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.

 

Reading local, Cape Cod style

  • UnknownThe Widow’s War by Sally Gunning (William Morrow, 2007)
  • In 40 words or less: Lyddie Berry, widowed after a whaling mishap, asserts her rights to one-third of her husband’s estate. Though legal, this decision has harsh consequences within her family and community. Gunning provides a detailed portrayal of the difficult life in mid-eighteenth century Cape Cod.
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • Locale: Satucket, MA
  • Time: 1760s
  • Read this to see the hardships of life in colonial America and the tremendous strictures of the society.IMG_4340

On my recent vacation to Cape Cod and the Berkshires, I visited Eight Cousins bookshop in Falmouth. As is my custom, I asked the bookseller for suggestions on a fiction title by a local author with a local feel. Her recommendation of The Widow’s War was right on target. Sally Gunning’s love for the Cape and its history comes through from page one. What differs in this novel from many others is the focus on the legally subservient role of women in the colonies and the prejudice against Indians living among the settlers.

Lyddie Berry is a strong woman who has run a household for months at a time while her husband, Edward, was at sea. Theirs was a loving relationship despite the strains of multiple miscarriages and the deaths of all but one of their children in infancy. Mehitable, their daughter, recently married a respected widower in the community and was establishing her own household.

When whales are spotted in the bay, the ships leave in a flurry and all the men return safely except for Edward. Their neighbor and friend, Sam Cowett, an Indian, makes every effort to save him but is unsuccessful. Now the Widow Berry, Lyddie is forced to recast her life.

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Edward’s will provided for Lyddie as best possible at that time. The home and all properties go to the nearest male relative, Mehitable’s husband Mr. Clarke, with Lyddie to be given life tenancy to a third of the home plus support to come from the proceeds of the legacy. Edward’s solicitor, Mr. Freeman was a fierce advocate for Lyddie’s rights which Mr. Clarke sought to subvert. To support herself, Lyddie  nursed Sam Cowett’s ailing wife and served as his housekeeper for a period after her death. As an Indian, Sam was an outsider in the community and her alignment with him damages Lyddie’s reputation. Day to day survival overtakes her observance of the Sabbath which further estranges her.

The strengths of this novel are the detailed descriptions of daily life and the societal hierarchy within the community. Using the conflicts within the Berry/Clarke family as the background, the roles of wives, mothers and widows are clear.  Gunning carefully portrays the shrinking of the Indian presence in the local area as the consequence of selling land for supplies. Sam Cowett remained the lone reminder of the Indian landholders and his friendship/partnership with Edward Berry a thorn in the side of the community.

Whether your interest is in colonial America, whaling in Cape Cod, feminism in early America or just a good story, The Widow’s War holds its own.

‘Everyone Brave is Forgiven’ deserves a place on your nightstand

IN A NUTSHELLUnknown - Version 2

  • Unknown-5Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave (Simon & Schuster, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Mary, a privileged Londoner, volunteers for the war effort. Cleave brings to life the personal effects of the Blitz and the war’s early campaigns on Mary and those closest to her. The imperfections of the characters bring depth to the story.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: London, France, Malta, Algeria
  • Time: 1938-42
  • Read this for a glimpse at the early British involvement in WWII. Cleave takes on class distinctions, racism and the high personal toll on those on the home front as well as on the battlefield.

Before, life had been a tradition, a tendency to forgiveness, a regression to the mean… A child was lost as easily as a shilling. And once one had understood that, though one’s heart continued to beat, one was never entirely alive again. She knew, now, why her father had not spoken of the last war, nor Alistair of this. It was hardly fair on the living. (p.268)

Chris Cleave made his mark on US readers when Little Bee was published here in 2009. In his latest novel, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, class, racism and power again play major roles in the story. Mary North is a daughter of London’s elite but with a mind of her own. When war is declared she enlists, only to find herself assigned to help ferry children from London to the countryside to escape the expected bombardment. For some of the children, life in the country is not meant to be, and several end up as the only pupils in an urban school with Mary as their teacher.

Elsewhere in London, a school administrator and an art conservator share a garret apartment. Alistair, the conservator enlists and is sent to France; Tom is put in charge of Mary’s school. As the bombing of London begins the men’s letters tell the story of the great changes occurring in Europe. Mary is far from the classical teacher and reaches out to her small band of students, each of whom would stand out in a regular classroom. She takes particular interest in Zachary, a bright African-Amerian student who is unable to read and has a tendency to run at the least provocation. As Mary and Tom develop a personal relationship, Mary’s advocacy for Zachary is a point of contention.

When Alistair returns disheartened from France before being posted to Malta, Tom, Mary and Mary’s friend, Hilda, plan an evening out to raise his spirits. The evening ends in a shelter during a bombing, with Mary following him above ground to turn over his duffel before he rejoins his regiment. This brief, chaste encounter changes all their lives.Unknown

As the war continues, roles change as does the landscape of London. The foursome is wounded physically and emotionally. Bonds are broken. The weak show resiliency and the strong learn that no one is immune from the ravages of despair.

What differentiates Cleave’s story is his careful picking at society’s prejudices. Racism, the power of rank and class, friendship and familial allegiance are all intrinsically part of the narrative in this rich historical novel.