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.

 

My Year in Books

Since 2001 (holy crap–that’s 15 years!), I’ve kept a reading journal.  2001 was the year I graduated college, so it flows through that last year at Hendrix, into grad school, early working years, furlough years and now the executive director years.  Most likely, I’ll never again hit the highs of 2001 (116 books), aided in large part by a paper I wrote on the Dear America series. For many years, the written journal has been supplemented by Goodreads, where I also keep a pretty daunting To Read list.  You can find my complete list for 2016 here.

As I looked back at the books I ranked 5 stars, several things stood out. In what should be fairly obvious, almost all my favorites had some connection to history. There are two exceptions to that. Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, was a pick for my Forever Young Adult book club. I loved the characters and the very real consequences of awkward high school things in the age of social media. Another YA novel I loved was P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han–it’s far from perfect, but deeply satisfying. Sometimes, you just need a fluffy romance!

This year, I discovered a new author to keep my eye on. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson came out a few years ago, but I just got to it this year. Was so pleasantly surprised by this book! In 2016, she released The Summer Before the War, which is one of those books that hits all my buttons. World War I, independent woman, England. It’s really one of the best of that genre, and I’d put it right up against one of my all time favorites, Rilla of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery (though no WWI fiction will ever beat Rilla!)

The most gut-wrenching book I read this year was Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. Listening to the audio book during a road trip seemed like a good idea at the time, but sobbing while on I-35 on a weekend makes driving difficult. I wrote about this book earlier this year.

After visiting Detroit in January last year for a program committee meeting for AASLH, I decided to follow up on two book recommendations before my return for the conference in September. Both landed on my 5 star list. The Turner House by Angela Flournoy is a family saga of 20th century urban, African American Detroit. The family home is way upside down on the mortgage, and the large family deals with that reality in very different ways. I almost wish I had read this after The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroiby Thomas Sugrue, a non-fiction work that takes a look at how Detroit got to where it is today. Reading it through the lens of what’s happening in Dallas right now (and my own increasing knowledge about affordable housing) made it extra fascinating. Highly recommend reading these two books together–they’re ultimately telling the same story, but in very different ways.

Rounding out my Five Star list are The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks by James Anderson (a 1930s whodunit that is simply fun and clever), Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife by Francine Prose (fascinating look at how Anne Frank became the phenomenon it still is today), The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant (a DHV book club pick that is an excellent coming of age, early 20th century history), and Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls (a fictionalized biography of the author’s grandmother).

Not a bad year at all–filled with plenty of strong women and a lot of history. Hope you also had an excellent year in books!