Mistress of the Art of Death (2007), Ariana Franklin (Diana Norman)

artdeath

 

Quickly she knelt and asked the dead beyond the door to forgive her for handling their remains. She asked to be reminded not to forget the respect she owed them. “Permit your flesh and bone to tell me what your voices cannot.”

 

It is the year 1170. The city of Cambridge is tense. Four young children have been tortured to death. The people of the town have accused the Jewish community of blood libel and the perpetrators of the murders, causing them to flee their homes for protection in the castle. Henry II is angry and concerned. Imprisoned, the Jews are unable to pay the heavy taxes by which the king finances his realm. Henry does not believe the murders are the work of the Jews and must find a way to exonerate them. Henry writes to his cousin, the King of Sicily, who presides over the world renowned medical school in Salerno asking him to send his best “investigator of death.”

Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar is the Mistress of the Art of Death, a combination modern day coroner and police detective. When she arrives with her Arab assistant Mansur and fellow investigator Simon of Naples, a Jew she must hide her true vocation. Though the cultural, religious and gender diversity of Salerno allows women in the medical college, Adelia’s specialty conflicts with the Church’s teachings on both women and dissection, so she is used to passing off her findings to her foster father. While in England Mansur becomes the doctor and she his assistant. At least at the beginning. From enlightened city to crude backwater, the trio of friends reluctantly make the journey. The moment they arrive in Cambridge, however, they are besieged with a multitude of illnesses and accidents untreatable before now. But the bodies of the children need to be examined and with some restrictions on her gender, the investigation begins.

The stabbing around the pelvis had left distinctive marks; she had seen knife wounds before, but none like these. The blade of the instrument that had caused them appeared to be much faceted. She would have liked to remove the pelvis for leisurely examination in better light, but she had promised Prior Geoffrey to do no dissection.

It is fascinating to watch how Adelia studies the bodies of the children and how she deduces their killers. It is like watching a Medieval version of a CSI episode. Body by body and clue by clue culminating in a frightful incident where Adelia almost meets her own end. But she succeeds in discovering the culprits responsible.

I was incredibly drawn to this story as it ticked many of the boxes I enjoyed studying in college. As the ‘king’s persons” Jews were England’s bank account being taxed to unbelievable degrees financing everything from the building of castles and cathedrals, the bankrolling of crusades to the general running of the realm. Thus, the king’s castle was their safety zone when attacked. They were an easy target when anything abnormal occurred. Leaving their homes and fleeing to the castle for the protection of the king was often a precarious situation. As illustrated in this story, anti-Jewish sentiment is so high with the townspeople, even when it is pointed out the Jews have been in the castle for a year and children have been killed during this time. The townspeople cook up an elaborate fantasy that the Jews leave by night and return to the castle early in the morning to commit the crimes. Never mind there are townspeople stationed at every entrance day and night which would make escape impossible.

Franklin also describes the diversity of students and teachers that peopled the medical school of Salerno, which included Arabs, Jews, Africans and others from across Europe, as well as women. The medical training here surpassed the other schools on the continent. Adelia, who was orphaned and fostered by a couple from the medical school, acknowledged her intellect from a young age and encouraged her studies. Adelia’s skills come from her training and investigative experience, which included time spent at the pig farm, a medieval version of the modern-day body farm.

Adelia was forcing herself to see a pig [not a child]. Pigs were what she’d learned on. Pigs—the nearest approximation in the animal world to human flesh and bone. Up in the hills behind a high wall, Gordinus had kept dead pigs for his students, some buried, some exposed to the air, some in a wooden hut, others in a stone byre…Most of the students introduced to the his death farm had been revolted by the flies and stench and had fallen away; only Adelia saw the wonder of the process that reduced a cadaver to nothing.

One of the strengths of this historically dense novel is constructing a story with a protagonist who is foreign and unfamiliar with the culture in which she is thrust. The reader learns along with Adelia, Mansur and Simon, so prior knowledge of the period is unnecessary and Franklin’s narrative makes it easy to follow the story. And to further this point, Franklin uses the British to further our knowledge. Though most of the townspeople are portrayed as suspicious and ignorant of foreigners, the novel opens with a band of pilgrims and crusaders having just returned from the Holy Land. Several of the knights are familiar with the customs and culture of both the Arab and Jewish worlds and of Europeans in general. Franklin uses their knowledge in usually positive, but sometimes humorous ways to make points about the cultural and dietary habits of Mansur, Simon and Adelia.

A Personal Observation

I have missed out on many richly drawn historical novels. Early in Medieval studies it was drummed into our heads that we couldn’t take fictionalized accounts of historical events seriously and were discouraged from books and other historical “reconstructions.” “This could never have happened.” “That is just historically inaccurate.” I can remember classmates mocked for their interest in the King Arthur mythos or those students who participated in the activities of the Society for Creative Anachronism. The only contemporary Medieval fiction we were encouraged to read was Josephine Tey’s, The Daughter of Time, because it was about research. It has taken me a long time to reject those voices critical of historical fiction. And that’s too bad. I have a lot of catching up to do.

In this regard, if those professors of mine were still alive I would make them read this book! While obviously some license has to be taken in the way a story like this is told in order for a modern person to understand it, historical accuracy does not have to suffer.

The novel is a page turner, a fascinating mystery and manages to dispel ignorance about the Middle Ages many people may have.

____________
Challenges: RIPXIII, RBRTBR

 

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Agnes Grey, Anne Bronte (1847) Classics Club Spin #16

I was the only person in the house, who steadily professed good principles, habitually spoke the truth, and generally endeavoured to make inclination bow to duty; and this I say, not of course in commendation of myself, but to show the unfortunate state of the family to which my services were, for the present devoted….she [Rosalie] had never been perfectly taught the distinction between right from wrong; she had, like her brothers and sisters, been suffered from infancy, to tyrannize over nurses, governesses, and servants; she had not been taught to moderate her desires, to control her temper or bridle her will, or to sacrifice her own pleasure for the good of others…

 

agnesgrey

On the one hand, Agnes Grey is a simple story about a daughter wanting to help her family when her father’s finances go wrong. Taking a position as a governess, Agnes reasons, will allow her to send money home. On the other hand, I found the book to be a complex account of the clashing of classes, in what constitutes love and marriage and the raising of children, and what makes a moral person.

When 18-year old Agnes leaves home to become a governess, she is leaving a loving, safe environment. She is naïve of the world outside her small village and is full of idealized fantasies that her new life will bring which will be full of good little children and her power to mold them.

But the reality is a shock to her system. The young Bloomfields run wild and have no use for her. To complicate matters, Mrs. Bloomfield has given her strict instructions that she must not discipline them in any way either through strong words or physical punishment. Agnes must do the best she can with the children without parental interest in their instruction or in her as someone they must respect. When the father does take an interest in his children it is through harsh punishment which makes Tom, the oldest boy, fear his father, which he takes this out on his sisters and to Agnes’s horror, small animals. She has no authority to chastise him and when she realizes his father condones this sadistic behavior it is a lost cause. In the classroom, Agnes spends more time chasing the children into their chairs, trying to interest them in anything remotely having to do with studies and generally throwing her hands up as they run out the schoolroom door.

It comes as no surprise to Agnes that she is finally dismissed because ‘she is not giving the children what they need,’ as though parental neglect and a refusal to see their children as they truly are had nothing to do with Agnes’s difficulty with them.

Agnes next finds employment at the wealthier Murray estate. Soon after her arrival the sons are sent to boarding school, so her main charges are 14-year old Matilda, the tomboy, who would rather be helping out at the stables or hunting with the dogs and 16-year old Rosalie who is almost ‘finished.’ Agnes’s instructions with the girls are similar to the ones she was given at the Bloomfields regarding punishment, with the added,

“only to render them as superficially attractive, and showlily accomplished, as they could possibly be made without present trouble or discomfort to themselves; and I was to act accordingly—to study and strive to amuse and oblige, instruct, refine, and polish with the least possible exertion on their part, and no exercise of authority on mine….And make them as happy as you can….”

One of the striking aspects of this book seems to me is a commentary on the upper classes and their frivolity and selfishness, their lack of discipline and moral standards in contrast to the upholding of the working classes as the real bedrock of Christian morality and virtue. Agnes grew up a clergyman’s daughter and her mother modeled for her and her sister all the important values missing in the homes of the upper classes at which she works.

When the Murray daughters visit the cottagers on their estate they do so with irresponsible condescension and the mocking of the sick and poor to their faces. When they break their promises to return to read or visit with them, Agnes takes on this role. The girls did not learn from their parents what their status obliges them to do toward the poor and how to show sincere kindness to others. It is left to Agnes to be the example for them, though it seems to have no effect over the superficialities that take precedence over their lives.

This superficiality is never more striking than in the way Rosalie approaches marriage. She will, of course, marry for wealth and position as her parents see fit. Love is not a factor, nor is Rosalie’s own choice. Agnes watches with grave concern as Rosalie, in acts of rebellion, flirts mercilessly and leads men on, even toward a marriage proposal. It is almost as if she must prove to herself that though the choice of a husband is made for her, she herself could attract any man she wanted. She is mean with her selected prey, almost torturous and not concerned about the devastating hurt she is causing even after Agnes’s warnings.

This book, by the youngest Bronte sister, is often panned or looked upon as a more juvenile effort than her sisters’ books. But there is a wealth of commentary to be gleaned from Agnes’s thoughts and experiences about the intimate life of the upper classes. It is an eye-opening look at the snobbery, the self-importance and dysfunction of that class of family life. Children are left to their own devices by parents who give them over to governesses and nurses who have no power to truly educate or form them. For these twice on Sunday church goers, it is all for show.

Through Agnes’s selfless actions and comforting words with the cottagers and in the cottagers deeds to each other, the reader sees it is the middle and working classes who demonstrate the true teachings of the church, who come to each other’s assistance regardless of what little they have themselves. It is they who make excuses for the bad behavior of the upper class girls. It is in the morality of these classes that fidelity is shown to their husbands and wives, and children toward their parents and in the mutual aid of the cottagers toward one another.

The novel contains more plot lines than I have discussed here, including a happy romantic ending for Agnes and for her widowed mother with whom they both open a school for girls that becomes successful. But it is the issues above that captured my attention in this first reading of Agnes Grey.

__________________

My Edition
Title: Agnes Grey
Author: Anne Bronte
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 2005
Pages: 224
Full plot summary

Challenges: Classics Club Spin #16, Classics Club List, Mount TBR, Library Love

Roxana, Daniel Defoe (1724)

Roxana

 

If you have any Regard to your future Happiness; any View of living comfortably with a Husband; any Hope of preserving your Fortunes, or restoring them after any Disaster; Never, Ladies, marry a Fool; any Husband rather than a Fool…

 

So begins Roxana’s life of woe, written as a cautionary tale “to my Fellow-creatures, the Young Ladies of this country,” that any life is better than marriage with a Fool “nay be any thing, be even an Old Maid, the worst of Nature’s Curses, rather than take up with a Fool.”

Because, Fool she marries, has 5 children by him, suffers through her brother’s financial folly and thereby hers when he is given her portion of their father’s inheritance which he spends and then the folly of her husband’s financial losses. To add to this latest injury, her husband leaves her and their five children to find his fortune elsewhere, with no provision for food, bills or a roof over their head.

Though he has threatened to leave in the past, Roxana never believed he would do it and expects to hear from him or to at least receive something for her livelihood, but as the weeks and months drag on there is no word from him and she begins selling furniture, clothing and jewelry to feed the household. As the situation deteriorates, she knows she must give up her children and hopes the sister of her husband will oblige, so she sends her devoted maid Amy, who has been working without wages, to take the children to their aunt.

The landlord, who has given Roxana a year’s free rent to sort out her situation, begins to insinuate himself in her financial affairs with food and other necessities, which Roxana believes are without strings. However, it becomes clear that if Roxana is interested in staying in the house, he will want to share it with her, cohabit, as if they are a married couple. This is the predicament Roxana will find herself in throughout her life as no word from her husband either for a divorce or by a death certificate will allow her to legally marry. She will be forced to survive in cohabitation, as a mistress, a concubine, a whore.

After the landlord dies, she continues in this manner with successive men, in various situations, acknowledging she is at least lucky that her beauty can still attract rich men, even after so many children and the wear and tear of the guilt she suffers over the choices she has had to make since her husband left. She is given beautiful clothes, jewelry and homes to live in and money to keep up her lifestyle. One of her greatest fears as the years pass in this way, is over the control of this fortune, which she would have to give up if ever she could legally marry. Marriage would mean her husband would control her estate to do with it what he would and as past circumstances have shown her, she could once again find herself unprotected and defenseless. This terrifies her even after she hears her husband has died and she is free to marry legally.

Roxana is never morally accepting of the choices she has made and is often ashamed at her sinful life. The fate of her children haunt her and she wants to make restitution although the difficulty here is admitting to them how she has come by her wealth. With Amy as her “agent,” she makes some financial amends, but this ends up in disaster later on.

The subject matter of this 18th century novel made me wonder how it was received in its day. I discovered the book was popular, though throughout many early editions, the ending was changed by whoever published it as was common at the time. Most had Roxana on her deathbed confessing her sins and crying out her repentance giving her a measure of goodness and assurance of a Christian burial. In some of the endings when she reveals the truth to her children they forgive her and the book ends happily.

However, the real text as Defoe writes it ends with Roxana and Amy’s world collapsing once again into destitution, “the Blast of Heaven seem’d to follow the Injury…and I was brought so low again, that my Repentance seem’d to be only the Consequence of my Misery, as my Misery was of my Crime.


Note on the Text

My edition preserves the original format of the text keeping the unique spellings and word usage, the capitalization of words within sentences and the seemingly (to me, anyway) random italicization of words. But it was not difficult to read. Though at times dense, Defoe’s writing is descriptive and absorbing as if Roxana is telling her story live, in front of a spellbound audience.

A Personal Note

If not for a reading challenge that called for a book with an ‘x’ in the title, I am not sure I would have chosen this book. I scoured myriad lists to find a title and though I knew of Defoe, having read A Journal of the Plague Year  many years ago, I had never heard of this title, so I was happy to acquaint myself with another one of his works. Though I am not always successful in completing book challenges, I can honestly say they have enriched my life!

_______________________

My Edition
Title: Roxana, The Fortunate Mistress
or, a History of the
Life and Vast Variety of Fortunes of
Mademoiselle de Beleau, afterwards called
the Countess de Wintselsheim
in Germany
Being the Person know by
the Name of the Lady Roxana
in the time of Charles II

Author: Daniel Defoe
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1724
Pages: 330
Full plot summary

Challenges: Classics Club, What’s in a Name?, Mount TBR

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen (1814)

mansfieldpark

 

The nonsense and folly of people’s stepping out of their rank and trying to appear above themselves makes me think it right to give you a hint, Fanny, now that you are going into company without any of us; and I do beseech you and entreat you not to be putting yourself forward, and talking and giving your opinion as if you were one of your cousins…Remember, wherever you are, you must be the lowest and last….

 

Fanny Price is taken from her working class family to live with her more affluent aunt and uncle. Lady Bertram is her mother’s sister and it is suggested by her mother’s other sister, Mrs. Norris that taking Fanny in would relieve their sister of the burden and expense of raising another child. Fanny is 9 years old and a quiet and frightened child when she comes to Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram and their four children at Mansfield Park. For the next decade, while she is given everything material she could need, she lives a liminal life, sometimes included in the activities of her cousins and sometimes treated like a servant; decisions are made for her without her consent and criticisms of her thoughts and behavior are discussed by her aunts and uncle as if she isn’t there. Edmund, the younger of the two brothers, is her constant champion amidst the crassness and criticism of her Aunt Norris, who regularly reminds her of her humble place, regardless of how the Bertrams treat her or what they give to her.

Most of the action takes place through Fanny’s eyes and especially through her moral compass. Her cousins, the neighbors in the parsonage next door, are seen through her world view, which is exacting, unsentimental and harsh.

A Rigid Social Structure or is it just Fanny?

I don’t quite know what to make of Fanny Price. She has an unrelenting moral code that is so rigid and unforgiving it impedes her social interactions. With her delicate constitution she is forced to sit on the sidelines of many of life’s events, so she becomes the observer, the critic and the conscience-filter through which the motivation of each of her family and friends is measured. They ‘commit,’ what seem to me, infractions of the slightest intent or the folly of teenagers, yet to Fanny they are so grievous she cannot forgive.

I think there are subtleties of right and wrong, of etiquette and behavior during this period I am just not familiar. For instance, Fanny’s discomfort with Mary Crawford, which feels like plain old jealousy (over Edmund), yet I think even if she had not been Fanny’s rival, she would have found fault. Each person Fanny comes into contact with—Maria and Julia, her aunts, the Grants—can never live up to her impossibly high standards.

Who is Fanny, Anyway?

Edmund, from her first days at Mansfield Park, shows an almost 6th sense to Fanny’s material and emotional needs and comfort. He makes sure she is given a horse to ride every morning for her health, gives her a chain for the necklace her brother William gave her so she can wear it to the ball. Sir Thomas as well shows immense kindness to Fanny, especially once he returns from his business abroad. She accepts all of this with the appropriate gratitude, embarrassment and deference. But after the downfall of Maria and Julia, the break-up of Edmund and Mary Crawford, and Henry Crawford’s demise and finally, her triumph in winning Edmund, her quietude and deferential demeanor become something else. I see her as a conniver, who bides her time until she gets what she wants. Am I just mean, jaded or am I missing the point entirely?

I think there is a subtlety in this world that is foreign to me. For example, as loathsome as Mrs. Norris is to Fanny and everyone else at Mansfield Park, she is the least subtle and feels the most familiar. Her meanness comes from her own liminal life as a widow without a purpose or a place. She is a busy-body and treats Fanny abominably and tries to force the rest of the family to do her bidding often with disastrous results. She unnerves the Bertrams who want her gone from Mansfield Park; at Maria’s downfall, they get their wish. Yet, she is obvious in her brutishness; no one would expect anything different.

Austen 101

I would love to understand the details of this society; those minute cues and subtle looks that set Fanny off. If there is such a book that would explain it all to me, please let me know!

___________________

My Edition
Title: Mansfield Park
Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Books
Device: Paperback
Year: 1814
Pages: 427
Full plot summary

Challenges: #AustenInAugustRBR, Classics Club, Mount TRB

Upstream: Selected Essays, Mary Oliver (2016)

upstream

 

I am one of those who has no trouble imagining the sentient lives of trees, of their leaves in some fashion communicating or of the massy trunks and heavy branches knowing it is I who have come, as I always come, each morning, to walk beneath them, glad to be alive and glad to be here.

 

I didn’t know Mary Oliver wrote essays. I know her as the writer of many of my favorite poems and a woman in love with and who embodies the natural world.

 

Childhood

In this collection, she shares her early experiences of wandering through the woods of her Ohio childhood and the writers and poets she discovered, whose works illumined her inner and outer worlds from a young age,

As a young person, I did not think of language as the means to self-description. I thought of it as the door—a thousand opening doors!—past myself. I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and, thus, to come into power.

and her relationships with the animal, bug, bird and plant worlds of the Provincetown of adulthood, and how she created her writing life.

I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.

 

Whitman

As a Young Adult

In high school, she counted Walt Whitman among her ‘friends’ with whom she would skip school for the woods “with a knapsack of books.” Warned she might not graduate, her parents let her ‘go her own way.’

Down by the creek, or in the wide pastures…I spent my time with my friend: my brother, my uncle, my best teacher…Whitman’s poems stood before me like a model of delivery when I began to write poems myself….The oracular tenderness with  which he viewed the world—its roughness, its differences, the stars, the spider—nothing was outside the range of his interest….But first and foremost, I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing….I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak—to be company.

Her experiences in nature became part of her psyche, then translated into a visceral experience. It is fair to say, she is a ‘hands on writer’ as she describes an hour spent in the woods walking on all fours.

I had seen the world from the level of the grasses….I was some slow old fox, wandering, breathing, hitching along, lying down finally at the edge of the bog, under the swirling rickrack of the trees.

You must not ever stop being whimsical.

Besides Whitman, other sources of influence were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe and Percy Bysshe Shelley. She writes of their personal stories of sorrows and challenges and what fueled their creative impulse. I am always fascinated to read what one writer thinks about another and how or why they were of influence.

Of Emerson she writes. I think of him whenever I set to work on something worthy. And there he is also, avuncular and sweet, but firm and corrective, when I am below the mark.

That we are spirits that have descended into our bodies, of this Emerson was sure. That each man was utterly important and limitless, an “infinitude,” of this he was also sure. And it was a faith that leads, as he shows us again and again, not to stasis but activity, to the creation of the moral person from the indecisive person.

Of Poe: For are we not all, at times, exactly like Poe’s narrators—beating upon the confining walls of circumstance, the limits of the universe? In spiritual work, with good luck (or grace) we come to accept life’s brevity for ourselves. But the lover that is in each of us—the part of us that adores another person—ah! That is another matter….In the wide circles of timelessness, everything material and temporal will fail, including the manifestation of the beloved… This is Poe’s real story. As it is ours. And this is why we honor him, why we are fascinated far past the simple narratives. He writes about our own inescapable destiny.

 

Close Encounters

In several essays she describes encounters with nonhuman inhabitants of the spideynatural world around her: the mating and mothering habits of a female spider whose web Oliver finds in a stairwell and whose 6 egg sacs she watches as “the uncountable number of progeny have spilled” out of them; a rescued injured seagull she brought back to her house whose rehabilitation became part of the routine and pattern of her life during the several months it lived; the observation of a female snapping turtle as it struggled to lay its eggs on land against its natural predators, including Oliver, who will come back to this spot where the cache is and dig up half the eggs to scramble for breakfast. “I ate them all, with attention, whimsy, devotion, and respect.”

Poet and Literary Critic

As a writer, her word choices and phrases in these essays are as lyrical and expressive, wild and intense as the poetry she writes. I found myself reading many passages out loud envisioning the world she is describing. Her attention to the details of the flora and fauna she writes about in her poems make these essays powerful, visual and captivating to read. Here are two:

hornedowlBut the great horned [owl]…if one of those should touch me, it would touch to the center of my life, and I must fall. They are the pure wild hunters of our world….I know this bird. If it could, it would eat the whole world….When I hear it resounding through the woods,…I know I am standing at the edge of the mystery, in which terror is naturally and abundantly part of life, part of even the most becalmed, intelligent, sunny life—as, for example my own. The world where the owl is endlessly hungry.

She found an injured seagull on the sea shore and took it home to care for and named it, Bird:

He was, of course, a piece of the sky. His eyes said so. This is not fact: this is the other part of knowing something, when there is no proof, but neither is there any way toward disbelief. Imagine lifting the lid from a jar and finding it filled not with darkness but with light. Bird was like that. Startling, elegant, alive. 

Finally, in a wonderful passage connecting her spirituality and the bond she has with the nonhuman beings around her, she calls them a company of spirits, as well as bodies:

I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves—we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.

*****************

My Edition:
Title: Upstream: Selected Essays
Author: Mary Oliver
Publisher: Penguin Press
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2016
Pages: 178
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love

Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton (1911)

efrome
This was a very depressing novel. Let’s just get that out of the way. Like another of Wharton’s New England novels Summer, which I read last year, she once again creates a character whose life has promise and potential, but bad choices made early on coupled with poverty and duty to family ruin any chance of freedom. Ethan Frome’s draining, joy-sucking life permeated every page.

Wharton creates a bit of mystery surrounding Ethan Frome in the opening pages. The unnamed narrator who arrives in town on business notes his somber countenance, “something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man,” yet he was only 52. The coach driver explained he has looked that way since ‘the smash-up.’ And with that, the strange, sad tale of Ethan Frome begins.

Frome is many years into a loveless marriage. He and his wife, Zeena, live in the Frome family home eking out a slim existence from soil that doesn’t yield much. He asked Zeena to marry him out of gratitude for helping him nurse his sick mother. Right after they marry her real or imagined ill health makes her unable to take care of the home, so she enlists the help of her young cousin, Mattie Silver, although it is soon clear she has no household skills.

Mattie’s youth and joy for life is Ethan’s one bright light and he begins to care for her deeply. When Zeena announces that her new doctor wants her to get a proper hired girl, because “I oughtn’t to have to do a single thing around the house,” Ethan is devastated. Mattie will have to leave because they can’t afford to pay for two girls, although she has no family to take her in. Ethan spends days frantically looking for a way to run off with Mattie, until he realizes its futility. The day he takes Mattie to the train station he stops to take her sledding. Both are distraught over their impending separation admitting they cannot live apart and make a pact to end their pain by sledding into a tree. They are severely injured, but both live. Ethan is left with a limp and a scarred forehead, but Mattie sustains a spinal injury that leaves her permanently disabled.

The action skips to the present when the narrator, who has only heard bits and pieces of this story is invited by Ethan to stay the night during a snow storm. When the front door is opened he hears more than one voice coming from the kitchen. He is shocked to walk in on both Zeena and Mattie sitting around the kitchen table.

When he goes back to his boarding house, run by a childhood friend of Ethan’s she explains that yes, after the accident, Zeena took Mattie back and nursed her as best she could and without any family to return to the three have lived together for 24 years. She tells him, “If she’d ha’ died, Ethan might ha’ lived; and the way they are now, I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; ‘cept that down there they’re all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues.”

Though the story is terribly tragic I admire Wharton’s writing. She is not sentimental or overly emotional, but matter of fact. The event happens or the choice sets in motion tragic consequences, the character accepts his or her fate and makes new choices and with them we move on. As in real life we have to get on with whatever hand we are dealt and this is how Wharton writes.

Except that I found it hard to just let go of Ethan’s fate. Is it too much to ask to give him a little happiness after having to leave college to come back home to care for his father, then his mother, then his wife and finally both his wife and unrequited lover? Couldn’t Wharton give him a little better financial situation or let his wife die young or…something?

However, like Charity, the main character in Summer, who similarly had to pit personal fulfillment against duty, what the reader finds here is reality. Both Ethan and Charity made foolish choices the first time they fell in love, which left them with life-altering consequences they could never break away from. And maybe that is the moral or the cautionary tale here; what you do when young comes back to haunt you. The whole trajectory of your life can change in an instant, so make good choices!

Right.

Try telling that to any young person in love!
____________________

My edition and plot summary.
Edith Wharton. Ethan Frome and Selected Stories. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004. Originally published in 1911.

Challenges: Classic Club List and Mount TBR

Where Angels Fear to Tread, E.M. Forster (1905)

My Edition:angelstread
Title: Where Angels Fear to Tread
Author: E.M. Forster
Publisher: Dover
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1905
Pages: 117
Full plot summary


“Remember, that it is only by going off the track that you get to know the country. See the little towns—Gubbio, Pienza, Cortona, San Gimignano, Monteriano. And don’t, let me beg you, go with that awful tourist idea that Italy’s only a museum of antiquities and art. Love and understand the Italians, for the people are more marvelous than the land.”

 

What a soap opera and angst-ridden tale this is and packed into only 117 pages! The above quotation turns out to be the death knell for the Herriton family. If ever a family had a bad day…or span of years, it would be them. The ruptures and tragedies that plague them, however, are surprising and come out of the blue, making the novel read like a great international mystery/adventure story.

Lilia Herriton was widowed young and left with a daughter. From the beginning of her marriage, according to her in-laws, Lilia was wild and ill-mannered. After her husband’s death, she is forced to move near her mother-in-law for the sake of young Irma. But Lilia is still full of life and finds it difficult to play the conventional role of widow. When Caroline Abbot asks Lilia to be her companion on a trip to Italy the Herritons hope the responsibility will help to quell her untamed ways.

A cable is received from Lilia that she has settled down in the town of Monteriano and is going to marry Gino, the son of a dentist. Phillip, the brother of Lilia’s husband is sent to stop it and bring her back to England. But he arrives too late as she and Gino are already married. He tells her he has come to rescue her and will break up the marriage, but Lilia is defiant and with the past injustices from his family overcoming her and she defends her actions:

For once in my life I’ll thank you to leave me alone…For twelve years you’ve trained  me and tortured me, and I’ll stand it no more. Do you think I’m a fool? Do you think I never felt?..When I came to your house a poor young bride, how you all looked me over—never a kind word—and discussed me,…and your mother corrected me, and your sister snubbed me…And when Charles died I was still to run in strings for the honour of your beastly family, and I was to be cooped up at Sawston and learn to keep house, and all my chances spoilt of marrying again.

With such passion, the reader pulls so hard for Lilia and this new life she has created far from the criticism of her family. Alas, she dies in childbirth. And while that is shocking enough, the real shocker is how badly the Herritons now feel about the way they treated her and this guilt leads them to plot to get the child away from Gino and raised as their own. Once more, Philip is dispatched to Monteriano with his sister Harriet to make a bargain with Gino. When Gino turns down the offer, Harriet steals the baby as she rushes to catch the carriage taking them to the ship to go home. But when the carriage turns over on a wet road, the baby is killed.

No one is really happy in this novel. The Herritons and Caroline Abbott are all trying to live a life that is socially acceptable as members of the middle class, no individuality allowed. Lilia, who hoped her marriage would free her from English conventional norms found herself caught in similar conventions as an Italian wife.

Where Angels Fear to Tread is Forster’s first novel. His later works are more well-known, including A Room with a View, Howard’s End and A Passage to India. What drives his novels, in my opinion, is his gift for finding the vulnerable places of his characters as motives for their life choices and in the case of this novel one character’s choice from that place drives the vulnerabilities of the entire cast.

_______________________
Challenges: Classics Club, Mount TBR

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith (1943)

My Edition:treebrooklyn
Title: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Author: Betty Smith
Publisher: The Blakiston Company
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1943
Pages: 376
Plot summary: Goodreads

Johnny: Anybody can ride in one of those hansom cabs, provided they got the money. So you can see what a free country we got here…In the old countries, certain people aren’t free to ride in them, even if they have the money.

Francie: Wouldn’t it be more of a free country if we could ride in them for free?

Johnny: No, because that would be Socialism and we don’t want that here.

About a year and a half ago I heard a program on NPR about the publishing industry and World War II; that publishers put out specially formatted books with thin paper and in a particular size to fit easily into the pocket of a soldier’s uniform. They published classics as well as light reading and were passed from soldier to soldier throughout the fields of battle. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was one of the most requested titles, because it reminded the soldiers of the values they were fighting for.

The Story

It is a Saturday during the summer of 1912 when we meet 11 year-old Francie Nolan. She lives with her brother Neeley and her parents, Katie and Johnny, both born in the United States, from Austrian and Irish backgrounds respectively. They live in a third-story walk up on a street with other immigrant Irish. Johnny is a singing waiter beloved by his friends and family, but alcohol has taken over him so his work is sporadic. Katie has become the breadwinner of the family and works as a ‘janitress’ cleaning homes and offices.

Francie and Neeley are always hungry, their clothes are not thick enough to protect them from the biting cold of winter and their home is not always heated. But they themselves are breadwinners as collectors of bits and bobs that they sell to the junkmen for pennies which will buy stale bread. Saturday afternoon being the most important day of the week, the kids scheme against each other for the best deals at the storefronts where they trade their stashes of rags and bits of metal and anything they can find to sell. With that money they buy food for the family, saving a penny for a sweet or two.

The book is told through budding writer Francie as she watches and observes the people and conditions around her. The narrative is a simple one as Francie grows from an 11 year-old to 17: her father dies of alcoholism, her mother takes on more work, she reads voraciously and realizes there is more to the world than Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York; she falls in love, is jilted, she fears her brother, who likes to sing, will end up like her father; she must give up her education so her work can support her mother and brother, but the desire for education burns so hard she takes college classes at night and during the summer and is able to skip high school altogether and is accepted to a college in Michigan. Her mother remarries and the family moves out of poverty.

Through Francie, Smith writes with such detail about early 20th century Williamsburg and the crushing and demeaning poverty of its inhabitants. She writes with a meticulous hand the strategies the children employ that will get them the most for the items they have collected throughout the week: which stores will pay them the most, whether this shop owner likes girls better than their brothers or that shop owner will give more to the boys, and the pride the children feel contributing to the family bank (a can nailed to the closet floor). When Katie asks Francie to shop for food she is given instructions on what to say and how to approach the butcher, the breadmaker and so on, in order to get the best deal.

My Thoughts

Yet, the story is not just the narrative, but the characters that people Francie’s life: the teacher who at first encouraged her writing until she started writing the truth about her hard life, who then told her writing is supposed to be full of beauty; her aunt Sissy, the ‘floozie’ who married three times, had 10 children that died at birth, yet is the family member everyone turns to in times of crisis; the Jewish and German shop keepers with whom Francie deals, who can be gruff and mean to the poor children one minute only to give them something extra the next; her father Johnny who she is so close to, yet for all his patriotism about freedom, is never able free himself from his addiction; Katie, who wanted to make a different world for her children, took her mother’s advice to read from the Bible and Shakespeare,

“…every day you must read a page of each to your child—even though you yourself do not understand what is written down and cannot sound the words properly. You must do this that the child will grow up knowing of what is great—knowing that these tenements of Williamsburg are not the whole world.

And the titular tree that grows tall throughout Williamsburg like an umbrella, because “it likes poor people” has the tenacity to succeed like the human inhabitants because when it is cut down, will find a break in the cement, push through it and grow again.

The book was published in 1943 when, although the soldiers didn’t know it, was right in the middle of the war. They were not that far removed from their own immigrant past, the tales of the ‘old country’ that were still real for their parents and grandparents. So, it is fair to say that this novel is really a story of immigrant America, how each generation built it up from the succeeding one.

And which may be why the book was so heavily traded among soldiers who saw in the pages their own mother and sister who kept the family together, whose fathers worked any job they could get, a little brother they missed; the same immigrant neighbors, who regardless of their poverty, knew America could give their children freedom, the ability to determine their own destiny which set America a part from the enemies they were fighting.

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Classics Club, Mount TBR

Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War (2016)

 

My Edition:mercyst
Title: Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War
Author: Pamela D. Toler
Publisher: Little Brown and Company
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2016
Pages: 287
Summary

I immediately wrote to all the people of influence I knew, begging them to procure me some place in the war as nurse, or whatever I could do, Mary Phinney von Olnhausen[1]

I shall not come home, unless I get sick, while this hospital lasts,  Cornelia Hancock[ii]

 

mercyst1
The Union took over Confederate private homes and hotels for use as hospitals

The second season of Mercy Street on PBS starts this Sunday. I was hooked from the first episode last year. The program tells another part of the American Civil War from the perspective of the doctors and nurses and the wounded of both sides. The script is based on the biographies, diaries and other writings of real women who volunteered to serve their country as hospital nurse, a profession that was ill-defined for women up to this point and whose presence in war-time hospitals often met with condescension at best and suspicion at worst. Their presence in military hospitals challenged the medical establishment’s concept of female sensibility to the horrors of war, until the women proved not only their worth in the hospital setting, but that their work was vital to the overall war effort.

I have been a ‘female nurse’ since a year ago last October…I went with many misgivings—but now I know what women are worth in the hospitals. It is no light thing to hear a man say he owes you his life and then to know that mother, wife, sister or child bless you in their prayers, Ella Wolcott[iii]

The Heroines of Mercy Street, by Pamela D. Toler, a companion to the PBS series, tells the stories of many of these women and about what it meant for nursing to grow from something done by women at home for family members as the knowledge was passed from mother to daughter, to a skilled profession in hospital and other outside-the-home settings. Toler explains that during the early days of the Civil War it was recovering soldiers who aided the doctors in caring for newly injured and sick, as female nurses were not well-accepted or were considered unable to perform the physical and medical duties as required. It was also thought the sights of the wounded and their care was not a respectable job for the mothers, daughters, wives and sisters of middle and upper class families.

…and in the late war we saw the most delicate women, who could not at home endure the sight of blood, become so used to scenes of carnage, that they walked the hospitals and the margins of battlefield, amid the poor remnants of torn humanity, with as perfect self-possession as if they were strolling in a flower garden,  Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner [iv]

Florence Nightingale changed this perception with her work in the Crimean War after which she published Notes on Nursing to high acclaim. Her school in London drew women from all classes of society, including American women, giving skills to  thousands of women willing to nurse the wounded and ill on the front and in hospitals.

Toler profiles many well-known women, including Dorothea Dix, Louisa May Alcott and her experiences at Union Hospital and the work of Clara Barton. Mary Phinney von Olnhausen, a major character in the series, features prominently in the book as well.  The comprehensive endnote section includes many others through their letters and journals, their conversations and documents that describe their back-breaking and emotionally-wrenching work.

mercyst3
Scenes like this are portrayed in the series

All these women, the famous and the unknown, were pioneers, who felt called to a profession in its infancy. They stood up for themselves and their vulnerable soldiers for whom they fought to get the best medical treatment, food and the cleanest environment possible. Their dedication proved their necessity to the war effort. As a result of the War, these skills also paved the way for women to work after the war ended, which according to Dorothea Dix advanced women “at least fifty years beyond the position they would have held had the country remained at peace.”[v]

I wonder what I shall do with myself when the war is over. I never can sit down and do nothing…I never expect to live at home again, I shall always be working somewhere or other, I hope. Work is my life. I cannot be happy doing nothing, Emily Parsons[vi]

_________________
[i] 51.
[ii] 175.
[iii] 143.
[iv] 121.
[v] 221.
[vi] Ibid.

Library Love Challenge

Miracle at Coney Island: How a Sideshow Doctor Saved Thousands of Babies and Transformed American Medicine, Claire Prentice (2016)

My Edition:coneyisland
Title: Miracle at Coney Island: How a Sideshow Doctor Saved Thousands of Babies and Transformed American Medicine
Author: Claire Prentice
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services LLC
Device: Kindle Fire
Year: 2016
Pages: 95
For a plot summary

About a year ago, I came across a segment on NPR that told the strange and wonderful story of an exhibit of incubator babies at Coney Island amusement park. Organized by German-born doctor Martin Couney, who saved thousands of premature infants with this new-fangled contraption, appealing to the public was the best way to show the skeptical medical establishment premature infants had a chance of survival.

And who would have thought trying to save babies from certain death would cause such controversy?

At the end of the 19th century when Couney started exhibiting his incubator babies, the survival rate of a premature or underweight infant was dismal. In general, 15-20 percent of infants did not live to their first birthday, which was devastating enough; the rate of death for premature babies was much higher. When a woman delivered such an underdeveloped baby, all resources went to her survival, as the baby’s death was just expected.

“Take it to the people” then if doctors and hospitals are skeptical. So Couney brought his doctors, nurses, wet nurses and 6 incubators to the Berlin Exposition in May of 1896. His set up consisted of a room for the nurses, a separate one for the male physicians, a second for the weighing, feeding, changing and bathing of the infants and a third large space which was open to the viewing public: the displays of incubators.

couney2-jpeg

 

So odd was the concept of babies nurtured in a box, that the exhibit was not in the official science and technology building but in the amusement section “sandwiched between the ‘Congo village’ and the Tyrolean Yodelers.” During the expo, Couney took in “batches of babies” bringing them to 6 pounds, all surviving, all going home with their parents.

The next year, Couney displayed the incubators at the Victorian Era Exhibition, where visitors picked out their favorite babies, often returning to watch their progress. It should be mentioned that Couney never charged the parents who brought their babies to him. Like any exhibit, the public was charged a fee, so it was from that Couney was able to pay his staff and buy equipment. It must also be noted Couney accept all babies regardless of race or class during a time when many places of amusement, not to mention hospitals, were segregated.

At some point after this exhibition Couney came to the United States and attained citizenship. (According to the author Claire Prentice, some of Couney’s early personal life is a little sketchy). His first American incubator exhibit occurred in 1898 at the Trans-Mississippi International Exhibition in the city of Omaha. Though hospitals would not release any infant born prematurely to Couney, desperate parents did. And the incubators were always full. Couney was at the exhibit every day explaining to the public how the incubators worked; that they replicated the body temperature of the mother, filtered in clean air to keep away germs and in such a clean supportive environment the babies thrived gradually gaining the requisite 6 pounds before being allowed to leave the incubators in the arms of their parents.

After several more exhibitions in the U.S., Couney was invited to a new amusement park on Coney Island, New York, called Luna Park. The spectacular attractions drew a large audience and after just one summer became the entertainment capital of the world. Couney was promised a prime location on the main thoroughfare.

Come this way, ladies and gentlemen! See the tiniest little bits of humanity in the world warmed, nourished and fed, given a good fair start to become strong and able-bodied citizens. Maybe the future President is inside! Maybe there is another J. Pierpont Morgan breathing the pure tar scented air! All done by the baby incubator! Step right in and watch the babies grow well and strong before your eyes! 

With a permanent base on Coney Island, Couney continued to exhibit the incubators at world’s fairs and exhibitions. Though his success rate was phenomenal attention from the medical establishment was slow to come. By the late 1920s, most hospitals still had no incubators and the few doctors who believed in the technology had no recourse but to send their premature patients to Couney at Luna Park.

Prentice goes into detail about Couney’s personal life, including his marriage and the birth of a premature daughter, his name change from Cohen to Couney and his fight to bring members of his family to America from Germany before Hitler’s reign would make it impossible for them to leave.

Prentice also reveals a stunning bombshell regarding Couney’s medical training, that is, whether or not he actually had any and what such a truth would bring to bear on his life’s work. Perhaps he was lucky that his technology was so derided by medical men and that he had to operate outside the medical establishment; surely, working in a hospital alongside actual doctors he would be caught as a fraud?

couney1However, does this knowledge, if it is true, take away from the fact that what Couney created worked? He saved thousands of children with a machine that is now part of every hospital on the planet. He was always careful to have doctors working with him who could take care of any medical emergency and trained nurses who believed in his work. He made it possible for babies who were given up on to live, and to grow up and create families of their own. His official medical credentials may always remain a mystery. But his contribution to medicine and to society can never be in doubt.