Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Books for Women's History Month 2017

I know Women's History Month is nearly over and I've posted very little (because sometimes living life takes precedence over seeking dead ancestors) but I did want to publish this list of books that seem appropriate for women's history.  There are both fiction and nonfiction and all are ones I've read during the past 12 months.  Maybe you will enjoy them even though Women's History Month is nearly over? 

This year there are only three non-fiction books, and one of those I can't really fit into the "history" part of Women's History Month because it records the work life of one of our contemporaries.  In several dozen years it will be considered history but I wanted to include it in this list because it focuses on a woman and her work.

Not Becoming My Mother & Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way.  Ruth Reichl
     Reichl writes of her mother's generation, “Good women didn’t work if they didn’t have to; it would only humiliate their husbands and make the world think their men were incapable of supporting them.”
     The author's mother was born in 1909.  She and her husband had plans for Ruth.  They sent her to music school even though she wanted to be a doctor.  They told her that she wasn’t particularly attractive and would have a hard time finding a husband.  She married in her early 30s, then divorced.  She remarried later but was bored with being a housewife.  It wasn’t until after her mother’s death that Ruth learned of the sacrifices her mother made so that Ruth could live a different, freer life.
     I thought this was a great family history book.  The writing of it was helped by that fact that Ruth’s mother had left lots of notes, letters, and other ephemera.

The Shift:  One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients’ Lives.  Theresa Brown, R.N.
    This is not currently a women's history book because it is contemporary to us, but it will fit that category in a number of years.   The author, who works on a hospital cancer ward, takes us through her day.  She records her physical actions; her thoughts; her concerns about how patients will respond to medicines and medical treatment; interactions between herself, other nurses, and other medical staff; her decision-making process about a variety of situations including who to help first when call lights come on at the same time; record-keeping; and much more.  This book gave me a greater appreciation for all a nurse must keep in mind when working in a hospital.  There are three nurses in my family which may have generated my interest in this book, but it was interesting to compare 1930s nursing to today's nursing experience.

The Witches:  Salem, 1692.  Stacy Schiff
     If you have ancestors who lived in Salem or any nearby community in the 1690s you may find this book interesting.  I found it interesting as wells  challenging.  The cast of characters was extensive but their stories were scattered through the chapters.  It gave me a different perspective of life in the 1690s among the Puritans.  While reading I couldn't help but wonder how the people could have been "duped" by a 9-year-old and an 11-year-old.  I wrote a more in depth post about this book which you can read here

I also like to share fiction books that I think fit into the Women's History category.  Though not a true story of one particular woman or group of women, I find that well-researched fiction can give the reader a sense of time and place and tell a universal story, or perhaps a composite story, of a woman's life.

The Shape of Mercy.  Susan Meissner 
     Considering that this book is, to some extent, about the witch trials in 1692, I thought it was interesting that it just seemed to appear soon after I finished The Witches
    Lauren, a 20-year-old, is hired by wealthy, 83-year-old Abigail to transcribe the journal of Mercy Hayworth, accused witch in 1692.  One of the themes of the book is preconceived ideas about others and judging based on appearances.  In addition to being an interesting, well-written story, I thought this was a though-provoking book.  And interesting that it happened into my hands soon after reading The Witches.  The reader's guide at the end enhanced my reading experience with its thoughtful discussion questions.
     I especially like this quote from the book:  “I used to think mercy meant showing kindness to someone who didn’t deserve it, as if only the recipient defined the act.  [I've] learned that mercy is defined by its giver.  Our flaws are obvious, yet we are loved and able to love, if we choose, because there is that bit of the divine still smoldering in us.”

Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse.  Faith Sullivan
     The book opens with Nell Stillman’s obituary, written when she was 65.  In the first chapter we meed Nell Stillman, her 18-month-old son, Hillyard/Hilly, and her abusive husband, Bert.  The setting is the early 1900s in a small town in Minnesota.  Bert is killed in an accident in the first chapter.  We watch as Nell accepts help from local families, becomes a 3rd grade teacher, finds friends, and makes a way for herself.  She takes solace in good books and particularly enjoys the novels of P. G. Wodehouse.
     I thought the author did a fine job of moving the characters and setting through time, going from outhouses and coal stoves to indoor plumbing, electricity, and telephones.  

Journey to Munich.  Jacqueline Winspear
     I love Maisie Dobbs novels!  Maisie is a detective in the 1930s and you never know what’s going to happen.  After being away from her usual work, Maisie’s returned to England and is recruited by the British Secret Service to travel to Munich to bring back a man imprisoned in Dachau in February, 1938.  Maurice is Maisie's deceased mentor whose wisdom Maisie remembers throughout the book.
     Maisie remembers Maurice's words:  “Never fear going in circles, Maisie.  The next time around, you’ll see something you missed before—that’s if your mind is open.  And you will be different, and it will be better.  Experience, Maisie.  Knowledge of yourself.  And when you have knowledge, you have wisdom.  If your mind is open, and your heart is willing.”

A Fall of Marigolds.  Susan Meissner   
     This book is two stories in parallel.  One is about Taryn in 2011 who lost her husband on 9/11.  The other is about Clara in 1911, who lived through the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire but lost a young man she thought she loved.  The majority of the book is about Clara who has secluded herself on Ellis Island, working as a nurse.  Both have deep wounds.  We see them heal as we read.  The thread that connects them is a beautiful scarf.
     If you have Ellis Island ancestors or someone who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire this book may be of particular interest to you.  Even if you don't, I think it's still a great read.

What Katy Did.  Susan Coolidge   
     I've included this as a women's history book because it was written in 1872.  It's less historical fiction and more fiction written at some historical time period.  It’s somewhat of a morality story and though I didn’t love it, I’m glad I read it.  (Remember the time, values, and morals of 1872 when reading this book.)  At the beginning of the story Katy Carr is an active, busy, 12-year-old girl who is creative, curious, a little self-centered, and not especially kind to her brothers and sisters.  She realizes her mistakes and sets goals to be better only to forget them within a few minutes.  Her invalid Cousin Helen comes to visit for a few days.  Katy and her siblings adore Helen because she is sweet, pleasant, and saintly.  She encourages Katy to be kinder to her siblings.  As the story continues, Katy has an accident and has to decide how to behave.  Personal growth is a theme in this book. 
     For me the interest in the story was the environment, activities, and play of children in the 1870s.  I felt like I got a glimpse into what life was like during that time – how children played, how they used their imaginations, a little about their education, and what the expectations were for girls and women during that time period. 

Secrets of a Charmed Life.  Susan Meissner   
     Kendra is a history major interviewing Isabel McFarland, a 93-year-old survivor of World War II who tells the story of 15-year-old Emmy and her 7-year-old sister, Julia.  They were moved from London at the beginning of the war to a place of safety in Gloustershire.  But Emmy had bigger plans:  she intended to be a designer of brides’ dresses and had recently begun working at a bridal shop and made arrangements to meet with a potential designer to begin an apprenticeship.  The girls move to the country but Emmy pursues her dream.  Trouble comes.
     From a conversation with the author in the Reader's Guide, responding about how little we are aware of the experiences of past generations living through difficult times, “I think this is the danger we face whenever time passes and those who have suffered recover from what flattened them.  The generation coming up behind might under estimate or miss completely all that the older generation survived.”

The Girl You Left Behind.  Jojo Moyes   
    This is a story about a young French woman, Sophie, whose husband is away at war in 1916; a story about a painting by Sophie’s husband, Edouard, which hangs in the bar/hotel where Sophie and other family members live; a story about a young widow, Liv, whose husband bought the painting for her on their honeymoon a hundred years later; and a story about who owns the painting and discovering Sophie’s story.  The first part is written in the first person by Sophie.  The rest is written in the third person with brief sections by Sophie telling the rest of her story. 

Sarah’s Key.  Tatiana De Rosnay   
    The first half of the book is presented as two different stories, alternately by chapter.  The first is told in third person about a young Jewish girl living in Paris, France, in 1942.  When the French police come to take her and her family away the little girl's brother doesn't want to leave.  She locks him in their secret hiding place, a cubby within the walls of their home, certain that she will return within a few hours.  Along with thousands of other Jews, she is taken to the Velodrome, a huge, enclosed bicycle racing rink, where they are kept for several days until parents and children are separated.
    The second story is presented in the first person by a 45-year-old American journalist, Julia, living in Paris with her French husband and 12-year-old daughter.  She works for a small American newspaper written for Americans living in Paris.  Her current assignment is researching and writing an article about the people who were held in the Velodrome in 1942.  Eventually the stories converge.

If you choose to read any of these books, I hope you enjoy them.  Have you read any good books that pertain to women's history lately?  Titles, please.


Copyright ©2017 Nancy Messier. All Rights Reserved.

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