Coming Soon to My Bookshelf

This may be the first time I’ve ever pre-ordered a book. (And the whole “pre-order” thing still confuses me. If you put something in your cart, pay for it, and arrange for it to be shipped, haven’t you, in fact, ordered it?)

I wanted to make sure I was among the very first to get a copy of Pamela Toler’s latest:

The cover alone makes me want to read it. The image is stunning and the title is strong. This book is about women–not girls or wives or daughters. And the “Unexpected History” points out that women have been left out of so much history.

In about two weeks this will be added to my bookshelf. I hope you consider adding it to yours. You can find it on Amazon, Beacon Press, IndieBound, and Barnes & Noble.

 

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Into the Research Rabbit Hole with Samuel J. May, Abolitionist and Women’s Rights Advocate

Today launches the first in a series of occasional posts about something most writers of history are familiar with: falling down the research rabbit hole.

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While I’ve gotten better at making sure it doesn’t become a bottomless pit, I always look forward to these jaunts that reveal something intriguing about my main subject. Today I’ve been working on a chapter of my book about Dr. Mary Walker, a 19th-century reformer and the only woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.

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One of the many people she interacted with was a Unitarian minister named Samuel J. May. An 1820 graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, May fully embraced the new Unitarian theology, which emphasized the moral teachings of Jesus Christ. He was committed to putting this ideology into action and actively participated in a variety of antebellum reforms, including temperance, education, labor, and abolition. In 1830, May met William Lloyd Garrison and went on to serve as a lecturer for the New England Anti-Slavery Society. May eventually accepted a position at the Unitarian Church of the Messiah in Syracuse, New York, about forty miles south of Mary Walker’s hometown of Oswego. There, May’s abolition work expanded to assisting the underground railroad.

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The Reverend Samuel May began promoting women’s rights with his November 1845 sermon, The Rights and Condition of Women, which was subsequently printed and widely circulated. Beginning with quotes from Genesis (“In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him, male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam.”) and Galatians (“There is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”), he called for gender equality and women’s suffrage.

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Exactly how and why Mary Walker and Samuel May knew each other will be explained in my book. And for those of you who think the surname May sounds familiar, the reforming reverend’s other claim to fame is that he was the uncle of Louisa May Alcott.

 

 

Happy Holidays/Looking Forward to 2019

 

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I hope everyone has been enjoying the holiday season.

2018 was a big year: retirement, selling a house and moving, signing two book contracts.

TWO book contracts?! It’s not something I ever thought would happen, but it did.

The first contract was the result of long-term planning. I’d started on a biography of mega-star Dale Evans about ten years ago, then set it aside to work on Angels of the Underground. About a year or so ago, I began working with my agent to draft a proposal for the Evans book, which was picked up by Lyons Press. Right now it has the working title of Queen of the West.

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The second contract was a matter of serendipity. A book editor had an idea and approached my agent about having me take on the project. This book is about Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. She was a physician with the Union army during the Civil War and spent some time as a prisoner of the Confederacy. Plus she was a major figure in the women’s rights movement, but other prominent women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton tried to erase her from the movement’s history because of her radical views.

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I love both of these book projects. Through the first half of 2019, there will be more here about Mary Walker and her exploits, as well as about my own writing and publishing journey. Then Walker will gradually be replaced by updates about Dale Evans.

First, though, I will be posting about my favorite books from 2018, both fiction and nonfiction. Look for those entries over the next week or so.

And a reminder for those of you who can’t get enough of narrative nonfiction, I co-administer a great group on Facebook called Nonfiction Fans. Come join us. You can also follow the group on Twitter @nonfictionfans.

 

 

150 Years of Little Women

One hundred fifty years ago, Louisa May Alcott published a charming, heartfelt story about four sisters growing up in the mid-1800s.

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Alcott was one of dozens, maybe even hundreds, of women who put pen to paper in an attempt to earn a living. In 1855, Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to them as a “damned mob of scribbling women.” He worried about the competition from popular female novelists like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Fanny Fern, Catharine Sedgwick, and E.D.E.N. Southworth.

Yet, with the possible exception of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, none of the works of these authors remains as relevant or as well known as Little Women.

Literary scholar Anne Boyd Rioux’s new book explains, in clear and accessible prose, exactly why.

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Published earlier this month by W.W. Norton in advance of the anniversary, it has been widely reviewed and highly praised, and deservedly so. Rioux begins with the history of Little Women, explaining how Alcott came to write it and how readers reacted to it in 1868. (Spoiler alert: it was extremely popular.) In the second part of the book, Rioux discusses the various stage and screen (both large and small) adaptations. It was also dramatized several times on radio.  The third part covers Little Women‘s continuing importance today. Two of my favorite chapters in the book come from this section, where Rioux examines girlhood and character types, then compares the novel to contemporary stories aimed at girls, like Gilmore Girls.

So treat yourself. Reread (or experience for the first time) Alcott’s classic. But don’t forget to pair it with Anne Boyd Rioux’s thoughtful and entertaining analysis of 150 years of Little Women.

 

A Star is Born and the Promise of 1970s Feminism

In December 1976, Warner Brothers released the third film version of A Star is Born. This time the story was set in the world of rock music instead of Hollywood. The movie starred Kris Kristofferson as John Norman Howard, the rocker headed for a flame-out and Barbra Streisand as Esther Hoffman, the struggling songstress on her way up. Ahead of yet another music-industry based version due out later this year with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, the 1976 film is now streaming on Netflix.

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The movie itself didn’t receive much critical acclaim when it was released. Roger Ebert gave it a reluctant two-and-a-half star review. He didn’t buy–not for a single minute–Streisand as a struggling singer, but he loved her voice. Movie-goers flocked to see it, though. A Star is Born grossed $80 million at the box office, which made it the third highest earner of 1976. The movie’s theme song, “Evergreen,” topped the pop charts, and won an Oscar for best original song.

I watched the movie last night on Netflix, probably the first time I’ve seen it in 20 or 30 years. I saw the movie in the theater at least once when it came out, maybe more. I bought a cassette of the soundtrack, and I still have it (and play it). I’ve probably seen the movie on video, too.

I’ve never been sure why I like the movie so much. I’d never been a huge fan of the music of Kristofferson or Streisand. I think it has much more to do with that particular time–the mid-1970s–and the movie roles Streisand chose. I’d enjoyed her foray into screwball comedies with What’s Up, Doc? and For Pete’s Sake. (Of course, there was The Way We Were, but I found the heavy drama annoying.) I liked Streisand’s quirky characters, the strong women who knew their own minds.

As Esther Hoffman in A Star is Born, Barbra Streisand portrayed a very modern woman, talented and driven, who assumed she could have both a great career and a satisfying personal life. She didn’t intend to compromise on either. The best thing: she was totally confident in her abilities. She knew who she was, with or without John Norman Howard.

Esther Hoffman personified the goals of 1970s feminism. During that decade, gender equality seemed achievable. The National Organization for Women, founded in 1966, provided support for challenging legal inequalities. Women’s liberation groups offered consciousness raising and other tools for addressing more personal concerns. And after decades of languishing in various congressional committees, the Equal Rights Amendment finally passed through both houses of Congress and was sent on to the states for ratification in 1972. By 1977, the year after A Star is Born was released, 35 of the required 38 states ratified it.

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In the first musical number featuring Streisand in A Star is Born, she sang “Queen Bee,” a song that blatantly trumpets women’s sexual desire as it calls for new ways of looking at women. And it includes some pretty great lines:

The queen bee, no way, and even tho’ they think they’re the kings
(escatological things)
Who are they foolin’? Playin’ at rulin’
It’s the queen behind the scene who pulls the strings
So, in conclusion, it’s an optical illusion
If you think that we’re the weaker race
Men got the muscle, but the ladies got the hustle
And the truth is staring in your face.

And tucked in near the end:  “Write me a sequel; Give me an equal.”

The feminist/equality theme of the movie continued with Streisand’s next big number, “The Woman in the Moon.”

Those opening lines:

I was warned as a child of thirteen
Not to act too strong
Try to look like you belong but don’t push girl
Save your time and trouble
Don’t misbehave
I was raised in a “no you don’t world”
Overrun with rules
Memorize your lines and move as directed

And notice Streisand’s wardrobe choice for that scene. The suit. The power suit. As more and more women headed into careers in the 1970s and 1980s, suits were their work uniforms of choice, signalling their insistence on an equal footing with men in the workplace.

What A Star is Born signals to me, then, is all the promise of 1970s feminism. It was a heady time of possibilities for women, with gender equality within reach. I’m reminded of that each time I watch the movie, every time I hear one of its songs (well, maybe except for “Evergreen,” which quickly turns into an ear worm).

And the movie’s ending is a stark reminder that big change doesn’t come easily. There are setbacks and tragedies. But maybe, in the end, “they can hold back the tide, but they can never hold the woman in the moon.”