The Silence of the Girls

SilenceOfTheGirls_200x300    Pat Barker’s Trojan women really know what’s going on in The Silence of the Girls, but they have no voice in Homer’s Iliad.   If you missed reading this classic and have wondered what all the allusions mean, Barker’s story follows the original plot closely – even to Achilles’ best friend disguising himself with Achilles’ god-given armor.  Unlike other retellings of The Iliad, Barker tells the story from the point of view of the enslaved Trojan women, with the narrator the captured queen Briseis, a friend of the infamous Helen of Troy, who becomes Achilles’ slave.

The battles are brutal, the men are uncivilized, the feasting is sloppy, the hygiene is nonexistent, and the rats are everywhere.  The women observe, serve, and wait.

If you know the story, the plot line is not a mystery and the outcome not a surprise, but Barker uses Briseis to fill in the story behind the glory. In Homer’s The Iliad, Briseis is the catalyst in a quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles.  After Agamemnon is forced to relinquish his own Trojan slave, he demands Breseis for himself, sparking a crisis when Achilles subsequently refuses to fight, threatening the Greeks’ ability to win the war. Awarded to Achilles as a prize in conquering her homeland, the city of Lyrnessus, Briseis is a minor character referred to by name fewer than a dozen times in Homer’s epic, and then only to emphasize her beauty. Pat Barker gives Briseis a voice.

Barker addresses how differently history treats men and ignores women.   When King Priam of Troy sneaks into the Greek camp to beg Achilles to return his son Hector’s body, he cries:  “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.” This moment is among the most celebrated in literature, and yet Briseis’s perspective is very different. “And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do,” she thinks, observing the scene. “I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.”   When Briseis described the famous Helen’s confession of how she’d been raped as a child by a riverbank. “Of course I believed her,” Briseis says. “It was quite a shock to me, later, to discover nobody else did.”

The civilized Greeks who gave us democracy and Socratic inquiry could be very uncivilized. Barker dismisses the legend of the Achilles heel, as well as the glory of all those Greek heroes who have been lionized in songs, plays and books. Breisis tells the real story from the silenced women and ends with an admonition – we change history to suit, soften its horrors to be able to live with it.

“What will they make of us, the people of this unimaginable distant times?  One thing I do know; they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery.  They won’t want to be told of the massacre of men and boys, and the enslavement of women and girls.  They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they”ll  go for something altogether softer….{and} Achilles {will be}granted eternal glory in return for his early death under the walls of Troy…”

Despite the anachronisms and coarse language, Barker’s story makes its point – those silent women’s voices can be very powerful.  In another retelling of a Greek classic, Madeline Miller’s book, Circe, centers around a minor character in The Odyssey, a witch goddess who became the protagonist Odysseus’s lover.  Maybe I’ll read that next.

History Lessons

t_500x300 The Removes by Tatjana Soli

Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn is the stuff of legend, and his name lives on in ignominy or heroism, depending on the viewpoint, but Tatjana Soli’s The Removes introduces him as a Civil War hero and follows his battles with the Cheyenne and Sioux, as well as with himself to his court martial, reinstatement after nine months of enforced leave, and finally to his last confrontation.  Despite Custer’s bravado in his fancy attire and long golden hair,  the horror and gore is sometimes too much for him; when he washes and rewashes his hands until they are raw to remove the imaginary blood, it reminded me of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth – “out. out, damned Spot…”   Like Macbeth, this is a tragedy and not easy to experience.

Soli alternates her story between the young soldier Custer who is married to Libbie Bacon, and Annie, a fifteen year old pioneer girl captured by the Cheyenne and forced to live as a slave among them.  As the key women in the novel, Libbie and Annie represent how the West has changed their lives and their perspectives create an important foil to the violence in the lives of the calvary soldiers and the Cheyenne warriors.

The “removes” calculate the number of times Annie’s life changes, from being captured to trades with other tribes, and finally her return to what is left of her family.  The battles both Custer and Annie witness are fierce and the desperation they both feel is palpable.  Ironically, both Custer and Annie feel more at home in the great outdoors than confined to the “prison” of civilized homes.

The narrative has a stitled staccato rhythm, giving the story the frame of a documentary at times.  As Soli explains the western expansion, the greed for gold, the stealing of Native American territory, the senseless slaughter of people and animals, the story is too horrible to imagine but too compelling to look away.  Custer is both the philandering dandy and the dedicated soldier; Annie is the abused captive as well as the clever girl who barters to survive.  In a note at the end of the book, Soli says “the pendulum swings from simplistic descriptions of Indian warfare in the old Hollywood westerns to the opposite but equally false ones in more current books and films. … We honor the past most when we depict it as accurately as possible without contorting it to contemporary mores.”

Their stories may be fictional, but Soli uses them to retell the unsettling history of the wild west, melding empathetic examples of characters with unforgettable historical events.

Unknown   Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin

If Doris Kearns Goodwin had been my history teacher in high school, I may have paid better attention.  Since I have not read any of Goodwin’s biographies of the four American Presidents she addresses in her latest examination – Leadership in Turbulent Times – I am looking forward to learning more about the men she identifies as great leaders.  Two are immortalized on Mt. Rushmore – Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.  FDR is also in the mix but I was surprised she included LBJ as one of the four leaders to emulate.  In her prologue she reveals her special relationship to Lyndon Johnson, whom she first met when she was a White House Fellow, and later helped him with his memoirs.  She prefers to focus on his role in Civil Rights rather than the Vietnam War.

Clearly, Kearns is determined to provide government leadership models by looking back, since the present has few to offer.  In her forward she states:

“It is my hope that these stories of leadership in times of fracture and fear will prove instructive and reassuring.  These men set a standard and a bar for all of us.  Just as they learned from one another, so we can learn from them.  And from them gain a better perspective on the discord of our times.”

I have only just started reading but the book promises a good lesson in history.

It’s Never Too Late to “Meet Me at the Museum”

1250295165.01._SX142_SY224_SCLZZZZZZZ_  Anne Youngson’s Meet Me at the Museum focuses on second chances in life and love, but shifting gears into this slow-paced epistolary novel fired up my unexpected interest in anthropology and had me looking for more information.  The Tollund man, a perfectly preserved prehistoric man found in the Danish bog, now on display at the Silkeborge Museum in Denmark, is the motivation behind a chain of letters between an unhappy older woman dissatisfied with her life on the farm, and a lonely museum curator who has recently lost his wife.  Tina Hopgood initiates the letters with an inquiry about the Tollund man, and Anders Larson, the museum curator responds,  with a short lecture on the exhibit and an invitation to visit.  

After 40 years as a farm wife, Tina is regretting she never visited the museum but also wonders about other options in her life she never had the chance to consider. Recently widowed Anders works at Denmark’s Silkeborge Museum, which houses Tollund Man, and is finding himself unable to move on after the death of his wife.  Gradually, over eighteen months of writing, their salutations progress from “Dear Mrs. Hopgood” and “Best Wishes” to “My dear Tina” and finally to  “All my love.” 

As the letters become more personal, they disclose their struggles and give each other advice.  Both have grown daughters who are about to make major changes in their lives, and both are wondering if their lives have had any meaning.  Throughout the story, Youngson interjects long descriptions of farm life from Tina and details of the Tollund Man from Anders.  Tina’s letters are filled with the monotony of tending chickens and slaughtering pigs.  She describes picking raspberries, noting that no matter how careful she is, she always finds some she’s missed, comparing her life to a missed row of raspberries. As their letters eventually merge into philosophical observations from both correspondents and the realization of their new-found connection, raspberries become their private reference for second chances, with Anders noting “I feel I have overlooked far too many of the fruits in this life I have.”

“Our letters have meant so much to us because we have both arrived at the same point in our lives. More behind us than ahead of us…Please do not be angry with the circumstances of your life … nothing is so fixed it cannot be altered.”

Youngson may be her own inspiration for the story.  As an Oxfordshire farm wife who always wanted to write a novel, she finally did write this debut novel in her sixties, and is now pursuing a Ph.D.  It’s never too late.

UnknownAs for Tallund Man, here’s what I discovered – click here for more information

 

Other Epistolary Novels I’ve Enjoyed:

  • Daddy Long Legs
  • 84 Charing Place
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
  • The Divorce Papers
  • Dear Committee Members

White Houses

Unknown-1On International Women’s Day, a book about Eleanor Roosevelt seems appropriate, but Amy Bloom’s White Houses is more about Lorena Hickok, Eleanor’s companion and lover as she reflects an aspect of the great First Lady’s humanity and the inner self few knew.  Although fiction, Bloom carefully contains the historical moments, referencing letters and research from historians bringing the famous friendship of two middle-aged women into the physical.  With insights into their personal lives and sacrifices, Bloom creates an homage to two strong women who wrote a quiet but forceful chapter of American history.

Beginning with Hick’s introspection during the weeks after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, Bloom easily moves her story back and forth, offering biographical background on Hick’s  miserable childhood, her days with a freak circus, and later as an upcoming reporter for the Associated Press.  When Hick quits her job and moves into the White House, their affair seems unlikely to be kept from the public, yet this is the time when the press chose to ignore the President’s disability and quietly looked away from his many dalliances.  Hick and Eleanor became “good friends” with only a few knowing their real relationship – one of them Franklin himself.

The affair goes in and out of favor as life, family, and politics intrude on Eleanor’s sense of responsibility to her causes and her exhausting schedule.  Hick defers to Eleanor, but is the stalwart strength and support when needed, and always available when asked.  In Bloom’s book, Hick is not cropped out of the picture, as she actually was in pictures of the New Deal White House.   It would seem that with Franklin’s death, the two would frame a life together, but it was not to be.  Eleanor had more to accomplish around the world and Hick had books to write.

Bloom’s portrayal of the rogue eccentric in Franklin Delano Roosevelt may be the most entertaining pieces in the book.  Hick notes:

“He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day… He broke hearts and ambitions across his knee like bits of kindling, and then he dusted off his hands and said, ‘Who’s for cocktails?’ ”

Getting to know historic icons Franklin and Eleanor personally through the eyes of Hick, the outsider inside the White House, somehow opens them to more greatness.  In White Houses, Bloom’s last pages emphasize the cruelty of mortality – “All fires go out…” – while offering quiet gratitude for the value of knowing someone intimately, something to save us in old age.

I savored the book, reading slowly, not only to know Eleanor Roosevelt better but also to appreciate the strength of accomplished women, despite the obstacles they faced.

A Book List from Independent Booksellers

If you are looking for a good book, two local independent booksellers in Carmel, California have some suggestions.  Many titles were new to me (but then I tend to stick to fiction) so I checked out their reviews and summaries, and offered a quick assessment.

Here’s the list:

  • Reactions by Theodore Gray – the third and final installment in the trilogy of The Elements, Molecules, and Reactions – chemistry in pictures and stories. Gray offers molecule quilts too – I may find that more interesting.
  • Smitten Kitchen by Deb Perelman – based on the popular food blog, this cookbook promises to rival Ina, Nmartha, and Nigella with recipes and food ideas from a recovering vegetarian.  I love cookbooks and am always happy to find a new one.
  • The Undiscovered Islands by Malachy Talkack – National Geographic promises it is “Packed full of intelligent musings on everything from religion to astronomy, alchemy to the occult…an exploration of two dozen islands once believed to exist but no longer on the map.  This one might make it to my to-read list, if I can find it in the library (unlikely).
  • Van Life by Foster Huntington – photos of life on the road.  I’m not a fan.
  • Going Into Town by Roz Chast.  I read it, loved it, highly recommend it.
  • Grant by Ron Chernow – biography of Ulysses S. Grant.  I never made it through his Hamilton, so will probably skip this one.
  • The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey – Police detective Gemma Woodstock works to solve the murder of a former classmate in this debut mystery.  This one has possibilities for my audible wish list.
  • Where the Past Begins by Amy Tan – the author’s memoir.  I’m not big on memoirs, so will probably skip this one too.
  • The Child Finder by Rene Denfield – New York Times calls this “a powerful novel about a search for a missing girl that’s also a search for identity…”  and notes a comparable book would be Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.  A winner – going on my to-read list.
  • The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After Happiness by Heather Harpham – NPR says  “…Harpham relives the heartbreak, hope, and terror she experienced as she watched her infant daughter cross the abyss of a life-threatening disease. Into this tension-torqued story of sickness and health, she works in the fraught tale of her own evolving relationship with {her ex-husband}.” Might be good if you liked When Breath Becomes Air, but I think I will skip it.
  • The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas -mixed reviews about a fictional novelist who marries when she would rather write.  I might give it a try.
  • The Kinfolk Entrepreneur: Ideas for Productive Work by Nathan Williams -introduces readers to creative business owners around the globe. … a chocolatier among them.  Has pictures, so might be worth a look.

Have you read any of these?