3 New Books About Well-Known Women Weathering Crisis
The eleventh hour. The moment of truth. The climax. The turning point. Crisis is the crucible that forges character. In this week’s book club, authors examine the moments that shaped some of the women who have captured public imagination. What were they thinking in moments of despair and pain, and how did they move past that critical time? Read on to find out.
1. Midnight: Three Women at the Hour of Reckoning by Victoria Shorr ($26): Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Joan of Arc: three names known and beloved by feminist scholars and popular imagination alike. But what do they all have in common? Each needed to find great personal strength at a time of crisis. Joan of Arc’s trial is well known: Imprisoned, she must keep her faith even when threatened with a terrifying death by fire at the stake. Mary Godwin risks ostracism for marrying Percy Bysshe Shelley at 16 and is rewarded with a fascinating life of travel, but at 25, has had three children and her less-than-faithful husband die. Austen was older than 25, still single and nearly destitute in a society that brooked neither of these things for women; writing was an escape, but would she have to stop that too?
“But what did it do for her? As the years went on, it was as if she had wandered into one of those circular mazes in a truly bad dream. If there’d been someone who’d wanted her when she was young – if one of those handsome horse-talkers in a brightly-colored jacket, the kind she liked, and the deep yellow breeches she fell in love with in Tom Jones, if someone life that had tried to kiss her one night after one of the dances, and then come by the next morning, when the blood from their hearts was still clouding their minds, then she might have – would have – married him, and become one of the minor characters in her own novels, the smart, kind women with too many children who are there mostly to help her heroines. But there were no kisses, not even with young Lefroy that time, or at least none that was written up with that killing humor. That humor that could kill or bite or sting anyone who might harm her or her sister, and as there was no one to stop her, no hand seeking hers, pulling her back, ever further into that crystalline maze of the seer she was left to wander.”
Shorr’s work bolsters reams of factual information (including heart-stopping facts, like the time Austen’s case containing Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility was almost lost when it was put on a ship to the West Indies by accident) with imaginative extrapolation. She shows readers what may have gone through the three women’s minds during these real moments of faith-breaking pain: widowhood, homelessness, impending death. Each must make a difficult choice of whether to give up or soldier on.
2. The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson ($28): “On the morning of August 3, 1892, Eli Bence was working at D.R. Smith’s drugstore on South Main Street in Fall River, Massachusetts, when a woman entered the store to ask for ten cents’ worth of prussic acid. Prussic acid is a diluted form of hydrocyanic acid, a quick-acting poison – transparent, colorless, and volatile. As the New Bedford Evening Standard later reported, ‘If a person wished to kill and avoid detection, and that person were wise, hydrocyanic acid would be the first choice among all deadly drugs.’ The woman, however, volunteered that she needed the prussic acid ‘to put on the edge of a sealskin cape.’ Bence refused her request, explaining that prussic acid was sold only on doctor’s orders. Although he recognized her as ‘Miss Borden,’ it was not until another man whispered ‘This is Andrew J. Borden’s daughter’ that he looked at her ‘more closely’ and noticed what he would later term “her peculiar expression around the eyes.’ She insisted that she had purchased the poison on prior occasions, but he stood firm. She departed unsatisfied. It was not the end of the story.”
Lizzie Andrew Borden was named for her father, a self-made manufacturing, banking, and real-estate mogul and extremely frugal, distant man. Though the family was not an especially happy one, she was supposedly alike enough to him in temperament to be his favorite. So why, in 1892, was she accused of his and her stepmother’s murders in a splashy trial that attracted national attention (and is still being talked about over a century later)? Was it her supposed animosity for Abby, the woman who had taken Lizzie and Emma’s deceased mother’s place? Or did she really have nothing to do with the brutal murders that saw her family “hacked to pieces”?
Starting with a list of dramatis personae that emphasizes the theatricality of the whole affair, Robertson, who has worked as a legal advisor to the International Crime Tribunal at the Hague and is a former Supreme Court clerk, takes us through the legal drama. Borden made it through the trial, she reports, with aplomb; largely unflappable during this literally trying time, she kept her testimony and herself under control. She also reports on the aftermath of the verdict, and the years afterward where Borden, under constant scrutiny, inspired everything from scandalized gossip columns to childhood nursery rhymes. In the end, the readers must make up their own minds about what happened, given the evidence presented; the author is a neutral bystander to Lizzie’s moment of crisis.
3. SHOUT by Laurie Halse Anderson ($18): “Finding my courage to speak up twenty-five years after I was raped, writing Speak, and talking with countless survivors of sexual violence made me who I am today. This book shows how that happened. It’s filled with the accidents, serendipities, bloodlines, tidal waves, sunrises, disasters, passport stamps, criminals, cafeterias, nightmares, fever dreams, readers, portents, and whispers that have shaped me so far. My father wrote poetry, too. He gave me these guidelines: we must be gentle with the living, but the dead own their truth and are fearless. So I’ve written honestly about the challenges my parents faced and how their struggles affected me. The poems that reference people other than me or my family are truth told slant; I’ve muddled specific details to protect the identities of survivors. This is the story of a girl who lost her voice and wrote herself a new one.”
Anderson’s success in 1999 with Speak was unexpected, but her novel about a 14-year-old rape survivor struck a chord, and the debut author was soon a bestselling author. Now, over eight million copies of her books, including Speak and Chains, have been sold, and Anderson is a National Book Award finalist, Carnegie Medal shortlister, Margaret A. Edwards Award-winner (from the American Library Association), and a widely-honored figure in the fight against censorship. Angered by a lack of change since Speak was published 20 years ago, Anderson is back with a blistering, poetic memoir that revisits her own sexual assault at the age of 13.
Anderson begins by writing of her childhood memories and family lore: her father’s experiences with his unit in Dachau and the PTSD that may have contributed to his abuse of her mother; the “habits of silence” and suppression of voice that were passed down to the way they treated their daughter; her high school, full of embarrassment and stereotypes about gender; her year abroad in Denmark and the differences in culture she experienced; her decision to become a writer. The other sections advocate for justice for sexual assault survivors, railing against the toxic masculinity that promotes rape culture; she shares not only her story, but reactions to her initial groundbreaking book over the years from readers who contacted her with their own stories of crisis to tell. In crisis, she advises us all not to remain silent, but to SHOUT.
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