‘Daring to Drive’: One Woman Changes a Kingdom

  • Daring to Drive by Manal Al-Sharif (Simon & Schuster); June 2017; in collaboration with Lyric Winik
  • In 40 words or less: From childhood, Manal Al-Sharif was unwilling to settle for the roles assigned by teachers and religious authorities. Necessity pushed her to defy convention and drive. Her story provides insight into the harshness of life for less-privileged Saudis.
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Locale: Saudi Arabia
  • Time: 1980’s – 2012
  • As a part of telling her personal story, Manal schools the reader on the history and customs of Saudi life, particularly since 9/11. The critical role Aramco (the state-operated oil company established by John D. Rockefeller) plays in offering women wider opportunities, somewhat outside of the constraints of the broader society, is a catalyst for Manal’s activism.

If you doubt for a moment that one person can bring about major change, Daring to Drive and this week’s dramatic announcement that women will be permitted to drive on the streets of Saudi Arabia prove it. Manal Al-Sharif was not born into an activist family. Her upbringing was in a harsh home, governed by strict Islamic rules and the unbending strictures of an education system determined to minimize girls’ opportunities and ambitions.

Manal always went her own way. She simultaneously questioned the authority of her teachers while exploring very fundamentalist religious teachings, putting her at odds with many including her siblings. 9/11 was a turning point for her, causing her to reassess her belief in the strictest religious teachings and the true nature of the factions calling for the demise of the West.

It is information technology that finally brought Manal to national and world attention. While she wanted to be an engineer, this was not a profession open in any way to women. The limited higher education options included a single path to information technology. Her tenacity and good fortune brought her to Aramco,  giving her a taste of some of the freedoms and opportunities open to women elsewhere in the world. As she learned of the Arab Spring through her laptop, another rarity, she realized that Twitter could provide the platform to bring together Saudi women across the country willing to drive!

This is far more than one woman’s quest. To tell Manal Al-Sharif’s story demanded looks into working-class family life, the juxtaposition of civil law and religious authority, the differential information available to the privileged and ordinary citizens. Decades of Saudi history and custom are woven into the telling. Not surprisingly, Daring to Drive has been received with acclaim in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom, with its large expat Saudi community and many wealthy Saudi visitors. The book has not been available within Saudi Arabia.

Manal was interviewed exhaustively in the development of this book. To bring her story to the page required the failed collaborative efforts of four skilled writers. It took hours of additional Skype conversations and extensive research for Lyric Winik, the final collaborator, to successfully convey the extraordinary personal journey Manal has taken from frightened small child to international activist.

It pays to have friends. My good fortune is to know Jenna and Gadi Ben-Yehuda. Knowing my love of books and authors, they introduced me to Lyric Winik as the book was being released in June. Lyric and I made plans to have her meet with a book group I facilitate on September 26. At 4:00 that afternoon the news bulletins and emails started pouring in – the Saudi Arabian government announced that beginning in June 2018 women would be allowed to drive in public in the kingdom.

Book club meeting, Tuesday, September 26, 2017, discussing ‘Daring to Drive’.

Meeting with a writer is a wonderful experience for a book group. It provides insights beyond the written page – how the narrative was constructed, what research was required, and the challenges of bringing the story to the public. We had many questions for Lyric, and we asked them all. And then we rejoiced for Manal and all the women of Saudi Arabia who have endured so much for so long in silence.

 

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Not All ‘Enchanted Islands’ Are Paradise

  • Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend (Doubleday), 2016
  • In 40 words or less: Loosely based on a woman who lived with her husband on the Galapagos Islands prior to WWII,  a novel of a woman striving to overcome the poverty of an immigrant home, using her skills and life-long secretiveness to become a US spy.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: Duluth, Chicago, San Francisco, Galapagos Islands
  • Time: 1890-1964
  • Readers who enjoy exotic settings will find the descriptions of life on the islands fascinating. The lives of the fictional Frances and Ainslie Conway are far more complicated than just their intelligence mission and likely than their real lives.

Allison Amend had taken a lovely nugget, two memoirs of Frances Conway’s experience in the Galapagos Islands, and used it as a springboard for this novel of hardship, transformation, and love. Amend imagined Frances as one of seven children born to Polish-Jewish immigrants to Duluth in the 1880s. The early portions of the novel contrast her family life with that of her friend Rosalie, the only child of educated German immigrants. Despite the relative comforts of Rosalie’s home, dark secrets propel the two to leave for Chicago at fifteen.Woven into the plot are historical details about the roles young women on their own could take at the turn of the 20th century. Franny and Rosalie sought out the Jewish community to provide a lifeline as they first arrived in Chicago but had no interest in assimilating into that life. In the course of her secretarial work, Franny also becomes involved in the surreptitious publication of early Zionist newsletters, not out of interest but rather through happenstance.

Franny and Rosalie take differing paths to securing their futures. After a blow-up with Rosalie, Frances heads west, initially to live on a farm, later to California as a secretary in military intelligence.  These experiences become the qualifications she needs to enter into an arranged marriage with an intelligence officer who is to be posted to the Galapagos Islands to keep an eye on the German residents suspected of providing information to the growing Reich. Before leaving San Francisco, Franny and Rosalie reunite. Rosalie is now a wealthy society matron, involved in the civic and Jewish community, living a life she’d like to share with Franny, her oldest and only true friend.

Franny’s marriage to Ainslie Conway is a creation of spycraft. Neither had been married or expected to. The cover story for “going native” was to remove Ainslie from the temptations of alcohol, apparently one of the facts this story hangs on. As the narrator, Franny’s vulnerability and desire for all levels of intimacy are revealed. Reading with 21st-century sensibilities, the challenges to their marriage are clear.

Amend does a wonderful job of describing the daily challenges that the rough terrain, limited supplies, and communications cause during their time in the Galapagos. On an island with less than a dozen residents, most of whom were German,  privacy was highly valued and there was little cushion between basic survival and potential disaster.  Medical care and any other services from more populated areas were days, if not weeks, away. Given the intelligence operations, using the hidden military radio was limited to specific purposes. As the war approached, US naval vessels periodically approached the island for reconnaissance purposes.

As is clear from the start, Franny and Rosalie are destined to reconnect again and the story comes full circle. Amend has an ambitious agenda with Enchanted Islands. She takes on the Jewish immigrant experience, the exploitation of young women, early feminism, spycraft and life in an exotic locale. Throughout it all, loyalty and friendship are key. While there is a lot to learn about life just before the war in the Galapagos, don’t expect to meet the real Frances, Ainslie or Rosalie.  Knowing this up front is good enough for me.

 

 

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Emma Donoghue has a thing for mothers

  • The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown and Company, September 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A nurse trained by Florence Nightingale travels to rural Ireland to confirm/refute that a young girl is surviving on faith and water alone.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Rural Ireland
  • Time: 19th century
  • In both her earlier novel, Room, and here, Emma Donaghue creates women characters desperate to protect children in their care. The Wonder juxtaposes faith and science, the authority of men versus women, and the power and damage of keeping secrets.

Many readers shied away from Donoghue’s Room. Most of that story took place out of sight, in a bunker where a young boy was raised by his mother, both captive to her rapist. In The Wonder, Lib, a Nightingale-trained nurse travels from London to the Irish countryside to observe a phenomenon -a young girl, Anna, seemingly surviving for months without consuming any food. Visitors have been flocking in search of blessings. The church and local leaders are concerned about the spectacle and the possibility of a hoax.

Lib and a Sister nurse are charged with observing Anna round the clock, documenting her physiological status and any possibility of food being provided. The nurses are charged to observe and record, not consult. Any judgments are to be left to the community leaders.

Lib is a fish out of water. A Londoner through and through, it is unclear why she would take this position. She has little good to say about the community or its people. And there is no evidence of contact with family or friends, seemingly both physically and emotionally alone. Only with the arrival of a journalist does she appear to have a connection in the community, though with risk.

In many ways, this is a novel of silence and secrets. The question of Anna’s family’s honesty is at the crux of the plot. The family had recently experienced the death of Anna’s brother, to whom she was devoted but it is barely noted. As the narrator and a main figure in the novel, it might be expected to learn about Lib but she is a closed book in public and in private. It is only by coming to grips with their secrets that each can be saved.

Emma Donoghue is very skilled in building tension in her stories. In Lib she has created a watchful and intelligent protector who sees her responsibility as much to Anna as to those who hired her. Anna is at the same time angelic and strong as steel, unwavering and faith-filled. Neither friends nor adversaries, each holds her own as the novel unfolds.

The Wonder was chosen by many critics as a top book of 2016. It is impossible to separate the essence of spirituality from the plot of the narrative.  As a reader, one’s individual connection with the spiritual likely will have an impact on the appreciation for the book.

 

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Wandering NYC and life with Lillian Boxfish

  •  Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk by Kathleen Rooney (St. Martin’s Press, 2017)
  • In 40 words or less: Lillian was a woman before her time. On New Year’s Eve, at 85 years old, she sets out to walk the important landmarks of her life in New York and revisit decisions, good and bad.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Primarily NYC
  • Time: New Year’s Eve 1984 and flashbacks
  • This book was pure pleasure. Lillian is based on a woman copywriter for Macy’s beginning in the 1930s. Kathleen Rooney captures both the bon vivant and the troubles that make a story worth reading. As a dedicated walker and child of New York, I was with Lillian every step of the way.

New York City has long been the destination for writers, actors and other aspirants with dreams beyond Main Street at home. Kathleen Rooney creates in Lillian Boxfish a woman pushing the envelope of the 20th century. Conveniently, Lillian is born in 1900 and comes of age with the new freedoms of the 1920s. This affords her the opportunity to seek a career in New York after graduating Goucher College, of course, living in a women’s residence, suitable for unaccompanied young ladies of the era. She eventually secures a position as an assistant copywriter for R.H. Macy, writing copy for the clever ads popular until widespread television advertising changed the field.

Lillian loves New York as much as she loves her independence. As a career woman of that era, her evenings and weekends were devoted to enjoying all the city had to offer and her growing expertise as a poet. Her colleagues were her core friends and occasional frenemy. While always very social, Lillian was disinclined to marry, move to the suburbs or give up her career.

All these stories are recounted in the course of New Year’s Eve, 1984, as Lillian walks across Manhattan, visiting many of the places that have defined her life. Although setting out alone, she isn’t particularly lonely, confidently stopping in fashionable restaurants for a cocktail and continuing on. At 85, she is still fit and interested in engaging with the city and all it offers, including bodega owners and young photographers she happens to befriend.

Lillian’s life has its share of missteps along with the successes. She marries and has a child late in life for someone of that era while continuing to work. Changing societal attitudes run throughout, and her beloved career at Macy’s eventually comes to an end.  As a trailblazing woman in advertising, she is held as an icon and then abandoned as the feminist movement begins to take hold.

Rooney’s novel is a welcome change of pace. Adding to the attraction of Lillian’s character is the knowledge that she is inspired by the real life of Margaret Fishback, who did hold an assistant copywriter’s position with Macy’s and had her poetry published. While the story is pure fiction, I’d certainly like to be Lillian when I grow up!

 

 

A Pop-Up City and Women Helped Win WWII

  • imgresThe Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan (William Morrow, 2007)
  • In 40 words or less: In 1943, part of the Tennessee Valley was transformed into a top secret factory town to support the Manhattan Project. Denise Kiernan’s narrative captures the little-known story of the women, predominantly non-scientists, who were responsible for the machinery that created the fuel for the atomic bomb.
  • Genre: Narrative history
  • Locale: Oak Ridge, TN
  • Time: 1943 – 45
  • Read this to learn about an extraordinary military and social experiment that created a 70,000 resident city from scratch for a single purpose.

While working on another project, Denise Kiernan saw a 1944 photo of women working in front of large machines in Oak Ridge, TN. James Edward Westcott, a government photographer, documented the building and operations of the Clinton Engineer Works (CEW), the “business” portion of the city built for the war effort in the Tennessee Valley.

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Out of nowhere, government officials evicted families from their homes and farms with often less than 2 weeks to move and limited compensation. Kiernan details the massive physical labor involved in building a city from nothing and the lengths required to provide labor to meet needs from construction, manufacturing, quality assurance, human resources, commissaries, medical clinics and everything else for an “instant city” of almost 70,000. But it wasn’t all work, the community had bowling alleys, tennis courts, and movie theaters. Hard to imagine that those inside never talked about their work with their co-workers and neighbors, and those outside the gates knew nothing at all.

Focusing on a number of women whose letters and interviews give flavor to the history, Kiernan parses the hierarchical society that was built. The workers came from those that were displaced, people that worked the cotton fields and coal miners from Pennsylvania and West Virgina. Women educated as scientists often worked in administrative positions while lesser educated men supervised. Both because it was accepted and to placate the political figures in Tennessee, discrimination against African Americans was particularly egregious. While other married workers were provided housing options for the family, African American husbands and wives were separated and lived in single-gender huts. Their children were not permitted, in part because a separate school system would have been required.

Secrecy was of the utmost importance. Any infractions were severely punished, often with summary dismissal. The lack of information about the undertaking created great resentment in Knoxville, the nearest large community. People could not understand how train and truckloads of material continuously entered the facility but nothing ever came out.imgres-2

Interwoven with the accounts of the growing community and its work is information about the raw material, Tubealloy, that was THE SECRET. The layers of secrecy surrounding the decisions and those involved is seen in the shadowy information available even seventy years later. The key figures of the Manhattan Project periodically are mentioned early on. Those living and working at CEW were completely unaware of the scope or magnitude of the combined effort.

Key to bringing this project to life are the photographs of Ed Westcott, whose sole responsibility was to provide a photographic record of the entire project. He alone had access to everything from the operating facilities to the hospital to the garbage collection trucks.  His work is maintained in the National Archive and on a website, The Photography of Ed Westcott.

In my view, there is magic in uncovering untold history. If you have ever wondered how the US pulled off the development of the atomic bomb, here it is. And the story that is told about the women and men who operated in total secrecy “to help end the war” really is important in understanding the war being fought on the homefront in the later stages of WWII.