Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Baker's Dozen Books for Women's History Month, 2014

In honor of women and Women's History Month I'm sharing 13 books I've read over the past several years that focus on the lives of women who lived in earlier times.  Each book gave me bits of wisdom (sometimes great chunks of wisdom) and occasionally enlightened me about the situations in which some of my ancestors may have lived.  For some of the books I've included quotes and if I posted about them earlier, I've included a link.    

A Midwife's Tale:  The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785--1812
by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.
     Martha Ballard was 50 in 1785 when she started her diary.  She wrote daily, usually just a few sentences:  always about the weather; usually about her comings and goings; the births and deaths attended; her house and garden work; and sometimes about the events in the community around her.   I love the interpretations and discussion which follow the diary entries in each chapter.  The author's words add further light and insight.
       I think Martha Ballard is a hero to me.  She was such a faithful woman.  She served so many people in so many ways.  She was spunky:  she was still digging in her garden, starting new beds, and planting until she was 76, a year before she died.  I think she was an amazing woman.
       I loved this book.

Little Heathens:  Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression by Mildred Armstrong Kalish
     This was a fun book.  I enjoyed the author’s writing style and the experiences she shared.  She included recipes, homemaking tips, etc.  She said she grew up thinking that certain expressions were one word:  agoodwoman, hardearnedmoney, agoodhardworker, alittleheathen, agoodwoolshirt.  Worth the read.

Annie’s Ghosts:  A Journey Into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg
     I wrote about this book in a previous post.  Here's one quote from the book with which many family historians can identify:  “All it takes is one--one name, one address, one correct piece of information–to wipe away weeks of frustration.”

Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey by Lillian Schlissel
     Great book!  I have so much appreciation for those women.  Just amazing some of the experiences they had.  One of the women, Amelia Stewart Knight, was 3 months pregnant when they started the journey and nearly due toward the end when she was climbing up a mountain over rock, and back down the other side of the mountain.  One woman talked about 3 days of rain with children and a newborn baby and nowhere to get dry.  Another woman said that when they finally arrived to their destination, her husband drove her to the barren land on which sat a tiny sod hut and said something like, “Isn’t that the most beautiful sight you’ve ever seen?”  The women never mentioned being pregnant in their journals/letters.  The nearest they came was to say “ill.”  Amazing women!!!
In the end, a woman who came through the journey felt she had won her own victory.  The test of the journey was whether or not she had been equal to the task of holding her family together against the sheer physical forces that threatened to spin them to the four winds of chance.  It was against the continual threat of dissolution that the women had striven.

Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart   
     Elinore was a spunky lady and a great story-teller, but beyond that, she had a very positive outlook which shone through in her letters.  And such experiences!  She moved to Wyoming in 1909 as a young, widowed mother of a 2-year-old to be a housekeeper for a rancher.  She determined to file her own claim for land and make a go of it.  She married the rancher, but more, she also succeeded in claiming land and growing enough food to feed her family for a year.
When you think of me, you must think of me as one who is truly happy.  It is true, I want a great many things I have n’t got, but I don’t want them enough to be discontented and not enjoy the many blessings that are mine.  I have my home among the blue mountains, my health, well-formed children, my clean, honest husband, my kind, gentle milk cows, my garden which I make myself.  I have loads and loads of flowers which I tend myself.  There are lots of chickens, turkeys, and pigs which are my own special care.  I have some slow old gentle horses and an old wagon.  I can load up the kiddies and go where I please any time.  I have the best, kindest neighbors and I have my dear absent friends.  Do you wonder I am so happy?  When I think of it all, I wonder how I can crowd all my joy into one short life.

The Girl from Botany Bay by Carolly Erickson
     Mary Broad, a young Cornish woman in the late 1700s, was sentenced to death by hanging for stealing a silk bonnet, jewelry, and other valuables.  Her sentence was commuted to 7 years transportation to Australia.  Interesting but sad story.  We don’t get to “know” Mary as we sometimes get to know others from earlier time periods because there was not a lot written about her.  Worth the read.

Bold Spirit.  Helga Espby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America by Linda Lawrence Hunt   
     Hunt put Helga in time and place and shares it all with us.  Helga walked across America with her daughter to earn $10,000 to save her home and farm from foreclosure.  And then her story was silenced until the smallest thread was found and shared by one of Helga’s great-grandchildren.  Hunt includes reasons why stories are silenced.  Read a previous post here.

The Tin Ticket: The Heroic Journey of Australia’s Convict Women by Deborah J. Swiss
     This was nearly edge-of-the-seat good.  I could hardly put it down.  Most of the narrative focuses on two Scottish teen girls sentenced to transportation to Van Diemans Land.  Their paths later cross with that of a mother and her daughter who were also sentenced to transportation.  It’s a compelling story.  Previous post here.

Farm Wife: A Self-Portrait, 1886-1896 by Virginia E. McCormick
     I enjoy this book immensely.  It is taken from the diaries of Margaret Dow Gebby, an Ohio farm wife.  It set me down on a farm during the same time period when my ancestors farmed.  The content is presented topically and is edited heavily from the original diary but the editor included some very helpful and insightful comments between diary entries.  All of the diaries are available at the Ohio Historical Society.  I wrote previously about this book here.

A Fortunate Grandchild and Time Remembered by Miss Read (Dora Saint)    Two brief books of memories and reminiscences of her childhood and her grandparents, aunts, and uncles.  I love her language, not to mention her sweet reminiscences.  This would be a great book for a descendant who had grand/greatgrand parents who lived in England in the early 1920s.  The pen and ink illustrations, by Derek Crowe, were fabulous. The books were also featured as a Wishful Wednesday post.  Below is a excerpt from Time Remembered.
     Occasionally we made toffee.  It cost sixpence to make a meat tin full, and we bought the main ingredients at our nearest shop which was at the foot of the hill....
     We bought from her one pound of demerara sugar and quarter of a pound of desiccated coconut.  These two purchases took all our sixpence–the equivalent of today’s two and a half pence.
     Having trudged back up the hill, we put half a cup of water into a saucepan, a large lump of butter and let it melt.
     Then we added the sugar and coconut and stirred assiduously.  When it thickened, we turned the lovely mess into a meat tin, and tried to possess our souls in patience.  Scraping the saucepan, and scraping the goo from the wooden spoon with our teeth, helped to pass the time.
     Apart from the bliss of having such an enormous amount of sweet stuff all at once, there was the exquisite suspense of waiting to see if it turn out as fudge or toffee.
     Either way, we were happy, and there were no prouder cooks in the kingdom.
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller: The Woman in the Family by Bernice Kert      Abby Rockefeller was a kind-hearted woman who was also very generous with her financial resources.  She loved modern art and a good part of the book focused on her involvement as one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).  It was hard for me to identify with Abby:  her world and my world are very, very different places. 

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore
     Benjamin Franklin’s sister, Jane Franklin Mecom, is an unknown; a common, ordinary woman who lived a quiet life doing what needed to be done to stay alive and help her family.  She just happened to have a famous brother.  You can read a previous post here.
      In talking about the challenge of writing a biography when so little about Jane exists, Lepore said,
This is dispiriting.  For a long time, I was so discouraged that I abandoned the project altogether.  I thought about writing a novel instead.  But I decided, in the end, to write a biography, a book meant not only as the life of Jane Franklin Mecom but, more, as a meditation on silence in the archives.  I wanted to write a history from the Reformation through the American Revolution by telling the story of a single life, using this most ordinary of lives to offer a history of history and to explain how history is written:  from what remains of the lives of the great, the bad, and, not as often, the good.
It's no wonder Lepore says, “History is what is written and can be found; what isn’t saved is lost, sunken and rotted, eaten by earth.”   And, “What remains of anyone’s life is what’s kept.”

Wishing you happy reading.

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  1. Thank you for sharing this list, I am reading, The Tin Ticket at the moment and really enjoying it.

    1. You're welcome for the list, Diane. Isn't The Tin Ticket fabulous! I hope you enjoy any others from my list. Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment.

  2. Thanks for the great recommendations! A couple were already on my list and I'm now adding several more. You may be interested in a book I just read recently - Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West. Another good read!

    1. You're welcome. And thank you for your recommendation. I'm always interesting in learning about new, good books to read. I've reserved it at our local library.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful recommendations, Nancy! I've read Annie's Ghosts, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I look forward to reading some of the others on your list.

    1. I hope you enjoy whichever ones you read, Shelley.


I appreciate your comments and look forward to reading what you have to say. Thanks for stopping by.

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