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Author: Jyotsna Sreenivasan

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

I kept hearing what a great book Life After Life was, but at first I found it confusing because of the sudden shifts in time and place. It took me three tries to settle into this book, and I’m so glad I stuck with it. Life After Life is an unusual, gripping, thought-provoking book.

The book begins in 1930 in Germany. A young Englishwoman sits at a café table with Adolf Hitler, before his rise to infamy. She eats a dessert, pulls out a gun, and shoots at Hitler as his companions take aim at her. Then “darkness fell,” a recurring refrain in the book.

It turns out that Ursula Todd has the strange ability to re-live her life over and over again. After she presumably dies in Germany while attempting to assassinate Hitler, she is born in 1910 in the English countryside. She dies immediately. She is also saved from death. She dies and is revived again and again in the book, and relives her life in slightly changing form each time. She is only dimly aware of this, and is in fact sent to a psychiatrist because of her strange thoughts about the past and future. “Her memories seemed like a cascade of echoes,” she thinks at one point (p. 153).

The driving question in the book is, how does an average English young woman get to the point of trying to assassinate Hitler? Author Kate Atkinson has created a set of vivid, engaging characters who surround Ursula as she lives through World War I and World War II. Another interesting aspect is the puzzle of her many lives. Atkinson has somehow managed to make Ursula’s changing storyline understandable.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of the ending (plenty of fodder for a book club discussion). Atkinson has written a sequel, A God in Ruins, which follows the story of Ursula’s beloved brother Teddy.

For more information about Kate Atkinson, check out her web site, from which I copied the above author photo.

Historical Novellas for Women’s History Month

Historical Novellas for Women’s History Month

I love novellas (short novels under about 200 pages). They combine the depth of a novel with the intensity of a short story. In honor of Women’s History Month, here are my favorite historical novellas by and about women.

 

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, by Maryse Conde

The real Tituba, a Caribbean slave, was accused of witchcraft in late 17th century Salem, Massachusetts. Based on this tiny bit of information, Conde crafts a larger-than-life character and follows her from conception to death and beyond.


The Wife of Martin Guerre, by Janet Lewis

In the French countryside of the 1500s, Bertrande must decide if the man who has returned to her is really her husband, or an imposter. This novella has inspired two movies.

 

Property, by Valerie Martin

During a slave revolt in pre-Civil War Louisiana, a white woman slave owner must make some decisions about herself and her slave, Sarah. Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction by a female author (now called the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction).

 

Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys

Inspired by the “madwoman in the attic” of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, this is the story of Antoinette Mason, from her lonely childhood in Jamaica, to her marriage to Edward Rochester, and ending with her insanity and confinement to the attic.

 

Two Old Women, by Velma Wallis

Based on an Athabaskan Indian legend, this novel follows two old women who get left behind by their tribe and attempt to survive the winter alone. An engaging adventure.

Cane River, by Lalita Tademy

Cane River, by Lalita Tademy

The novel Cane River is so closely based on Lalita Tademy’s ancestors that she includes family photographs, documents, and newspaper clippings. In 1995, Tademy quit her job as a vice president of Sun Microsystems so she could research her family’s history and write a novel. Cane River was published in 2001.

Tademy starts her novel with the story of a woman seven generations removed from herself: Elisabeth, a slave in the early 1800’s on a plantation along Cane River in Louisiana. The novel is divided into three sections, each bearing the name of one of Tademy’s female ancestors: Suzette, Philomene, and Emily.

Elisabeth and her daughter Suzette work in the house of a French-speaking Creole family. Suzette is a companion to the family’s daughter, and in fact prepares for and goes through First Communion with the children of white families. However, her status as a slave is soon brought home to her: she is repeatedly raped by a Frenchman and bears him two children, one of whom is Philomene.

This begins a process of “whitening” that continues for generations, and in fact some of the women are described as “color-struck”: proud of their descendants’ light-colored skin. Philomene is persuaded to enter into a long-term relationship with a white slave-owner. Her daughter Emily, born during the Civil War and educated at a convent, falls in love with a white man. Emily’s children are so light-skinned that they could pass for white, and some of them do just that. However, Tademy’s grandfather (Emily’s son), who looked white, chose to marry a brown-skinned woman.

The novel takes us into the imagined lives of these women as they live through enslavement, the Civil War, and its aftermath. The women struggle with slavery, prejudice, and miscegenation laws. Tademy includes sections from the points of view of some of the men in the women’s lives, to give us a more complete picture of life in that era.

Cane River is a fascinating narrative of the lives of African-American women in a French-speaking region of the southern USA. The author photo above is from Tademy’s web site.

Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters

Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters

What was it like to be a lesbian in late Victorian London? Sarah Waters gives us some idea through her character Nancy Astley, who grew up in her parents’ seaside oyster restaurant and becomes enamored, at age 18, with a cross-dressing performer, Kitty Butler, at the local theater. Nancy soon becomes Kitty’s dresser and then, once they move to London, her co-star. Nancy and Kitty begin a hesitant romance which they are desperate to keep under wraps. Kitty, especially, does not want to admit to being a “tom”– the slang word for a lesbian at that time.

Tipping the Velvet is told in the first person by Nancy, but from the vantage point of 20 years later, so we get a sense of what life was like for her in the moment, as well as the wisdom and distance of maturity. Here is a paragraph from the first chapter:

The Palace was small and, I suspect, a rather shabby theatre; but when I see it in my memories I see it still with my oyster-girl’s eye—I see the mirror-glass which lined the walls, the crimson plush upon the seats, the plaster cupids, painted gold, which swooped above the curtain. Like our oyster-house, it had its own particular scent—the scent, I know now, of music halls everywhere—the scent of wood and grease-paint and spilling beer, of gas and tobacco and hair-oil, all combined. It was a scent which as a girl I loved uncritically; later I heard it described, by theatre managers and artistes, as the smell of laughter, the very odour of applause. Later still I came to know it as the essence not of pleasure, but of grief.

I don’t want to give away the intricate plot of this novel, but let me just say that the story is broken into three parts, and in each part Nancy experiences a vastly different aspect of lesbian life in London, complete with different characters and settings. Through the seven years covered by the novel, Nancy must decide what kind of person she wants to be. She must make decisions on her own, with maturity, instead of just allowing circumstances to dictate her life.

Tipping the Velvet, first published in 1998, was Sarah Waters’ first novel. I reviewed her latest (The Paying Guests) in an earlier post, and was enthralled with her deft and detailed characters and their intriguing story. This novel, although an earlier effort, does not disappoint. While I found a few of the scenes to be overly long, and the ending to be a bit contrived, for the most part readers will find carefully drawn characters, detailed settings, eloquent prose, and a plot with plenty of emotion and action. Waters has been compared to Charles Dickens because of the richness and variety of her characters and her complex stories.

Tipping the Velvet has been adapted for TV and stage. The photo above is from Sarah Waters’ US web site.

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

First published in 1982, The Color Purple turns 35 this year (2017). The novel won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and was made into an award-winning movie in 1985. The photo above is from the cover of her biography, Alice Walker: A Life.

The time and place of this novel are obscure at first, because the narrator is an uneducated young woman who doesn’t supply this information. The details of her life give us clues: this is a time after slavery — Celie’s family owns their own house and land — but before the widespread use of automobiles. Horses and blacksmiths are still prevalent. So we can conclude that the book starts in the early twentieth century. Towards the end of the book, after many years have passed, a character mentions that World War II has begun. Eventually we learn that the place is a small town in Georgia.

Celie tells her story through letters she writes to God. As a teen, she was raped by her father, and her two children have been taken away. The father then forces her to marry a widower with several children. Worse, Celie’s sister Nettie leaves and is never heard from. Celie doesn’t rebel, but puts up with everything and works hard. Her life changes when her husband’s mistress, Sugar “Shug” Avery, comes to stay. Celie and Shug, who is a wealthy singer, develop a close relationship.

Celie’s letters capture the pronunciation and word choice of the African-American dialect she uses:

Dear God,
He act like he can’t stand me no more. Say I’m evil an always up to no good. He took my other little baby, a boy this time. But I don’t think he kilt it. I think he sold it to a man an his wife over Monticello. I got breasts full of milk running down myself. He say Why don’t you look decent? Put on something. But what I’m sposed to put on? I don’t have nothing.

In the meantime, Nettie has been taken in by a missionary couple and has gone with them to Liberia to be a missionary. Celie’s husband hides Nettie’s letters, and when they are eventually found, Nettie’s story provides a broader perspective of the experiences of African-American women.

Although I found the novel somewhat preachy and long-winded towards the end, the story is compelling and the characters are engaging. The Color Purple has been hailed as a feminist classic, and its powerful messages are still relevant today.

Mary Reilly, by Valerie Martin

Mary Reilly, by Valerie Martin

Mary Reilly is a maid in the house of Dr. Henry Jekyll. Through her eyes, we witness the mysterious actions of Jekyll and his evil “assistant,” Mr. Edward Hyde. Even if you have not read Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you are likely familiar with the basic story: the benevolent Dr. Jekyll has found a drug that allows him to transform into his evil twin, Mr. Hyde, in order to allow his baser instincts to play out.

Mary does not know that Jekyll and Hyde are one and the same. She idolizes her employer, who takes an interest in her life story: as a child, she was severely abused by her alcoholic father.

Much of Mary’s life revolves around the details of housekeeping, and we become intimately familiar with what it takes to keep an upper-class Victorian household running smoothly: making fires, scrubbing floors, beating carpets, serving meals. Mary is compelled to take part in Jekyll’s scheme when he tasks her with carrying secret notes to Mrs. Farraday, keeper of a brothel, who for a fee will rent a room to Mr. Hyde. Mary is bewildered by her employer’s actions, as well as by the diabolical appearance of Mr. Hyde in the middle of the night. She experiences a visceral revulsion to Hyde, who reminds her of her own evil father.

The novel is told in the form of a diary that Mary keeps. Unusual for a maid at that time, she is literate. An “afterword” purports to be the account of how the diaries were found and prepared for publication.

I found the novel to be gripping as I wondered whether Mary would figure out what was really going on. I also found it fascinating to learn about Victorian England from the perspective of a working-class woman. Mary Reilly, first published in 1990, was made into a movie in 1996 starring Julia Roberts.

The Tall Woman, by Wilma Dykeman

The Tall Woman, by Wilma Dykeman

The Tall Woman, first published in 1962, is a classic of Appalachian literature. At the time of her birth, author Wilma Dykeman’s family had resided in the mountains of North Carolina for generations, and the novel takes place in these mountains during and after the Civil War.

The novel follows the main character, Lydia, from young womanhood to death. Shortly after their marriage her husband, Mark, decides to join the war effort on the Union side, while her father and brothers fight for the Confederacy. There are no hard feelings within her own family due to Mark’s decision, largely because slavery seems not to exist in this area, and they are fighting more out of loyalty than strong convictions to one side or the other.

Outliers and marauders from both sides steal from the families in the area. In an early scene, outliers take the farm animals from Lydia’s parents’ home, and Lydia’s mother, Sarah, is tortured to get her to tell the marauders where she has hidden her family’s stores of meat. Sarah is never the same again. Lydia and Mark believe that someone in the community betrayed them, pointing the criminals in their direction for some reason.

Once the war ends, Lydia and Mark buy land and build a home deeper into the mountains. Much of the book concerns the work Lydia does in her home and on the farm, the children she bears and raises, her efforts to earn some money, and the community members she interacts with. At times the family struggles to make a living, and tough decisions must be made: whether to divert land into the cash crop of tobacco; how to help a child who’s mentally disabled; how to pay for higher education; and even whether to leave the community.

About a third of the way through the book I almost stopped reading because Lydia seemed so passive, reacting to what was happening around her but not taking much independent action. However, I kept reading, and not only did the story pick up, but I also realized that this novel is not so much about one woman as about the entire community she is part of.

Lydia wants bring a school to her community, and she pursues this goal despite many setbacks. Towards the end, Lydia witnesses a dramatic revelation that suggests a path forward for her school, if she’s willing to take brave action.

By the poignant end of the book I’d come to know and love these characters. For more information on Wilma Dykeman, see her biographical entry at the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. The above photo of Dykeman is from the Mountain Express of Asheville, NC, which hosts a Wilma Dykeman birthday celebration in May.

Peony, by Pearl S. Buck

Peony, by Pearl S. Buck

Pearl S. Buck, the daughter of Protestant missionaries, was raised in China during the first part of the 20th century. She wrote over 65 books, including many novels set in China. She is best known for The Good Earth, first published in 1931. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. The photo above is from the cover of a DVD about her life: Pearl S. Buck: A Life, A Legacy

I read The Good Earth many years ago, but had not revisited Buck’s books until recently, and I am so glad to have rediscovered her. Peony, first published in 1948, is full of nuanced characters and complex cultural situations, besides being an engaging story.

The novel is named after Peony, a bondmaid in the home of a Jewish family in Kaifeng, China in the 1800s. Yes, there really were Jews in China, although at the time of this novel they are in danger of disappearing as a separate culture. The central dilemma of the book is whether the son of the family, David, will marry Leah, the daughter of the only other prominent Jewish family in town, or will take a Chinese wife. David’s father, Ezra, who is half-Chinese, is eager to see David married to the daughter of his Chinese business partner. David’s mother insists that he marry Leah and become rabbi to their synagogue, since there is no one else to take the old rabbi’s place.

Peony, a smart and beautiful young woman, is in love with David herself, but assumes that she has little hope of marrying him. However, using her intelligence and guile, as well as her strong bond with David, she can try to engineer the situation to her advantage. Although Peony is a bondmaid, bought by Ezra when she was a small child, she is in fact the very capable manager of the household.

Besides the well-drawn main characters, the novel is full of vivid minor characters: Ezra’s business partner; the elderly maid; the rabbi’s good-for-nothing son; and even a tiny dog that lives in the household.

Peony includes details of both the Jewish traditions and Chinese customs that the family participates in. I’m assuming that everyone in the novel is speaking Chinese, since by then the Jews had been in China for generations. They are described as wearing Chinese clothing at times, and at other times Jewish-style clothing decorated with Chinese embroidery.

The novel follows Peony’s life until her old age. She must make difficult decisions as she strives to do her job well and to make a place for herself in a situation in which she seems to have no secure place and no one to depend on. This is a fascinating novel of how individual choices affect a family and an entire culture. It is also a historically accurate portrayal of a minority culture existing peacefully within a larger culture.

For more about Pearl S. Buck – her books, her life, and her humanitarian work – check out Pearl S. Buck International.

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, was inspired by the story of escaped slave Margaret Garner, who killed her own child when she and her family were about to be recaptured by slave-hunters. In an interview in the New York Times, Morrison says that while she became fascinated by Garner’s story, she also wanted to be free to create the character herself. ”Now I didn’t do any more research at all about that story. I did a lot of research about everything else in the book—Cincinnati, and abolitionists, and the underground railroad—but I refused to find out anything else about Margaret Garner. I really wanted to invent her life.”

Beloved seeks to answer the question: what would drive a woman to kill her own child? And what would her life be like afterwards?

The story starts about 18 years after the killing. Sethe, the mother, lives with one surviving daughter, Denver, in a house on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio. A guest arrives—a former slave from Sweet Home, the plantation in Kentucky where they both had lived. Paul D. is astonished that Sethe’s house is apparently haunted: a red light appears from nowhere, and the house shakes, tossing furniture into the air. Paul D. manages to exorcise the ghost.

Soon after, a new visitor arrives at the house: a mysterious young woman who cannot tell them where she is from. She says only that her name is “Beloved.” This word is the only one Sethe had managed to get engraved on her dead daughter’s headstone, and it soon becomes apparent that the young woman is indeed the dead daughter come back.

The backstory comes out in fits and starts: the new, cruel overseer of Sweet Home, who spurred the slaves to escape; the separation of the slaves as their plans unraveled; the journey of the pregnant Sethe across the Ohio River to Cincinnati; and the event that caused her to murder her daughter and attempt to kill her other children.

The timeline of this novel is not linear, perhaps to reflect Sethe’s state of mind: she lives in the past with the crime she has committed, as well as in the present. Although clearly set in 1873, the story seems timeless, and the tense shifts occasionally from past to present. The point of view also shifts: from omniscient, to third person (Sethe, or Paul D., or Denver) to first person (Sethe’s inner thoughts).

Mystery is worked into the novel in a matter-of-fact way. Here is the first appearance of the being that calls herself Beloved:

A fully dressed woman walked out of the water. She barely gained the dry bank of the stream before she sat down and leaned against a mulberry tree. All day and all night she sat there, her head resting on the trunk in a position abandoned enough to crack the brim of her straw hat. . . . Nobody saw her emerge or came accidentally by. If they had, chances are they would have hesitated before approaching her. Not because she was wet, or dozing or had what sounded like asthma, but because amid all that she was smiling.

Reading Morrison’s novel Beloved is a challenging but rewarding experience.

Pope Joan, by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Pope Joan, by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Did you know there may have been a female Pope in the 800’s? According to Pope Joan, which is based on historical clues, such a person could have existed. Donna Woolfolk Cross brings Pope John (or Joan) to life, from her birth to her death, and constructs plausible and engaging scenarios to explain how Joan became educated and was able to hide her gender until she reached the pinnacle of power in medieval Christianity.

Joan was born in Ingelheim, which is in present-day Germany. A map of the region would have been helpful. As she grows up, she is fascinated by both the pre-Christian Norse myths that her Saxon mother tells, as well as the Latin her older brother is learning. She persuades her brother to teach her to read and write in secret. She impresses a visiting Greek scholar, who convinces her father that she should be tutored. When her tutor leaves, he secures a place for Joan in a boarding school in Dorstadt, where she is taken in by a wealthy knight and his family. At this point Joan is still known as a female, and has to combat discrimination, teasing, and shunning based on her gender.

When Vikings sack the town of Dorstadt, Joan miraculously escapes death. She puts on her dead brother’s clothes, cuts her hair, and sets out to live as a man. She travels to the monastery that her brother was to have joined, and passes herself off as him. This was not as difficult as it sounds, given the all-encompassing clothing worn by monks, and the fact that monks rarely bathed and were not to expose their bodies to anyone. Eventually she made her way to Rome. I found a map on Google Maps that traces her journey from her birthplace to Rome.

Joan is an appealing character, although sometimes she seems too politically correct in a modern sense. The story is taut with the challenges she must face and overcome. Towards the end of the book, there are several chapters of political intrigue and historical events in which Joan is more of an observer, and these chapters were not as satisfying. In addition, some events and motivations seem shoe-horned into the plot in order to explain how her gender was unmasked. Finally, the focus returns to Joan, and the book ends on an inspiring note.

A German movie based on this book was released in 2009. For more information about the facts behind the book, as well as the author, please check out Donna Woolfolk Cross’s web site.