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.

Riding into history

I began to feel that myself plus the bicycle equaled myself plus the world, upon whose spinning wheel we must all learn to ride, or fall into oblivion and despair.  –Frances Willard

Election Day is almost upon us.  I think the only thing that everyone can agree on is that it’s all been very interesting.  I thought about voting early, but I must admit that I really love voting on Election Day.  Whenever I enter the voting booth, I say a little prayer of thanks to the generations of women that made it possible for me to exercise that privilege.  1920 really wasn’t that long ago–when my grandmother was born, women were still 13 years away from gaining suffrage.  And yet, people don’t seem to know much about suffragists, even though their work directly affects so many of us.

Bicycle MadnessI’m not sure how Bicycle Madness by Jane Kurtz ended up on my to-read list.  But I moved it to the top when we started planning a bicycle event at the Village.  And even though it didn’t affect plans at work, I’m so glad that I finally read it.  All the pieces fit together for a practically perfect work of historical fiction.

Lillie has just moved to a new house.  She no longer lives next door to her best friend, but now she lives next door to Frances Willard.  Frances Willard is one of those remarkable 19th century women that not a lot of people know about.  Suffragist, teacher, temperance advocate, labor rights advocate, and more.  Oh, and bicyclist.  Bicycles gave women a measure of freedom that they hadn’t had before–they could get places more quickly without having to hitch a wagon.

Lillie meets Frances as she’s trying to learn how to ride.  But why would Frances want to learn how to ride?  She said:

For three reasons.  First, my love of adventure has been pushed underground too long and now it is bubbling up.  Second, a bicycle is a powerful tool that will be under my foot. . . Last, but not least, I shall do it because a good many people think I cannot at my age.

How can you not fall in love with Frances Willard?  Gladys (the bicycle!) is quite the challenge, but as Frances learns about the bicycle, Lillie learns more about other points of view.  Lillie is absolutely charming, and the story feels completely natural.  So often when you throw in a real historical figure into fiction, it doesn’t work.  This does.  There are other deeper threads woven into the story too–suffrage, of course.  But also labor rights.  And how to move on after the death of a parent.  It’s a beautiful, well-crafted story.

One of my favorite parts of Kurtz’s writing is the way she uses late 19th century language and slang.  Lillie’s voice feels historical, but not in a stuffy way.  All the details feel natural–Kurtz’s priority seems to be a good story, though she’s certainly opening up lots of moments for teaching along the way.  How much did I love this book?  Enough that I downloaded the inspiration of this book, Frances Willard’s account of learning to ride a bike, A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle.  Haven’t read it yet, but I’ll get to it one of these days.

So, as we deal with all this election madness, might I recommend taking a few moments to learn a bit more about one of the suffragists that made it possible for everyone to be able to vote?  Might I suggest Frances Willard?