story–when she was still poor and doing laundry and raising her daughter by herself.  And then, she gets tired of her hair breaking and falling out and makes a concoction to make her hair healthy.  There is much scholarship on the complexity of all of this, especially the relationship African American women have with their hair.  But for now, I’ll just share with you these lines, from the poem “Wonderful Hair Grower”:

She moves her hands in circles, casts a spell

over women who trust their heads to her hands.

Is the water warm enough?  Too hot?

Women coo with the pleasure of being asked

what they want.

And finally, we’re left with the story of Marie Curie and her daughter, Irene.  I must confess that I knew very little, about the Curies other than the really big basic thing: radioactivity that eventually killed them.  But now, I want to know much, much more.  Irene seems almost destined to become a scientist or perhaps it is just that science is the only way to become close to her mother.  The poem “Without School Bells” shows some of these complications:

Irene can’t worry about yawns or crushes.

She needs to comprehend

the laws of radiance, reflection, refraction.

Every question and answer binds her

to the one world her mother loves.

This book is not really a history book or biography but more an introduction to some amazing women and their stories.  So many people assume that history is dry: names, dates and facts.  And with the way textbooks are written, who can blame them?  But books like this are one way to show the emotion that goes hand in hand with history.  We forget that real people lived these events, and Atkins is bringing back some of this realness.

This is probably not the kind of book that kids will pick up for fun.  I can live with that.  My hope is that it’s one of those books that is used in classrooms to spark discussions and perhaps even some further reading.  If my junior historian book club was still in existence, we would totally read it.  Regardless, I will likely recommend this one to them.  Kudos to Atkins for bringing the emotion to history–and sharing just enough facts to make readers want to know more.

5 thoughts on “Gateways to History: Borrowed Names

  1. My google alerts led me here. I go through periods of kicking the alert habit, but in this case I’m so happy to be reading someone who so completely gets what I hoped to do in Borrowed Names. Thank you for reading and writing! And I’m also so happy to have found your blog, which I added to my dashboard, and have had some fun browsing around in, stirring up memories of some of my favorite books. I teach children’s lit at a university, which is great, but we do have to tend to lots of fantasy. I think books from your shelf would be my dream course!

  2. I enjoyed reading your perceptive review of a book I, too, love, and enjoyed the real connection with all of the people in it, especially the one with Madam Walker, who I’d not heard of before reading Jeannine’s book. Also glad I found your blog through Jeannine, and I’ll be back to read more.

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