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.

 

Small books about big wars

In the fall of 2011, my family and I made our first trip to Hawaii. In what should be no surprise, we made sure to make time for a visit to Pearl Harbor. My knowledge of World War II is probably deeper that the average bear, but I’m not even close to being an expert. Before visiting Pearl Harbor, I had never really considered the impact of that attack on civilian life in Hawaii. Their exhibit spaces made that abundantly clear, and I found myself thinking deeply about all that had to happen after the attack. And of course, the USS Arizona Memorial was incredibly moving, even though it was also incredibly crowded.

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Like any good museum professional/tourist, we made a lengthy stop in the museum store.  While there, I picked up this little book.

Dancing in Combat Boots

And then it sat in my to-read pile for two years.  And I felt bad when I finally read it, because it is a gem of a book.  Funke took real women and fictionalized their war stories.  She did an excellent job of choosing women from a variety of backgrounds that did a variety of things in a variety of locations.  At the back, there’s a paragraph about each woman’s real life, adding a few nuggets of details.  And the stories themselves are beautifully written.  I think my favorite was “Three Thousand Men.”  Attie sketched thousands of soldiers in their hospital beds in LA.  The story itself takes place in modern times, as Attie is trying to find a permanent home for her copies of the sketches.  Attie says towards the end of the story:

I’m not asking for recognition for myself.  But some of these boys never made it home.  Do you see?  There should be a place where their families can go to find these portraits.  There should be a way for people to see what we sacrificed in that war, a whole generation of men lost.  I didn’t paint anything else those four years.  I put all my energy into this.  Four or five sketches a day, and then I’d have to stop.  Your eyes can only take so much.  This was the most important work of my life.

There is also a story set on December 7, 1941 and the days following.  Newlywed Marjorie is living on base with her army husband.  The chaos of the attack is vividly brought to life as Marjorie flees with a neighbor, not knowing if or when she’ll see her home or husband again.  In huge, dramatic events like this, it’s sometimes the details that capture the imagination.  When Marjorie returns briefly to her home, she instantly notices the dirty dishes in the sink: “‘Never again will I leave dirty dishes in the sink,’ I promised myself.”

World War II is such a big story–just go to any bookstore and see how many books about the war span the shelves, especially compared to other wars or periods in history.  Is there a place for a small book of fictional stories about women on those shelves?  I would argue that books such as Dancing in Combat Boots give people something small enough to hold on to.  Shelf after shelf of fat books about military strategy, soldiers, the European Theater, the Pacific Theater, the homefront, and politics are going to intimidate a lot of people.  But by its very nature, fiction is less intimidating.  And when you have a book like this, one that has good, solid historical research behind it and tells engaging stories, you’re one step closer to teaching people about the past.

I’ve recently returned from a three week professional development seminar that was all about the place of history museums in the world around us.  We spent hours discussing history’s role in public life and ways to increase the relevance of history.  Some people argued that we have to teach the public more about the ways of doing history.  There was also a subtle undertone that fluffy, feel good history was something we should abandon–we must focus on the Seriousness of History.  I have always believed that you lure people in through their comfort zone, and then you push them a bit.  With that pushing, they may realize they’re ready for a deeper exploration of the past.

And that’s what books such as this do so well.  The look of the book is utterly charming, but inside are some difficult stories about the Japanese internment, sexism in the workplace, and the fears when a POW comes home.  And these stories certainly have inspired me to look again at the stories surrounding World War II.

Home Front Girl: A Review

Reading someone’s diary, even when given permission, can be scary business.  Can they write?  Is it just going to be a bunch of gossip about people you don’t know?  Do they ramble too much?

There are plenty of published diaries out there, some by famous folk and some by people who happened to live in interesting times.  Me being me, I’ve always been more interested by the ordinary people living in extraordinary times.  How does their version of history differ from the “official” version?  What details do they note that historians looking back might not have noticed?  Often, as people go through their things, they toss the letters and diaries, thinking there’s nothing important in there.  This makes me ache for all that we’ve lost, particularly from people that often aren’t in history books.

Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime AmericaSo, when I got a note offering me a review copy of Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature and Growing up in Wartime America, I was a little excited.  This sounded exactly like my kind of book–and it is!  Joan Wehlen, born in 1922, kept a diary from the time she was 12.  Upon her death in 2010, her daughter found volumes of these notebooks, saw their value, and edited and published them.  Three cheers for Susan Signe Morrison!  As a historian, I’m thrilled that his diary is now widely available.  In doing a quick amazon search, there don’t appear to be many American World War II diaries in print, and even fewer by women.  The home front experience is a vital part of the history of any war, and we need this additional voice.  Especially because it is such a young voice.

As a reader, Joan’s voice is delightful.  There is plenty of gossip about people we don’t know, and boys that she had crushes on, but you quickly realize that Joan was a teenager that paid attention to the world around her.  Long before the United States entered the war, she was tracking battles in Europe.  She has a feeling that the war will get much bigger and wonders if 1940 will be a key turning point.  One of my favorite bits is a passage she wrote a month after the London Blitz.  She titled it “To Those of My Time” and it is a very different perspective on what we have come to call “The Greatest Generation.”

Born at the end of one disastrous war and bred between two wars with always the foreknowledge of this war that is come upon us as we reach adulthood.  Yes, we are a race apart.  Something quite different.  I do not think we would any of us for all our talking fit into another time–another century, even another decade.

From our first years on, we have faced peculiar situations, and they have formed our characters within us.  (p. 141)

As Joan wrote, she knew she was writing for the future.  She went on to become an oral historian, and it’s quite obvious that those historical leanings were present early in her life.  In 1942, she wrote:

Mr. Benet was talking about diaries in history and I believe I have written mine with the intention of having it read someday.  As a help, not only to the understanding of my time–but to the understanding of the individual–not as me–but as character development.  Things we forget when we grow older are written here to remind us.  A help not only in history but in psychology (I can’t even spell it).  If I can do that, I believe I shall have done all that I could wish to.  I rather like the idea of a social archeologist pawing over my relics. (p. 229)

With her daughter’s help, she has certainly done that.

As I read, I kept thinking of a fictional girl who came of age during a previous war:  Rilla Blythe.  I do believe these girls would have much to talk about.  Both books take the smaller, but ultimately more universal, stories of life on the home front and show how war changes everyone, even those that stayed at home.  I think it would be fascinating to teach the two books, hand in hand.

My main quibble is one that the editor couldn’t do much about–the journals end rather abruptly in February 1942.  I wanted to know more!  But do read the final footnote on that entry for a satisfying conclusion to Joan’s story.

This book is being marketed as young adult non-fiction, which I hope doesn’t limit its readership.  Hopefully, readers with an interest in this era won’t be turned off by the young adult classification or miss the book entirely.  It still amazes me how many people are ashamed at reading children’s and young adult fiction!  But the age of the author certainly makes it more appealing for teens.

For more information on this book, along with some great extra material and resources, do check out the website: http://www.homefrontgirldiary.com

Historian Hero

Gerda Lerner, one of my historian heroes, died today.  I first became acquainted with her work during a women’s history class at Hendrix College.  It was a wonderful, wonderful class, where we had thoughtful discussions and read some really great stuff.  During that class, I realized I had always been interested in women’s history, but had never really thought about  it as separate from other kinds of history.  It opened my eyes to how much traditional history leaves out.

In grad school, I encountered her again during a historiography (history of history) class.  That conversation remains one of the most alarming I’ve ever had about history.  One African American man stated that he thought women’s history segmented history too much.  I remember him saying something like “What’s next?  Books about women and jello?  Women with fat lips and women with thin lips?”  Two females agreed with each other that the only reason why a woman’s biography would need to be written would be to describe how she had supported her famous husband.  A few of us ended up doing this tag-team, arguing thing as we desperately tried to convince these classmates that women’s history had value.  It was awful.

Around this same time, a friend and I learned about a monthly gathering for female historians (grad students and professors) at area universities.   We were at NC State, and the group also included folks from Duke and UNC.  Julie and I made the trek to a professor’s house in Chapel Hill one evening.  We both kinda wondered if we would meet anyone “famous”–after all, there are a lot of well-known historians at both Duke and UNC.  We mingled, desperately clutching a glass of wine, before the “official” part of the evening.  Julie and I didn’t really talk to anyone, because we didn’t know a soul.  The topic that night was the different stages of grad school life, so at one point, we all sat down in a circle to start the conversation.  The leader asked us to introduce ourselves, tell where we went to undergrad, what we were studying now, and the biggest difference between the two.  Julie and I were some of the first to speak.  I said something lame about campus size.  And then, an older woman spoke “I’m Gerda Lerner, and I went to the New School. . .”  Julie and I looked at each other out of the corner of our eyes and tried to look cool.  What followed was one of the most amazing discussions I’ve ever been a part of.  Gerda would get on soapboxes, talking about the inherent patriarchy of the university system and her experiences as the only one doing her kind of work.  I tried to soak up every single word, but it’s been over 10 years now, and the memories are fuzzy.

After the discussion was over, Julie and I got up and started making our way to leave.  Gerda stopped us, reintroduced herself and asked her what we were studying.  I said “Oh, just public history at NC State.”  And she said “Oh, good!  You’ll actually be able to find a job!” and patted me on the shoulder.  Julie and I looked at each other in complete shock.  Once we finally left the house, I’m not too ashamed to admit there may have been some extremely nerdy screaming on both our parts.  Not only had we met one of the greatest living historians, it had been in a very casual, completely unexpected way.

I learned a long time ago that not everyone gets this story, because a lot of people have no idea who Gerda Lerner is and what she did.  There are obituaries and biographies all over the place, but in case you don’t feel like clicking, I’ll just quote this bit from the New York Times obituary:

In the mid-1960s, armed with a doctorate in history from Columbia University and a dissertation on two abolitionist sisters from South Carolina, Ms. Lerner entered an academic world in which women’s history scarcely existed. The number of historians interested in the subject, she told The New York Times in 1973, “could have fit into a telephone booth.”

“In my courses, the teachers told me about a world in which ostensibly one-half the human race is doing everything significant and the other half doesn’t exist,” Ms. Lerner told The Chicago Tribune in 1993. “I asked myself how this checked against my own life experience. ‘This is garbage; this is not the world in which I have lived,’ I said.”

That picture changed rapidly, in large part because of her efforts while teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in the early 1970s. In creating a graduate program there, Ms. Lerner set about trying to establish women’s history as an academic discipline and to raising the status of women in the historical profession. She also began gathering and publishing the primary source material — diaries, letters, speeches and so on — that would allow historians to reconstruct the lives of women.

“She made it happen,” said Alice Kessler-Harris, a history professor at Columbia. “She established women’s history as not just a valid but a central area of scholarship. If you look at any library today, you will see hundreds of books on the subject.”

Only once, in that hideous grad school class, have I ever had to fight to prove the value of my work.  And really, up until that class, it was something I hadn’t realized needed defending.  I’ve always been curious about women’s everyday lives in the past, as well as their more famous sisters.  I’m sure part of this is simply because I’m a girl.  But I think a bigger part is because of what I grew up reading.

As you probably already know, my favorite books are about strong female characters, and those characters were almost exclusively created by female authors.  These strong women, these fictional characters soaked into my bones and became a part of who I am.   So, when I began my study of history, I came into it with some very different ideas about what was important and what I wanted to study than some other folks.  After growing up with the characters of L. M. Montgomery, I was surprised to learn how rare higher education for women was in the late 19th century.  On the other hand, after growing up with Laura, Mary and Ma, I wasn’t a bit surprised to learn how crucial women were in the settlement of the frontier.  The March sisters displayed a range of ways women could make their own lives–from motherhood to working to art to philanthropy.   These thoughts all played into my head, as I dived into women’s history and social history and kept coming up with random ways in which these beloved children’s books connected with the history texts I was reading.

So tonight, I’m thinking about Gerda Lerner and the ways her work has shaped my life and passions.  It’s hard, sometimes, to remember how recently the idea that women’s history looks a bit different from traditional history emerged.  I like to think that eventually, someone else would have pointed out the obvious, but I’m so glad it was her–and that we didn’t have to wait any longer.

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?

What if?

Many moons ago (11 years ago, to be exact.  Good lord, how time flies!), I was an intern at the Women’s Museum.  Part of my job was to process the many, many loans–it’s a non-collecting institution so every artifact on display had to come from somewhere else.  I have many, many stories about that summer and the artifacts I got to care for (with white gloves, of course), including Edith Head’s Oscar and Eleanor Roosevelt’s knitting needles.  But I was already interested in movie history and Eleanor Roosevelt was already on my top 10 list of favorite historical people.  One artifact, though, sparked a new interest: a parachute.  It was in almost backpack form, and it was heavy.  It was worn by a WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots), and I tried to put my brain around carrying a load like that.  It was hard to imagine.  Though I’ve never done much research on the WASP, whenever I see mention of it, a little bell goes off in my head.

The main archives for the WASP program are held at Texas Women’s University(http://www.twu.edu/library/wasp.asp), which is located about an hour north of Dallas.  I’ve been to that archives a few times, researching various things relating to women and war.  They have a permanent exhibit relating to the WASP and have an extensive oral history collection.  It’s all very, very amazing.

FlygirlSo, I was happy to hear about Sherri Smith’s Flygirl and even happier to see that it was getting rave reviews.  It’s one of those stories that should be better known.  The WASP story is a great one–flying seems so “easy” now–we forget how daring those early pilots were.  And then, I discovered that the main character, Ida Mae Jones, was African American and decided to pass as white in order to serve her country.

Sherri Smith tells us in the afterword that there’s no evidence that anyone like Ida Mae served as a WASP.  But here’s the thing: this story could have been told just as easily with a white woman as the main character.  And it still would have been a good story.  Making Ida Mae African American adds wonderful layers of complexity and opens up all sorts of room for big ideas.  What is race?  Could you deny your identity for something you believe in?  Does Ida Mae have a place in the post-war America?

I admit that my list so far of kidlit history is dominated by white protagonists.  And history in general, especially public history, is still dominated by a white narrative.  I could go into some of the many, many reasons public history is both ahead and behind of broadening that narrative, but this isn’t the place to do that.  Suffice it to say that a big part of the reason I love this book is that it takes a story that doesn’t have to be about race and makes it about race.  We know non-white women served.  Here’s some brief biographical information on Hazel Ah Ying (http://www.twu.edu/library/wasp/wasppdf/Lee.pdf) and Maggie Gee (http://www.twu.edu/library/wasp/wasppdf/GeeM.pdf), two Asian pilots that served.  Smith had the courage to ask the question: “What if?” and answered it with her novel. 

Smith also had the courage to end Ida Mae’s story with a big question mark.  There’s no real place for Ida Mae after the war and whatever she chooses, she’ll have to deny a big part of herself.  There are no easy answers for her.  It’s powerful stuff to think about.