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Tag: biographical novels

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.

Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls calls Half Broke Horses a “true-life novel” because although she based it on the life of her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, she tells the story in first person (re-creating Lily’s voice) and she also imagined details to fill in the gaps of the real story.

In the author’s note at the end of the book, Walls says, “My grandmother was quite a character.” She is indeed. Her voice jumps off every page as we follow her through the adventures of her childhood, youth, and middle age in the American southwest in the first half of the twentieth century. The opening chapter tells of how Lily, 10 years old, saves herself and her siblings when they get caught in a flash flood on their family’s homestead in Texas. Lily is integral to the success of the family’s fortunes: from the age of five, she has been helping her physically disabled father to train carriage horses.

When the family moves to New Mexico, Lily is allowed to attend a Catholic boarding school, which she loves. However, after just half a year, her father fails to pay the tuition and she has to go home. She discovers that her father has used the tuition money to buy four Great Danes from Sweden. Lily is furious, but has to accept the situation. Drawing on her Catholic faith, she looks for the door that God is said to open when he closes a window, and jumps at the chance to take a test to become a teacher. She passes, and at the age of 15, rides her horse 500 miles through New Mexico into Arizona, to teach in a one-room schoolhouse. Because of World War I, teachers are in short supply.

From this point on, Lily supports herself, visiting her family only occasionally. When her first job ends with the end of the war, Lily decides to seek her fortune in Chicago. I loved tagging along on the ride of Lily’s life. Although the way is sometimes bumpy, she doesn’t let it stop her from pursuing her goals, whether learning to drive an automobile, finishing her education, taking flying lessons, or figuring out how to make ends meet during the Great Depression. As the title suggests, Lily’s life is half-way between the freedom and danger of being wild, and the safety, rules and strictures of civilization.

Lily, a born teacher, tells the stories of her life to her daughter Rosemary, in the hopes that Rosemary will learn from them. Rosemary, in turn, tells these stories to her daughter—Jeannette Walls. Although Lily died when Jeannette was only eight, her memory and stories remained in the family, and now, thanks to the sure-footed writing of Jeannette Walls, we can all benefit from spending time with the determined, energetic, resourceful, and big-hearted Lily Casey Smith.

In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez

In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez

What gives people the courage to risk their lives for political freedom? That question spurred Julia Alvarez to write In the Time of the Butterflies based on the true story of the four Mirabal sisters, three of whom were activists with the code name “butterflies” in mid-twentieth century Dominican Republic. Alvarez, who is from the Dominican Republic, became interested in their stories because of the parallels with her own family: her father had also been involved in underground activities against the brutal Trujillo, and the three activist sisters were murdered just months after Alvarez’s family escaped to the United States.

Alvarez’s re-telling humanizes these legendary women. The story is told through the voices of all four sisters, starting in 1938, when Minerva Mirabal learns about Trujillo’s crimes from a classmate whose family members have been murdered. Although the sisters are known for their political activism, we get to know them as daughters, friends, wives, and mothers. Alvarez makes each sister unique: Patria, the eldest, cares most about her Catholic faith and her husband and children; Dedé is the organized, practical one who takes charge of the family store; Minerva struggles to become a lawyer and never backs down; and Maria Teresa is interested in young men, clothes, and following in the footsteps of Minerva.

The structure of the novel is unique and effective. It is divided into three parts, each beginning with Dedé, the only surviving sister, speaking to a Dominican-American visitor in 1994, and continuing with a memory from Dedé’s point of view. Then, each sister tells a portion of the story in her own voice. We learn what pushed each woman to become involved in the underground revolution despite the danger. Although the sisters are fighting against a brutal dictator, there are moments of humor, such as the sisters’ nicknames for prison guards, and their descriptions of pompous government officials.

Despite the tragedy, the ending is beautiful and poignant. I became so interested in the real sisters behind this novel that I looked them up. The real Dedé died in 2014. Some children of the sisters have become politicians in a democratic Dominican Republic. The day of their death, November 25, has been designated by the United Nations as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Jubilee, by Margaret Walker

Jubilee, by Margaret Walker

If you are looking for a non-racist alternative to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, here it is: Jubilee. Written by an African-American woman and first published in 1966, Jubilee is a fictionalized account of the author’s great-grandmother’s experiences before, during, and after the Civil War.

The photo above shows Walker’s great-grandmother, the “Vyry” of the novel. She took after her white slave-owner father in the color of her skin. I found this photo on the U Space Gallery web site.

Jubilee covers the same time period as Gone with the Wind; they both take place in Georgia; they are both based on family stories passed down; and they both showcase strong women characters. However, unlike Gone with the Wind, which is told from the point of view of white slave owners, Jubilee is told largely from the point of view of African-Americans. While Gone with the Wind insists that blacks were better off enslaved, and includes black characters who claim they don’t want to be free, Jubilee shows the true struggles of blacks, whether they were born free, or born into slavery and freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.

Jubilee is the better novel in many ways. In addition to its focus on African-American experiences, it includes sections showing the thoughts and experiences of slave owners and poor, struggling white families, so readers get a more complete, accurate view of the time period. While towards the end Gone with the Wind suffers from a rushed and overly compressed story line, Jubilee is well developed throughout.

Jubilee follows the story of Vyry, the daughter of a black slave mother and her white slave owner. As mentioned above, Vyry looks white and bears a strong resemblance to her half-sister Lillian, who is the master’s daughter by his white wife. However, the master never acknowledges Vyry as his daughter, and continues to enslave her, even allowing her to be whipped. Vyry wants to marry a free black man, Randall Ware, but her master won’t allow it. Randall flees north and joins the Union Army.

Will Vyry and Randall be united after the war? Will Vyry manage to send her children to school? The novel answers these questions while also showing the day-to-day struggles of Vyry before and during the war, and as she tries to find a place to settle down after the war ends. Jubilee is the classic Civil War novel everyone should be reading. And 2016, being the 50th anniversary of its original publication, is the perfect year to read this book.

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé, a writer of African-Caribbean heritage, expands on the story of Tituba, the black slave from Barbados accused of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. In an interview printed at the back of the book, Condé reveals that she learned about Tituba by accident when she got lost in a library. She became curious, and sought more facts about her life. Finding very little, Condé says “I decided I was going to write her story out of my own dreams” (p. 199).

Originally written in French, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem imagines the entire life of Tituba, from her conception on a ship to Barbados, to her move to Massachusetts, and to her death and beyond, within the space of 179 pages. It is unusual for a short novel to cover such a broad span of time and multiple settings. In addition, the book includes fantastical elements. After Tituba’s mother dies, she is raised by a woman versed in healing and magic, who teaches her to communicate with the dead, among other skills. As a result, Tituba’s dead relatives are frequent visitors.

Tituba tells her own story in first person in a fast-paced, sometimes mocking way: she can see the humor of her often tragic situations from beyond the curtain of death. If you’re looking for a novel that reveals Tituba as a misunderstood victim, this is not the book. Tituba is compassionate when it suits her, but she is also at times vengeful, and sometimes makes bad decisions despite the advice of her relatives from the beyond. Condé also plays with the idea of a “historical” novel by including a fictional character, Hester Prynne, in the middle, and by making Tituba aware of how she is portrayed (or ignored) in history and how she is remembered by future generations.

Given what I knew of the Salem witch trials, I expected a realistic, heavy, long novel. What I got was a dash through the life of an extraordinary woman who is determined not to be forgotten.

Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites is based on the almost mythic Icelandic true story of 34-year-old Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman beheaded in public in Iceland (in 1830). The author, Hannah Kent, was a teenaged Australian exchange student in Iceland when she first heard about the execution of Agnes, and became fascinated. She then spent many years visiting Iceland and researching the story of this woman through oral histories and government records.

The jacket copy for this book is a little misleading: “Charged with the brutal murder of two men, Agnes Magnusdottir has been moved to her homeland’s farthest reaches, to an isolated farm in northern Iceland, to await execution.” From this it sounds like the murders were committed in a more populated part of Iceland, and that Agnes was moved to a remote area that was unknown to her. In fact, the murders happened in an even more isolated, even more northern part of Iceland. There were no jails in this part of the country, so Agnes was housed in the homes of district officials. After sentencing, she was in fact moved to the valley in which she had grown up, to a farm where she had worked as housemaid for a previous family.

The story is told through several points of view: Agnes tells us her memories in first person; the reactions of the people around her are in third person; and interspersed throughout the novel are government documents and poems written about, to, and from Agnes. I found the novel full of suspense from the beginning: did Agnes really commit these murders? How will the family react to her being housed with them? Why did Agnes request a young priest who does not know her to help her prepare for the execution? What is Agnes really like? What was her relationship to the murdered men? These answers are revealed slowly, painting a fascinating and complex picture of the character and actions of Agnes. Almost every main character who encounters Agnes changes as a result.

In addition to the nuanced characters, the novel is also compelling for its detailed descriptions of the scenery and life of northern Iceland in the early 1800’s: the endless work, the harsh weather, and the objects of daily life. A map of the region and a pronunciation guide are helpful. I also listened to part of the audiobook for the pronunciation of names and places. The writing style is simple, direct, and spare, yet full of emotion.

Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier

Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier

I first read Remarkable Creatures several years ago while researching books for a blog post on Women Scientists in Novels. It features two women fossil hunters in the small English seaside town of Lyme Regis in the early 1800’s. When I read it again to prepare this review, I enjoyed it all over again.

The novel is based on two real women fossil hunters: Mary Anning (a working-class woman who discovered complete skeletons of ichthyosaurus, plesiosaurus, and other ancient animals) and Elizabeth Philpot (an upper-class woman who is known for her collection of fossil fish). Chevalier used their real friendship as a basis of her story, including actual details such as the fact that Mary survived a lightning strike as a baby. The story is told in alternating chapters from the first-person points of view of Mary and Elizabeth.

After the death of her father, 11-year-old Mary and her family struggle to make a living by finding and selling “curies” (fossils, which were called “curiosities”) to tourists. Mary is especially good at spotting fossils. Elizabeth, a grown woman, moves with her sisters to Lyme Regis from London in order to live within the means of their inheritance, and she develops an interest in the fossils littering the beach. Despite the difference in age and social class, the two become close friends based on their shared interest in fossils. The novel follows them for several years, as Mary grows up and Elizabeth grows older.

Conflicts arise around religion (is the universe much older than the Bible suggests?); gender roles (men collectors often buy from Mary and then pass off the skeletons and fossils as their own); marriage vs. spinsterhood (Mary falls in love with an upper-class collector and hopes to avoid the stigma of being a spinster like Elizabeth); and science (are Mary’s bizarre skeletons truly creatures from another era, or are they hoaxes?).

Chevalier does a great job of evoking the small, hilly town of Lyme Regis and its fossil-strewn cliffs and beaches. Here is Elizabeth’s first description of the beach where she will spend so much time:

It is as if there are two villages side by side, connected by a small sandy beach, where the bathing machines are lined up, awaiting an influx of visitors. The other Lyme, at the west end of the beach, doesn’t shun, but embraces the sea. It is dominated by the Cobb, a long gray stone wall that curves like a finger out into the water and shelters the shore, creating a tranquil harbor for the fishing boats and trading ships that come from all over. The Cobb is several feet high, and wide enough for three to walk along arm in arm, which many visitors do, for it gives a fine view back to the town and the dramatic shoreline beyond of rolling hills and cliffs in green, gray, and brown. (p. 13)

Chevalier used real names throughout the book, and this caused me some confusion, because many of the men have names that start with “B” (Bullock, Birch, Buckland) and I had trouble keeping them apart.

Remarkable Creatures would be a good companion read to Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which takes place in the same time period, and one section of which is set in Lyme Regis. I love Jane Austen’s novels. However, it is certainly refreshing to read about women of that era who are not fixated on marriage, but are devoted to their own interests and their own work.