The problem with the history books is that they’re written by the people in charge. Full of factual information or not, in the end, they give the writer’s impression of what happened, particularly in the case of history that’s past living memory. What this means is that the important historical contributions of women and minorities are often erased. More and more, we’re seeing an attempt to reclaim that erased history with work that recognizes people long left forgotten. This week’s book club features one work of fiction and two new biographies that help put women back in the narrative; read on to change your world.
1. The Dead Go to Seattle by Vivian Faith Prescott ($17): Prescott is a fifth-generation Alaskan living on the tiny Alaskan island of Wrangell and a founding member of an organization concerned with fostering indigenous art. In The Dead Go to Seattle, she focuses on telling stories that reclaim history for Native Americans, queer individuals and women from the narrative of colonialism, as well as dealing with the intersectional issues that occur when one is Native, queer, and female. Prescott’s heroine, Tova Agard, in one fell swoop comes out and is kicked out of her house by her angry father. Faced with a loss of community and an uncertain future due to climate change, she sets off on a ferry to Seattle (which may be a time machine).
Tova meets John Swanton on the ferry. He’s an ethnologist for the Smithsonian, and it’s unclear just how long he’s been traveling to collect Alaskan stories. In him, Tova sees her opportunity and begins to tell a cycle of stories that becomes powerful enough to change history, and even time itself. In all, Tova will link 43 stories together, from the mundane to the fantastical. Together, they will create a vibrant, forgotten history from a singular voice drawing from her community’s oral tradition.
The stories, which unite generations, are full of gods, transformations, abusive traps, and daring escapes. Though they center on Tova’s family, they are in a larger sense the story of her people, and point to the importance of maintaining a cultural language in the midst of a country that tries to stamp it out.
2. Queens of the Conquest: England’s Medieval Queens (Book One) by Alison Weir ($30): Besides a few famous historical names, queens often get history’s short shrift in comparison to male rulers. The farther back you go, the more information tends to get lost. Weir, already a well-known chronicler of more celebrated queens of the past, reaches back to deliver the details on five queens that most of us know nothing about, the post-Norman Invasion-era queens of the 11th and 12th centuries. Instead of just serving as consort, each queen spent some time calling the shots: In England, succession could go through the female line, allowing queens the top job.
Included in the book are Matilda of Flanders, married to William the Conqueror; Matilda of Scotland, who married the previous Matilda’s son (Henry I); and their daughter Empress Maud, who succeeded Henry. (To make things more confusing, there’s also Matilda of Boulogne and Henry I’s second wife, Adeliza of Louvain.) Through meticulous research (and acknowledgment of the gaps therein), Weir shows us women who had a serious impact on their country’s secular and religious affairs. She pieces together accounts of what life was like for both commoners and royals, using the words of the time period’s writers.
“The saga of England’s medieval queens is vivid and stirring, packed with tragedy, high drama and even comedy,” Weir writes. “It is a chronicle of love, passion, intrigue, murder, war, treason, betrayal and sorrow, peopled by a cast of heroines, villains, Amazons, stateswomen, adulteresses and lovers… My aim in this book is to piece together the fragments, strip away centuries of romantic mythology and legends that obscure the truth about these queens, and delve beyond the medieval prejudice, credulity and superstition in contemporary sources to achieve a more balanced and authentic view.” Fascinating but not breezy, detailed but not overwhelming, the book has just enough illustrations, family trees, and glossaries to get you up to speed. More importantly, by the end, it will make you say YAAAS QUEENS.
3. The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone ($28): If you know anything about cryptology, the science of code-cracking, you’re probably familiar with William Friedman. Hailed as the modern field’s founder, Friedman tends to get all the accolades. However, if you go a bit deeper and crack his code, you find out something less well-known: Friedman’s wife, Elizebeth Smith, was an equal collaborator to his work, and worked on her own as well, founding her own elite codebreaking unit. Some call them “the Adam and Eve of the National Security Agency,” as they deciphered the famous Magic, Purple, and Enigma codes of the Second World War, as well as many others. It’s just that Elizebeth was completely ignored in the history books.
Feeling societal pressure to give her husband credit for her own discoveries and relegated to obscurity by men like FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Elizebeth is finally given her due in Fagone’s biography. Elizebeth’s code-breaking career started right after college, on a doomed project to discover proof that Francis Bacon was responsible for writing Shakespeare’s First Folio. While that didn’t pan out, her budding relationship with William did, and they wound up running the government-sponsored Riverbank Department of Ciphers. They caught Prohibition Era smugglers and, later, Nazi spies.
“What follows is my attempt to put back together a puzzle that was fragmented by secrecy, sexism, and time,” Fagone writes. “It’s not quite true that history is written by the winners. It’s written by the best publicists on the winning team.” It doesn’t take a cryptologist to see that if you loved Hidden Figures, this might just be the saga of your dreams.
What books have recontextualized your world? Tag us in your next revolutionary read @BritandCo.
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