My Feminist Winter, Part 2

Strong female character: check. World War I setting: check.  A little bit of romance: check. Suffrage movement: check. Honestly, for historical fiction, this is usually about all I need for a book to be a winner. It’s why I put Crossing Stones by Helen Frost on my to-read list so many years ago. But I deeply regret not getting to it sooner.

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This is a book in verse, in the vein of Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust (God, I love that book). Usually, that’s not a huge selling point for me. I read fast–I don’t pause and analyze and reflect the way you should with poetry. And I confess that when I started reading Crossing Stones, I was reading for plot, not the beauty of the language. It’s told from the perspective of three teenagers–Muriel, her best friend and neighbor Emma, and her brother Ollie. For some reason, about 50 pages in, I flipped to the back and noticed an author’s note on the form of the poetry. People–if you read this book, read the author’s note first! It completely changed the way I thought about the book. Suddenly, it made sense why Muriel’s poems were shaped so differently than Ollie’s and Emma’s. So, I slowed down and let the beautiful words wash right over me.

Muriel is a woman who just isn’t sure. She’s not sure about the war. She’s not sure she wants to be a homemaker. She heads to DC to pick up her Aunt Vera who has been picketing for suffrage at the White House, jailed, and in the middle of a hunger strike. She finds herself joining the movement and thinking about other options for her life besides farm life.

And then. there is the thread of her little sister getting influenza. Remember folks, it’s 1918.

A side note: I’m in the middle of reading John Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. It’s a little disturbing to read it in the midst of the worst flu season in years. And with the number killed and the horrible way they died, how do we not talk more about this moment in history?

Back to the story at hand: Muriel has just gotten back from DC, and she has a present for her little sister. She reads all of Anne of Green Gables at her sick sister’s bedside. And there is this moment that just brought tears to my eyes:

I stopped reading for a minute,

turned away, and she opened her eyes to ask

what happened next! I don’t know, Grace,

I’m reading it for the first time myself.

Mama said to wake her if there was any change,

but Grace insists, Keep reading, Muriel.

I think Anne really does like Gilbert, don’t you?

She keeps her eyes open, and I go on, as if

reading is breathing, and by reading I can

keep my sister breathing.

Honestly, it’s one of the best uses of another book in a book I’ve ever seen. But I may be biased since it’s Anne.

These are all characters that realize the world around them is changing, and they’re trying to figure out their place. I appreciated the hesitation and the fear and the questioning. Frost gracefully takes some of the big themes of 1917-1918 and weaves them together–suffrage, war, influenza, settlement houses. But it never feels forced. It’s easy enough to go to other sources to dig deeper on some of the topics, but not necessary. Her characterization is spot-on, and I never found myself thinking that Muriel was too modern.

I’ve always said that the story should come first in historical fiction, not the history. This is certainly a case where the words come before the history, but it still gives you plenty of history. I read this immediately after The Hired Girl and it was stunning how different the reading experience was. Refreshing, too. Frost hit all the right historical notes, but she also created deeply sympathetic characters–and to create them in so few words!

Definitely one of the best books I read last year. More of this, please.

Click here for My Feminist Winter, Part 1.

My Feminist Winter, Part 1

In this age of #metoo and constant headlines regarding sexual harassment, feminism isn’t quite the dirty word it used to be. Lately, several books I’ve read have approached feminism in some very different ways–usually successfully, but one not so much. Of course, it isn’t like my reading interests have taken a turn to feminism over the last several months. Since I could read, I’ve been reading books about strong girls and women. Women’s history has always been a passion of mine. But I have to admit that it’s kinda nice to see our ranks growing.

My feminist winter started with The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz. It came out a few years ago, and many trusted friends adored it. Several friends mentioned that it reminded them of Anne of Green Gables, which if you know anything about me, you know that’s one of my all time favorite books. So, my expectations were high.

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Alas, I spent most of the book annoyed. Yes, Joan gets into scrapes. She craves books and opportunities for education. But I just didn’t like Joan. She serves in a Jewish household, and she almost immediately starts trying to convert them to Catholicism. She flirts with the sons of the house. And through all this, her employers make all kinds of accommodations for her, including ultimately sending her to a private school. It was all just too hard to believe.

The timeline of the book is only a few months, so I guess I shouldn’t expect too much character growth. But there seemed to be none. In all honesty, I think Joan felt very entitled to all of it–every adjustment made on her behalf, every acceptance of her truly bad behavior. And perhaps that’s why the comparison to Anne Shirley rankled so much. Anne never felt like she deserved any of the love given her by Diana and Marilla and Matthew. Though she earned her top of the class rankings and her entrance to Queens, I think she always held a bit of disbelief at her good fortune. Which is a big part of what makes  Anne so relateable still, 110 years after her debut.

I also felt that Schlitz missed some important historical opportunities. The movement of women into paid work outside of the home is such an important thread in women’s history. It started in the 1820s with the Lowell Mill Girls. It was hard, difficult work, but it was an opportunity to continue their education, earn their own money, and get off the farm. In the process, they were exposed to many different cultures and environments. One of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had at a historical site was at the Lowell Mills–I got to the museum when it opened (time was short!), and they asked if I’d like them to turn the machines on. There was a huge space and maybe a third of the machines (looms and more that I can’t remember) came on. The speed and the sound just took my breath away. And I started thinking about these young, young women who worked at those machines–and had probably never seen anything quite like it before.

Though this book takes place in 1910, I wish Schlitz had spent more time with Joan’s adjustment to a bustling city. It’s clear that Joan comes from a pretty small town. Where is the sense of wonder and amazement at the department store? The large buildings in Baltimore? When teaching people about the past, I think it’s important to get them to imagine the amazement at the many changes we take for granted today. At the museum where I work, we’re lucky enough to have both the log cabin the Miller family first lived in when they moved to Texas–as well as the giant mansion they built several years later. When working with kids, I always say “Imagine if that cabin was all you had ever known–and then you got to move into this house. What would it feel like?” Gets them every time. But I never felt that emotional pull of the wonder that real life Joans probably felt when they first arrived in the big city. Perhaps this is another effect of the sense of entitlement that Joan had.

One thing that Schlitz does very well is the portrayal of Joan’s mother. She married late in life, not for love but as the last remaining option. She encouraged her daughter to go to school. And most movingly, she tucked money into a doll’s skirt so that Joan would have a way to escape. The hard work of the farm ultimately killed her–a not uncommon story.

Though I understand why people liked this book so much, it wasn’t a book for me. I do applaud Schlitz for shining a light on this moment in history. And I loved that it was set in a Jewish household. Plenty of things to like, but not quite enough to love.

As I typed this, I realized I had a lot more to say than planned. So, call this the first of a three part series. Not bad, since I haven’t posted here in over a year. That darn job of mine keeps getting in the way of my hobbies! Look for part 2 soon.

 

Filling a gap on the timeline

Dead End in NorveltIn anticipation of a solitary road trip, I headed to the library for an audio book.  Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos caught my eye, in part due to these lines in the description: “melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional.”  Now, this was something that would make the miles pass faster.

As luck would have it, the road trip got cancelled, so instead I listened to it in fits and bursts during my regular commutes and while cooking.  This is definitely not the best way to enjoy an audio book, and sometimes days would pass before I was able to listen to the next chapter.  And there were times that I really wished I had been reading it, as there were some really, really good lines about history.

Modern fictionalized autobiographies, books that carry on the traditions started by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Ruth Sawyer, Carol Ryrie Brink and Maud Hart Lovelace, seem to be in short supply, but this book certainly fits the bill.  Jack Gantos grew up in a town with an unusual origin–Norvelt was a planned community, launched during the Depression as another relief organization.  Originally called Westmoreland Homesteads, town members later renamed it in honor of the woman who pushed this program through the legislature, Eleanor Roosevelt.  The book is just one important summer, a summer in which he’s grounded and becomes the official scribe for the obituary writer.  Miss Volker is a sheer delight–cranky and opinionated, but with a strong sense of history and her duty to pass that history on.  Her obituaries are truly a work of art.  As a historian, I loved watching the way she would weave past and present together.  At the same time, she was also a bit of a history preacher.  For example, there’s this great quote: “Be suspicious of history that is written by the conquerors.” Or this one: we have to save the history we have. You never know what small bit of it might change your life–or change the whole world.”

This book won the Newbery in 2012, and that award wasn’t well received by many critics.  I don’t pretend to be able to keep up with all the books in the running each year, so I won’t give an opinion on its worthiness.  Though this book wasn’t perfect, it does meet all my requirements for quality historical fiction.  It’s funny.  It has a good story.  It makes you want to find out more (I totally did some research on the history of Norvelt).  And it contains lots of details that you just might not include if your only knowledge of the time period was through research.  Do I think Jack will have the staying power of Laura and Betsy?  Probably not, but it was fun to get to know him.  And as a historian, it fills a great spot on the timeline of childhood during the 20th century.

With baby boomers’ strong tendency towards self reflection, I’m surprised that there aren’t more books like this being published.  Or perhaps I’m just missing them?  Who might be the next Laura or Betsy?  As technology marches on, childhood in the 1950s or 1960s is becoming more and more foreign, and it seems like this should be a booming sub-genre of children’s literature.  And honestly, after reading a lot of YA fantasy, it was a relief to be in a world for a while with no supernatural happenings.  Who else is writing fictionalized autobiographies for a young audience?  Is there a Laura for the mid-late 20th century waiting in the wings?