Free Enterprise, by Michelle Cliff

This mesmerizing 1993 novel revolves around two nineteenth-century women. An actual historical figure, Mary Ellen Pleasant is a free black woman, a business owner and an abolitionist. A fictional character, Annie Christmas, is a mulatto who walks away from a privileged life in Jamaica to fight slavery. The two women meet in 1858 at a speech by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper on “The Education and the Elevation of the Colored Race” where Annie speaks up against the notion of the Talented Tenth, saying that all people deserve respect. Mary Ellen takes her to dinner at a restaurant named Free Enterprise which becomes the locus of an abolitionist group planning a war of independence to begin the following year.

The only name connected with that war that lives in common memory today is John Brown, so this story becomes a potent reminder of all the people who worked for that cause.

Freedom and its absence are found in many forms. We also meet a white society woman, Alice Hooper, who invites Mary Ellen to a fancy dinner. Alice herself is encased by society's norms, as is her cousin Clover Hooper, who is a photographer. One of the first portrait photographers, Clover is also an historical person, a wealthy socialite from Boston who married Henry Adams and is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C. In this story, she and Alice visit Civil War battlefields.

The book actually begins in 1920 when Annie is living alone, deep in the bayou. When she wants company she sneaks into the nearby Carville leper colony where the women convene to share their stories. Annie's closest friend is Rachel DeSouza who is assumed to have leprosy although she has no external symptoms simply because she is a Jew from Suriname. “The Surinamese strain flourished especially among Jews and Maroons.” Rachel tell of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, that symbolic year for Americans. I remember visiting a ruined synagogue in Toledo and thinking about the uprising there and about the consequences of the expulsion, not only for the Spanish Jews but for Spain itself.

The narrative is fractured, moving back and forth in time, sometimes with Annie, sometimes with Mary Ellen or other women. It is like the scrap of patchwork that Annie cherishes. Created by a slave out of bits and pieces snipped on the sly from rich people's clothing, it shows a lion holding a gun. Such a perfect way to tell the story of these two women whose lives have been buried by the “dominant paradigm” of John Brown's revolt, lives that have to be excavated and fitted together piece by piece. I can't remember when I was last so deeply involved in characters in a book. I breathed with these women, listened and walked with them.

The Winner Names the Age: A Collection of Writings by Lillian Smith, Edited by Michelle Cliff

Lillian Smith (1897-1966) was a writer of extraordinary power and an activist who refused the roles pushed on women of her time. Raised in Florida, she lived the rest of her life, aside from school in Baltimore and three years teaching in China, in rural Georgia. In her novels, essays, and lectures, she dissected her Southern culture and with clarity and passion laid bare the effects of segregation on both black and white. Her most famous novel is Strange Fruit inspired by Billie Holliday's rendition of that song. It raised a storm of protest on both sides of the issue and inspired future Civil Rights workers.

This collection of magazine articles, speeches, and letters from 1942 to her death is arranged in three parts. The first part specifically addresses the South and segregation, both her recommendations for change and her analysis of their necessity. The second part moves beyond the South, extending discussions of discrimination and racism to wider, related issues about what it mean to live together in a postwar world that is becoming more global even as it feels the new threat of nuclear obliteration. The pieces collected in the third part tackle gender issues, men's and women's roles and the cultural myths behind them.

I first heard of Lillian Smith 44 years ago when I met her sister, Esther Smith, then a college professor. Fresh from the riots following Martin Luther King's murder and working for change through the Civil Rights movement, I tore through Lillian Smith's books and have carried them with me ever since. I hesitated to read this collection, though these pieces were new to me, because I was afraid they would seem dated and, driven by her opposition to segregation, irrelevant in a time when integration is the law.

How wrong I was! These pieces speak directly to today, to the racism that may have been driven out of the buses and schools and lunch counters, but thrives in code words and hate-mongering rants on internet and television. Speaking of ideas fundamental to our civilization, such as that “every one in the community has a right to be protected from violence” and that each person has a right to speak freely and hold different beliefs (if they do not harm others), she says:

When men stop believing in these great ideas, when they silence their conscience and trample their reason, when they make their own image their god—or their economic or political beliefs their god—then we are in for trouble. For then, they hold even constitutional law cheap. They sneer at the high courts of their government; indeed, they say they obey only the laws they want to.

When this happens, the free people with their limitless potential for growth and for good will metamorphose into the mob.

I have rarely read a more cogent diagnosis of what is wrong with the U.S. today. She also says: “War is the human race's Number Two enemy. Number One enemy is the creeping, persisting, ever-widening dehumanization of man. This is the disease of which nuclear war may be the terminal symptom.”

And amid the current news stories of scandalous attempts to prevent people from voting, drug tests for welfare applicants, and the tide of testing that is drowning our schools, what could be more relevant than this reaction to the use of IQ tests as poll tests?

But the real answer to this talk of valid and invalid tests is that it simply does not matter. If you are morally civilized you treat people right regardless of their intelligence or their looks or their weakness or strength. You don't keep a crippled man from voting or riding the bus; you don't bar a poet from a restaurant because he is a genius and the rest of us are not; you don't cheat a child who can't count his money.

I have written about my dismay at seeing the old myth of Eve destroying Adam's paradise updated, so I was particularly interested in Smith's examination of the history of women's roles: from the fear of Eve's discerning gaze to the dichotomy of Madonna/bitch, Goddess of Mercy/Kali the Destroyer, Beatrice/witch. She suggests that in the age of reason, the dichotomy in the way women were viewed persisted but in the context of race. Also during the 19th century, she points out, came the new role that Ibsen wrote of: “the little girl, the woman who never grew up (and therefore could never dominate a man), the doll who lived in the doll house.” She writes movingly of the generation of women, more educated and skilled than any previous generation, who after World War II gave up their jobs and allowed themselves to be shut up in suburban boxes.

Certainly another reason why this book is so readable is Cliff's careful editing. The chronology within the subject groupings and the deletions to avoid redundancy enable the reader to follow the progress of Smith's thinking and feel the power of her arguments. These exhortations to treat one another humanely are directed at our reason. They may not convince the mob, but if we are morally civilized we will listen.



August Authors: Barbara Morrison: Let Us Tell Our Stories

Interviewed by John Byk on WritersAlive

Interviewed by Aaron Henkin, The Signal, 27 January 2012

Review of Innocent, by Elizabeth Millard, ForeWord Reviews, 9 January 2012

Review of Innocent, by Linda Mae Wolter, The US Review of Books, December 2011

Review of Innocent, by Therese Purcell Nielsen, Library Journal, 1 September 2011

Review of Innocent, by Girija Sankar, JMWW, Fall 2011

Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner

This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel alternates between two stories. In the present day (1970s) Lyman Ward, confined to a wheelchair by a bone disease that is gradually fusing him into a statue, has taken refuge in his grandparents' old home in Grass Valley. His wife having deserted him with the onset of his illness, he is cared for by Ada, the third generation of her family to work for the Wards, while being pestered by his son to move into assisted living. The retired historian refuses, choosing to stay on in Grass Valley, going through his grandmother's papers and telling her story.

It is this story that alternates with Lyman's. Susan Burling grew up in a cultured home and as a young woman “was in love with Art, New York, and Augusta Drake.” The two women met in art school and stayed on in New York, building lives full of famous artists and writers and working on their own art. This life was cut short for Susan when she married a mining engineer in 1876 and followed him to the West.

In spite of the coarse lodgings and—in all but one camp—lack of company that shared her interest in the arts, Susan always wore the elaborate dresses and whalebone corsets of her Edith Wharton past. She threw herself into the work of living while also helping to support the family with her art and writing. Although a brilliant engineer and inventor, Oliver Ward lacked the political knowledge and ambitious dishonesty that might have made him rich. So Susan trailed after him from one camp to another, as he worked equally hard at trying to support her and provide the kind of surroundings he thought she deserved.

Susan's story fascinates me, this gently nurtured, artistic woman having to live in a one-room cabin among rough miners. With moving descriptions, Stegner gives us a hard look at the stereotype of a pioneer woman. I loved his descriptions of the camp at Leadville where many engineers trained at Harvard and Yale congregated to work on the mine and on government surveys, providing Susan with an enviable salon. However, learning about her life through the eyes of her historian grandson, we are kept at a remove. Lyman guesses at her feelings and the empty spaces in her letters. We are constantly pulled back into his life and his thoughts about Susan and Oliver.

Writers often circle back to themes and constellations of characters, so it is not surprising, perhaps, that this book, like Crossing to Safety, is about paradises that have been lost because of a woman, a woman of remarkable abilities, whose husband, though of equal abilities, is a failure, unmanned by his desire to please his wife. Susan is certainly a more complex and more sympathetic character than Charity. Other characters are barely sketched in, Lyman not having the insight given him by Susan's letters, articles, and other writings. The places where they live become vibrant characters, though, the landscape, the people, the homes.

The flow of the story is as accomplished as the descriptions. What I admire most about Stegner's writing is the way he slides seamlessly between past and present. In some cases he gives us Lyman talking about the letter he's reading, then a quote from the letter itself (Susan's voice), before going into dramatized scenes continuing Susan's story. In other chapters, he moves from a first person description of Lyman commenting on something in Susan's life, to a brief third person narrative of where we are in Susan's story, before plunging fully into dramatized scenes. Sometimes he alternates chapters, devoting one to Lyman and the next to Susan, but there is always something about Susan at the end of Lyman's chapter to ease the transition. He rarely comes back to the present except with a new chapter.

I was a little disappointed with the ending, mostly because I found Lyman's story so much less interesting than Susan's, but overall this is an absorbing and beautifully written book.

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

My book club selected this book primarily because Hillenbrand is also the author of Seabiscuit. Most of us had seen the film though, unusually for us, no one had read the book.

Unbroken is a nonfiction account of Louis Zamperini, a former Olympian who went down in the Pacific during World War II. He survived a miraculous 47 days in an inflatable raft before being captured by the Japanese. Although he is treated well at the first place he is taken, given food, tea and medical care, it isn't long before he is sent off to a POW camp, where he is tortured and brutalized. He spends more than two years in a series of camps, each worse than the last, only released by the ending of the war.

The details of the story are excellent. I liked, too, that Hillenbrand continues the story into his post-war life. She also does a great job of maintaining a neutral tone in describing the atrocities. I believe that is the only way to get through such a story, though the necessary distance it creates can be detrimental to the reader's involvement. Zamperini remained a mystery to me, much as I admired his creative resourcefulness both on the raft and in the camps.

I mistrust stories that have been told and retold hundreds of times, polished and rehearsed. After the war Zamperini spent many years as an inspirational speaker, telling this story. Such repetition perhaps adds to the distance and lack of emotion in this narrative. It's clear, though, that Hillenbrand has done a great deal of research, noting where her research supports and occasionally contradicts the established story. I like the way she uses this research to provide context even for the most abusive guards.

I also mistrust tales that set off my propaganda detector. This is a U.S.-centric story. U.S. equals good; Japan equals evil. Always. Even the Hiroshima bombing is only told from the point of view of the U.S. pilots who worry that they won't get away fast enough. Don't get me wrong: the Japanese behaved horribly during World War II. I know about Nanking. I know they used POWs as slave labor, tortured them, and subjected them to medical experiments. But other countries, including the U.S., behave horribly too. Why reawaken the anti-Japanese hysteria that I saw in my parents and others who lived through that war? Hillenbrand could at least have noted that after the war Japan went to great lengths to change their culture so that such atrocities would not happen again. If only the U.S. would do the same.

Others in my book club pointed out that to add that kind of nuance and give any of the Japanese point of view would make it a very different story, not the kind of feel-good story that the author meant to write. Any softening of the view of the enemy would take away from the glory of this man's amazing survival.

Zamperini's story is meant to be an uplifting tale about the strength of the human spirit. I confess it did not inspire or uplift me. I came away depressed—again—at the depths of cruelty and sadism people can sink to. Such behavior comes from the same self-centered view that I see in our public discourse today, where it is okay, even applauded, for people who are not rich to die for lack of medical care. The solution Hillenbrand offers in this story seems to me inadequate.

Liebster Award

Liebster blog image

I was delighted to hear that this blog has been given a Liebster Award by Bonnie J. Vesely. Her blog Right Livelihood, Just Ventures is here and is certainly worth a read.

The Liebster Award is a way to showcase a blog you think deserves merit and more followers. There are a few responsibilities:

1. Thank the one who nominated you by linking back.
2. Nominate five blogs with less than 200 followers.
3. Let the nominees know by leaving a comment at their sites.
4. Add the award image to your site.

So here are my five nominees:

1. Shirley J. Brewer's The Goddess Blog. Shirley is the author of A Little Breast Music and the genius behind Poetic License which provides personalized poems for special occasions.

2. Chris Stewart's Embarking on a Course of Study blog in which she describes her attempt to follow a course of study similar to that perhaps undertaken by Marianne in Sense and Sensibility.

3. Fernando Quijano III's The Word Pimp Spits. Fernando is the Vice President of the Maryland Writer’s Association & author of From the Bottom Up, an op-ed column featured on

4. Deborah Batterman's The Things She Thinks About blog always makes for good reading. Deborah is the author of Shoes Hair Nails, a hilarious and moving collection of short stories.

5. Amelia Mason's Annoy the Neighbors blog sizzles with her writing about music, mostly of the folk/indie variety.