Thursday, July 23, 2015


"True, I have raped history, but it has produced some beautiful offspring." Alexandre Dumas

It appears this blog is now devoted to history! Certainly my spare time has found me immersed in a bit of time travel–leaving me no less richer for it. Disclaimer: my bookshelf has also punched in a few contemporaries to keep me grounded in the current century: Thrive, A Spool of Blue Thread, Flash and Dazzle and that great new release everyone's been waiting for: Portable Magic. These tomes will find a space on the blog soon, but today I salute my recent historical reads.

Historial Fiction #1:

My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira takes place during the Civil War era, offering a portrayal of a talented, smart midwife who is fiercely determined to become a doctor–an unthinkable path for a female at the time. A hero who can rise above social mores for a specific, burning cause is always a compelling theme. And while a book about a woman trying to make her mark in the midst of the Civil War may sound interesting, but not like a page-turner, it really is.

The Civil War was boggling on so many levels. This story recounts the medical progress and challenges during the bloodiest of battles. From battles to childbirthing, sensory details seep throughout the book. Oliveira draws us into scenes, creating gripping details with such perspicuity, it's impossible not to contemplate on the stench of war–literally and figuratively.

My Name is Mary Sutter selected as the All Iowa Read for our book club. And while I have often been disappointed with these picks, this year I was quite delighted. Gender discrimination within the  context of the Civil War is not something anyone considers much. Equality for women was seen as selfish cause, compared to the plight of abolition. Apparently, those causes couldn't be sought in conjunction with each other. This book explores the issues with a wonderful and emotional story whose main character of Mary Sutter who not only defined courage, but embraced sacrifice for a cause that went beyond the Civil War.

Historial Fiction #2:

Speaking of feminism and abolition...

Quite a few years ago I read The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. It became an instant favorite. Now she has written The Invention of Wings–a historical fiction based on the real abolitionist and feminist named Sarah Grimke who lived during the turn of the 19th Century.

Kidd became inspired to write about Sarah Grimke after learning the anti-slavery proponent originated from a wealthy slave-owning family in Charleston. I believe this is either irony, justice or redemption. No matter, it's a great story–fiction or not.

In the book, Sarah is given a slave at the age of eleven. She rejects the notion, but can not easily extricate herself from the awful institution of slavery. She begins by embarking on a friendship with her "given" slave, Handful.

The story alternates between the voice of the animated Handful and the more demure Sarah. The most palpable comparison of the characters is how each are tortured, albeit in different ways. Handful survives the awful physical and emotional consequences of slavery–which include beatings, deaths of friends, vanishment of loved ones, torture, condescension and more. Sarah suffers from the guilt of her involvement and powerlessness to change anything. But these juxtapositions aren't always wrapped up so tidily. While Sarah's moral compass becomes clear at an early age after she becomes sickened by the beating of a slave, her convictions are tested when she finds Handful using her bathtub. Her own indignant reaction catches herself off guard. Does she truly believe in equality? She does. And in that moment, she understands her environment and values don't reflect her beliefs. That's when a shift in her life begins–her path to becoming one of history's greatest essayist and speakers on abolition.

But there's more to the story–the fiction side of things anyway. Much is happening to the group of slaves Sarah has grown up with while she has moved North. Eventually, Handful is faced with a dangerous dilemma. And Sarah has drifted away from the family. Without the ability to chart their own destinations, for the slaves there comes heartache, as is expected in the Antebellum South. But because of Sarah and Handful's determination, there is hope as well.

I like Sue Monk Kidd's writing style. Her mastery of language, dialogue and syntax makes the story a joy to read. She creates just enough details to immerse us in the world, without bogging. I believe her talent lies in making characters come to life with their actions and punchy talk. An interview with Ms. Kidd indicated Sarah was a challenge because she wanted to keep her voice as authentic as possible, based on her research. While I'm no expert on Sarah Grimke, nor customs of the 1800s, I'd say she nailed it. Her cause and internal struggles felt authentic, making me very reflective of the themes. Okay. I'm often reflective of injustice anyway.

Sarah Grimke struggled with finding her purpose. Sue Monk Kidd brought her to life again in this book–bringing to light Sarah's challenges of the her voice being heard on issues that matter. Somehow, that theme is still very relevant today. I think Sarah Grimke would be very proud of this depiction.

Historical Book #3:

Since I'm writing a blog, and not a book, I'm going to only mention briefly how delightful Erik Larson is. I just finished Dead Wake which details the events leading up to the the sinking of the Lusitania. Mr. Larson can bring ANY major historical event to life in a way that will make you an insufferable know-it-all and requiring you to have a dinner party so you can discuss everything you learned. I will only say one thing that should compel you to read this book: while the Germans certainly caused the destruction, other parties weren't faultless in preventing the tragedy. And I'm not speaking of the ship's captain, although he certainly was made a scapegoat. That's all I have to say about that.

That's probably enough book reviewing for one post. Better get reading...

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