Review: White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Brenda Wineapple

Emily Dickinson declared, “Biography first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographied.” Brenda Wineapple not only takes on the monumental task in White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson of writing a biography of the enigmatic Belle of Amherst, but also of her friend, now (unfortunately) mostly unknown except for his connection to Dickinson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Dickinson sent her poetry to Higginson along with her query:

Mr. Higginson,

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?

The Mind is so near itself—it cannot see, distinctly—and I have none to ask—

Should you think it breathed—and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude—

So began a friendship and correspondence that would last until Emily Dickinson’s death, after which, Higginson, along with the mistress of Dickinson’s brother Austin, Mabel Loomis Todd, would edit and assist in the publication of Emily Dickinson’s poems after her death. Dickinson personally sent Higginson over 100 of her nearly 1800 poems.

After the introduction describing Emily Dickinson’s first letter, Wineapple’s biography is divided into three major parts, titled “Before,” “During,” and “After,” which describe the lives of Dickinson and Higginson in alternating chapters before they began their correspondence, during their correspondence and friendship, and after Emily Dickinson’s death, respectively.

Emily Dickinson first wrote to Higginson while he was living in Worcester, Massachusetts, which is my home. I had to look him up on the 1860 US Census, and I was not disappointed.

1860 Census

Take a look at his occupation: “Literary Man.”

Emily Dickinson Letter
Letter from Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson via Wikipedia

What Wineapple so expertly brings to light in this extraordinary biography is just how important Higginson’s contribution not only to preserving for posterity the poetry of one of the greatest American poets but also to history. Over time, he’s been accused of heavy-handed editing and of not understanding Dickinson’s genius. Both accusations may be true. One can hardly blame him for not understanding her. She was unlike any poet he had read before. Higginson himself claimed that “The bee himself did not evade the schoolboy more than she evaded me; and even at this day I still stand somewhat bewildered, like the boy” in an essay he wrote about Dickinson for The Atlantic, a magazine to which he was a frequent contributor. As to whether he was too heavy-handed an editor, Wineapple claims that it’s almost impossible to tell today whether it was Higginson or Mabel Loomis Todd who is more responsible for the edits. Thankfully, after the scholarship of Thomas H. Johnson and Ralph W. Franklin, we have editions of her poetry that more likely capture Emily Dickinson’s intentions. However, Wineapple does note that Higginson implored Todd on several occasions to “alter as little as possible, now that the public’s ear is opened.” Wineapple claims Todd “did not listen” (292).

In any case, Higginson’s reputation foundered with the advent of Modernism in the twentieth century, and while appreciation for Dickinson soared, Higginson was nearly forgotten. It’s a shame, too, because he was an admirable man. He was an abolitionist whose house was always on the Underground Railroad. He was an advocate for women’s rights and suffrage. It was he, not Robert Gould Shaw (now memorialized in the movie Glory) who led the first black regiment in the Civil War, the First South Carolina Volunteers. He suffered an injury that would leave a scar he carried all his life in an attempt to free fugitive slave Anthony Burns and prevent his return to the South.

Wineapple’s triumph in this biography is not only that she is able in some way to offer a peek into the lives of the Dickinson family, but also that she resurrected Higginson from “the dustbin of literary history” (12). As she explains in her introduction,

Sometimes we see better through a single window after all: this book is not a biography of Emily Dickinson, of whom biography gets us nowhere, even though her poems seem to cry out for one. Nor is it a biography of Colonel Higginson. It is not conventional literary criticism. Rather, here Dickinson’s poetry speaks largely for itself, as it did to Higginson. And by providing a context for particular poems, this book attempts to throw a small, considered beam onto the lifework of these two unusual, seemingly incomparable friends. It also suggests, however lightly, how this recluse and this activist bear a fraught, collaborative, unbalanced, and impossible relation to each other, a relation as symbolic and real in our culture as it was special to them. (13)

Wineapple’s book is not only one of the most interesting books about Dickinson to be found, but it is also one of the most well-written. I have rarely read a biography that swept me up in quite the same way this one did. I found myself both eager to pick it up to read, and reluctant to read too fast so that I could savor it and stretch out my experience of reading it. I came away with renewed appreciation for Dickinson and a newly acquired appreciation for Higginson. It’s definitely worth the read for anyone curious about Emily Dickinson, but I imagine even those who aren’t sure about Dickinson would enjoy this book.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I bought this book in September 2015, I think right after I visited the Emily Dickinson Homestead the first time. I just now finally picked it up. It was published in 2008. I’m counting it for the Backlist Reader Challenge.

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Review: The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson, Rosanna Bruno

I ordered this book on a whim after coming across it in an article posted on Facebook (which is appropriate, given the subject matter of the book). The article, entitled “Why Moody Teenagers Love Emily Dickinson” (BBC), quotes the author of The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson, Rosanna Bruno:

“We were taught that she was this reclusive spinster who lived with her family, dressed all in white, and wrote in her room all day”, recalls artist Rosanna Bruno of her high school introduction to the poet in the 1980s. Even then, Bruno felt that the mythology of the poet didn’t really mesh with the poems. “It seemed so incongruous to what she wrote”, she says. “Have you ever heard Helen Mirren reading Wild Nights!? You really have to rethink Dickinson as a reclusive spinster after that rendition.”

Indeed, Bruno has hit on something here. Dickinson is one of those writers, like Poe or the Brontës, whose lives—or should I say whose “images”—come dangerously close to eclipsing their work. I, too, have been guilty of trying to sell Emily Dickinson to teenagers by telling them intrigues about her life. But as I have learned more about her, I have learned more about her humorous side, her playful side, her wicked side, for lack of a better word. And she is way more interesting than our portrait of her as the recluse in a white dress. Rosanna Bruno captures in cartoons what Emily Dickinson’s life might have been like with some of our twenty-first century concerns (and social media accounts). The result is a funny graphic novel that I think Emily Dickinson herself might have enjoyed.

You might need to click on this for the full image to enjoy the effect, but anyone whose tried out writing up classic literature with emojis (that is a thing), will enjoy this:

The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson
From The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson © Rosanna Bruno, used under fair use for the purpose of critique

I enjoyed the juxtaposition of one of my favorite books and my favorite poet:

The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson
From The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson © Rosanna Bruno, used under fair use for the purpose of critique

But my favorite might be her OK Cupid profile, though the Yelp reviews were pretty awesome, too.

The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson
From The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson © Rosanna Bruno, used under fair use for the purpose of critique

Bruno has clearly researched Dickinson’s life, and there are plenty of Easter eggs for those who know a lot about the poet’s life. The artistic renderings of Dickinson’s home and environment are done with a careful eye as well. What shines through most clearly is that Bruno is a fan of Emily Dickinson’s and she had a lot of fun with Dickinson’s poetry as she wrote this book.

Anyone who is a fan of Emily Dickinson’s will probably enjoy this book, and it also has an audience with folks who enjoy Roz Chast’s cartoons (both Chast and Alison Bechdel get fan shout-outs in this book).

Check out Bruno’s website for more images from the book.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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Birthday Weekend

Birthday petit-fours from my husband
Birthday petit-fours from my husband

It was my birthday this weekend. I have moved into a new demographic!

I decided I wanted to go to Northampton and Amherst for my birthday. There was a Poetry Festival in Amherst, but unfortunately, most of the events I wanted to go to were on Thursday or Friday before I could get there. Bummer. On Saturday, the Emily Dickinson House was sponsoring a marathon reading of all 1789 of her poems, but I really didn’t want to just dip in and out of that, so I wound up deciding to spend Saturday afternoon in Northampton.

Northampton and Amherst are college towns. Between the two of them, I count U Mass Amherst, Amherst College, Smith College, Mouth Holyoke College, and Hampshire College. I may be forgetting some. At any rate, they are close together, and with all those colleges, you can imagine the college-town vibe is strong. Northampton is definitely fairly funky, at least the downtown area.

We found a wonderful used bookstore. I loved it because the books were mostly in pristine condition. So many used bookstores don’t have really nice books, and most of them certainly don’t have the kind of selection Raven Used Books has. Here is my haul from Saturday.

photo-sep-17-5-31-39-pm

We went back today before leaving for home, and I scored two more books: Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations and Elena Mauli Shapiro’s 13 Rue Thérèse. The Club Dumas looks like it might be perfect for the R. I. P. Challenge, and who knew that there was a historical fiction novel about Hildegard von Bingen (Illuminations)? Byatt’s novel doesn’t have great reviews on Amazon, but I’ll give it a go. I loved Possession so much.

For my birthday lunch, we went to a burger place called Local Burger. Back when I was in college, I could get an excellent hamburger for about a buck at the cafeteria on campus. It had a nice charbroiled flavor, and it was juicy without being pink (pink ground beef skeeves me out). I hadn’t had a burger as good as those old cheap cafeteria burgers since. Until this one. And the fries were amazing.

We drove into Amherst and stopped into Amherst Books where I found a remainder of Remembering Shakespeare by David Scott Kastan and Kathryn James and Living with Shakespeare edited by Susannah Carson with essays by so many people—F. Murray Abraham, Isabel Allende, Brian Cox, Ralph Fiennes, James Earl Jones, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jane Smiley, Joyce Carol Oates, and many others.

Last night for dinner, we had some excellent Italian food at Pasta e Basta. I was “that person” and took a picture of my pasta because it was so pretty.

photo-sep-17-7-37-47-pm

I wish I could have brought my leftovers home. There was at least another meal left on that plate. I didn’t think it would travel well, though.

After dinner we picked up some cookies at Insomnia Cookies. Had such a thing existed when I was in college, I have no idea how big I’d be by now. We got four kinds of cookies, and I can definitely recommend the Double Chocolate Mint. I also tried Peanut Butter Chip, but the Chocolate Chunk and M&M cookies were all gone too fast.

This morning, we went to Jake’s for breakfast, and I had some fantastic eggs, potatoes, and toast. We walked around and did some more shopping. I found myself this glorious Brontë sisters mug with quotes from the sisters’ works.

photo-sep-18-6-37-33-pm

Northampton and Amherst are nice places to visit, and they’re only a little over an hour away. They have a different feel from other places in Massachusetts—perhaps because they’re college towns, or perhaps because they’re in the western part of the state. We don’t really have indie bookstores in Worcester, either (that I know of)—just B&N, so it was nice to go book shopping in those places and score some deals on some great-looking new and used books. In addition, everything was pretty reasonably priced—another of the virtues of a college town, I suppose.

photo-sep-17-7-08-37-pm
Steve and Dylan at dinner
Maggie and Me
Maggie and Me

Once I was home, Steve presented with two more books: A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century by Jerome Charyn and The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck by Sarah Knight. He had already given me Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them. My parents sent me a gift card for more goodies from Amazon, too. I really need to do some reading!

P. S. I have no idea why the last image is upside-down on some devices. I can’t figure out how to fix it without deleting and starting over, though, so I just left it.

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Sunday Post #32: Visiting Emily

Emily Dickinson's House

This weekend, I presented at a digital storytelling conference in Northampton/Amherst. My family came with me, and we visited Emily Dickinson’s home (now a museum) and grave. Now, given the title of my blog, you might guess I’m a fan. I am not sure what it is about her poetry—the jarring dashes and slant rhyme, the ballad meter (on most), or the strong images. I like the way she thinks, and I find I agree with her about a lot of larger issues in life.

We took a 45-minute tour of her house. You can also take a 90-minute tour that includes a tour of her brother Austin’s house next door. The tour began in a parlor, and the docent discussed some of the portraits hanging in the room and told us about Emily’s family. Next, we went into the library. Some of the books from the library are now housed in other locations, but some remain. The docent told a great story about Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s visit to Dickinson. It seems she wore the poor man out with conversation. He also shared the anecdote about Higginson’s reaction when Emily sent him her poetry—he described it as “spasmodic” and “uncontrolled.” Her famous reply: “You think my gait ‘spasmodic’—I am in danger—Sir—You think me ‘uncontrolled’—I have no Tribunal.”

The next stop is on the second floor. Sunlight shines through a window facing the front of the house, illuminating a replica of Emily Dickinson’s white dress. I nearly cried when I saw it. She must have been about the same height as me. A little more slender, though. About 20 years ago, I could have fit into her dress. The museum doesn’t allow pictures, but I sure wanted to break the rules to get a picture of that dress. You can find other pictures of it online, however.

Finally, we saw Emily’s bedroom. She has pictures of George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning on the wall, and according to our docent, Emily’s niece Mattie attested to the fact that Emily did hang picture of those two writers on her wall (whether they are the exact same ones, I don’t know). Her actual sleigh bed is still in the room. A replica of her little writing table sits in the corner. The room has recently been restored with wallpaper reconstructed from the actual wallpaper that Emily had in her room. It was amazing to stand in that space where Emily wrote most of her poems. I can’t really even describe how it felt.

We went outside to take a look at Emily’s gardens. Of course, she was a great gardener, but her garden doesn’t survive. Still, I found these beautiful purple flowers. The label said they were called “Love Lies Bleeding” (Amaranthus caudatus). They were gorgeous, and they seemed perfect for her garden.

Love Lies Bleeding

We took a short walk to the cemetery where she is buried. Luckily for us, a quick Google search led us to an article that indicated her family’s plot was surrounded by a wrought iron fence. Otherwise, we’d have had to wander a while, and my husband’s patience was not going to extend that far.

We found it pretty quickly after discovering that detail. We took a few pictures of her headstone and the family plot. I placed a rock on top of her headstone. Many people had the same idea before me, as you can see.

Emily Dickinson's Headstone

I was interested to see that her stone reads “Born Dec. 10, 1830.” That is my oldest daughter’s birthday—December 10. Then it says, “Called Back May 15, 1886.” In her last letter to her cousins, right before she died (and she knew she was dying) she wrote,

Little cousins,

Called Back.

Emily

I read that her niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi had that inscription done some time after (her original headstone had just her initials on it).

Emily Dickinson's grave

It’s hard to get a good, unobstructed picture of the headstone because of the fence.

Dickinson Plaque

I love that the plaque on the little gate in the fence describes Dickinson as a “Poetess.” One of those archaic terms one never needs to use anymore.

Dickinson's tree

There is a really nice tree growing in the corner of the Dickinson family plot. I think she’d like that very much if she knew it.

Emily and Lavinia

Emily is buried to the right of her sister Lavinia (on the end). I didn’t know much about Emily’s sister, known as “Vinnie,” until the docent shared some details. Did you know it was Vinnie who found Emily’s poems after Emily died and worked to make sure they were published? I had no idea. As you can see, some folks left stones for Vinnie, too.

Dickinson Plot

Rounding out the Dickinson family plot are the graves of Emily’s parents (both names are inscribed on the headstone that is second from left). I think the one on the end is her grandfather.

I learned a some interesting things about Emily’s writing process from the docent at the museum and even walked away with a good idea for a lesson in diction that I think my students will enjoy.

What an incredible opportunity to walk in Emily Dickinson’s footsteps and visit her!

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

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Sunday Post #23: Walden

Sunday PostI finished reading Walden this afternoon. I had no idea it was going to be such a demanding read. I had only ever read excerpts of it (turns out, those would be the “good parts” versions). While I do completely get its importance in American literature, I can’t exactly say I liked it. I liked parts of it. I didn’t see the connections between the various chapters very well (and sometimes not even within the chapters themselves). It seemed a bit meandering. I know some criticize Thoreau because he was actually not that far from town, and he was fairly social (rather than living off on his own). I think he makes it relatively clear that he was not literally living a solitary life. I think was he was really after was trying to live as simply as he could. How much time he actually spent in the cabin he built, I don’t really know, but it’s clear he spent a lot of time there, and he seems to be actively trying on the clothes of hermit, even if he’s not really one. But I don’t really care about that, anyway. Some really interesting nuggets throughout, but as a whole, it didn’t do it for me.

More irritating was trying to work the annotations in the Kindle version I bought. You’d think the notes would be in order (for instance, that note 73 would have followed note 72 in a given chapter). You would be wrong. That made it a real pain when I was trying to read notes that I had difficulty opening because they were either close to the edges of the Kindle page (and thus, all I could succeed in doing was turning the page) or when the hyperlinked text was only a small number, which even my small fingers couldn’t seem to touch in order to activate the link. It was really frustrating. I am sure the index is quite good, but it’s in the back before the notes and not so easy to navigate. Perhaps it’s not necessary given the search feature in Kindle. And finally, I found a bunch of notes on the text that were never hyperlinked. Who knew those were even there? Also, some of the text was oddly laid down (half a word might be half a line beneath the other half). I don’t know how that happens. I don’t know if reading the paper version would be as frustrating or not.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

So, on to other things. I have not added any books to my TBR pile, which is probably a good thing given how slowly I’m reading the ones in my currently-reading pile. I spent three days this last week at a conference, and I am going to another one this coming Saturday. I am hoping I’ll have time to write my usual blog post here next Sunday, but we will see what happens.

I am about an hour and a half from finishing All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. I might try to finish that one today, either making soap or doing dishes. Or both. Who knows. If I do finish it today, my review will likely appear on this blog tomorrow. I don’t really like to post more than once a day.

So, what are you reading?

I am counting Walden as my Nonfiction Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge. Just for my own reference, I’m making note of my progress on this challenge so far:

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

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Review: We Were Liars, E. Lockhart, narrated by Ariadne Meyers

Wow. I’m going to try not to spoil anything for you because the less you really know about E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars going in, the more you are likely to enjoy it. Having said that, I know a little taste of the book is sometimes necessary for readers who might be on the fence about reading a book. Here goes.

Cadence Sinclair Eastman, known as Cady, is the granddaughter of the wealthy and WASPish Harris and Tipper Sinclair, who own a private island near Martha’s Vineyard complete with a full staff, a large manor house where Harris and Tipper live, and three houses for each of Harris and Tipper’s daughters: Carrie, Bess, and Penny. Carrie is the oldest and has two sons: Johnny and Will. They live in New York City. Bess, the middle daughter, lives in Cambridge with her four children: Mirren, twins Liberty and Bonnie, and Taft. The youngest daughter, Penny, is Cady’s mother. They live in Burlington, Vermont. Each summer the family gathers to spend their vacation on the private island, known as Beechwood Island.

We Are Sinclairs

Cady can’t remember much about the year fifteen summer due to an accident she had, and a shroud of secrecy surrounds the story. Her family does not speak to her about it. Cady is desperate to return to Beechwood Island and see her two cousins Johnny and Mirren along with Gat, nephew of the man Cady’s Aunt Carrie is living with. Gat has been visiting Beechwood Island as a guest of the Sinclairs for years, and over time, Cady has fallen in love with him. Together, they were the Liars, and they forged a close summer friendship that waned as they returned to home and school each year, but picked up right where it left off the following summer. But even the Liars are strangely silent and reluctant to talk about Cady’s accident.

I anticipate that some readers will have difficulty identifying with the privileged Sinclairs and their idyllic summers on their own private island. I admit it’s a barrier, but if you take a peek at the family dynamic, it’s a great deal easier to feel empathy for the family. They have a secretive, fractured family. One of my favorite aspects of the novel was its connection to King Lear and an assortment of fairy tales. In fact, I’m wondering if this book might not be a good one to bring into my AP Literature class, which will be reading both King Lear and Jane Smiley’s modern adaptation A Thousand Acres. I could see a small literature circle group really enjoying the connections between this novel and the other texts.

I understand that some readers don’t like the writer’s style. I listened to the audio book, and the narrator naturally had a great deal of influence over how the text was interpreted, so I can’t speak to those complaints except to say that if the style is bothering you, you might try listening to the book instead. I don’t think I have ever finished an audio book in one day before. I just wanted to find out what would happen. The suspense of not knowing what was going on with Cady’s family or her accident kept me up late until I finished the book some time after 1:00 A. M. Saturday night.

Silence

This was a perfect start-of-summer read, even if the story is a tough one. While it is YA, I would classify it as more mature YA—for high schoolers rather than middle schoolers, but it’s definitely appropriate for students in high school, whom I would imagine would really love it. I know this is the kind of book I would have inhaled had it existed when I was in high school.

Ariadne Meyers’s narration is perfect for the story. She emotes when necessary, and she pulls the cynical teenager when it’s called for. I liked her reading so much that I downloaded another book that I’ve been wanting to read that she also narrates through Audible.

Rating: ★★★★★
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Sunday Post #20: Summertime

Sunday PostLooks like summer is starting pretty much all over (at least in the northern hemisphere). I’m beginning to see vacation pics on Facebook, and I’ve been eying my TBR pile, looking for good summertime reads.

I have a bit of a busy summer ahead. I am going to at least four teaching workshops. If anyone tries to tell you teachers don’t work during the summer, don’t you believe it. In addition, I have a new course to plan.

This week, I finished two books. The first I’ve already reviewed: The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. The second I have not yet reviewed, but will review and post about tomorrow (so good that it really needs its own post rather than a review rolled into the Sunday Post): We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. Both were audio books.

I am still finishing up Walden, though my other books are on a bit of a hiatus, with the exception of I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira. I don’t know if other readers do this or not, but I have to have at least one paper book, one e-book, and one audio book going at all times. The paper books I can read in the tub without fear of destroying an expensive device. The e-books I can read pretty much everywhere, including in bed with the lights off, so I don’t disturb my husband. The audio books I can listen to while I do housework or make soap.

I love to read books set in my adopted home state of Massachusetts, so that was one reason why I liked We Were Liars so much, and I admit, seeing Massachusetts as a setting will push a book higher on my list. Here is a partial list of some of my favorite Massachusetts reads.

           

Some I’m looking forward to diving into or finishing:

    

I wonder if other readers are like me and like to read about places they have lived. I also certainly read a lot of books set elsewhere, too.

I added some books to my TBR list this week:

 

I know what you’re thinking: some variation of either “why haven’t you read The Things They Carried?” or “why wasn’t it already on your list”? It sort of was on my list, to address the second question, but now an oversight is corrected in that it’s on my Goodreads to-read list. As to the first question, yeah, I know.

Not at all a bad reading week, and I’m looking forward to more time (I hope) to read this summer. What about you? Have any recommendations or books you’re anxious to read?

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

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Review: Conversion, Katherine Howe, narrated by Khristine Hvam

My most recent audio book was Conversion by Katherine Howe and read by Khristine Hvam. Conversion alternates between two stories. Colleen Rowley is a high school senior at St. Joan’s Academy in Danvers, Massachusetts. She’s currently in a heated competition for school valedictorian and is stressed about getting into Harvard. Her classmates suddenly develop mysterious ailments—one girl has an apparent seizure, but soon another girl is losing her hair, while others develop tics and coughing fits. What is going on?

The other story is that of Ann Putnam, Jr., one of accusers in the Salem Witch Trials, and a real historical figure who later confessed to being “deluded by Satan” and apologized for her role in the deaths. As she tells the story of her involvement in the trials to Reverend Green, it becomes increasingly clear she’s still disturbed (which might not be historically accurate, but it was fun). What exactly caused the girls of Salem Village to think they were bewitched in 1692? And what was wrong with the girls at St. Joan’s 320 years later?

When Colleen is given an extra credit assignment by her AP US History teacher to read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and write a paper about why Miller changed the details connected to some of the girls—Ann Putnam in particular—she discovers an eerie connection between the events in the Witch Trials and the girls’ illnesses at St. Joan’s that no one else seems to have noticed.

Katherine Howe has written about Salem before, particularly in The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (which happens to be one of my favorite historical fiction novels). In fact, Deliverance Dane, her daughter Mercy, and her descendant Connie Goodwin all make cameo appearances in this novel (which I rather enjoyed). In this case, she was also inspired the the story of a mysterious illness that afflicted students at at high school in Le Roy, New York. The true cause of the “hysteria” in the Witch Trials has been debated, and we will likely never have an answer—just perhaps more plausible theories. In juxtaposing the events in modern-day Danvers (which used to be Salem Village) and Puritan Salem, Howe shows us it’s just possible that the girls were under a great deal of stress and that their treatment as girls and, in some cases, lower class servants, contributed to the deaths of innocent people when the witchcraft accusations began to fly. It’s certainly a plausible explanation and takes into account that perhaps the girls really were faking at first and later became caught up in a shared delusion.

Conversion is a highly enjoyable book that has a lot to say about the stress teenagers are under in today’s competition for grades and college spots and also the ways in which we discount teens’ voices. I should think that teenagers would find a lot to relate to, and at the same time, they would learn some interesting things about American history and literature.

The narrator, Khristine Hvam, did an excellent job not only capturing the voices of the teenaged girls, but also the old New England cadence of Ann Putnam’s speech. She was perfect for the novel, and she’s one of the better book narrators I’ve heard. I am really glad I listened to the audio book with the exception of one reason: the Author’s Note was not included in the reading, and it has some interesting information for readers. I had to track it down so I could read it.

I really liked this interview at Bustle and this other review at the Nerdy Book Club.

Rating: ★★★★★
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

(P. S.: Some of the novel is set in the past, but as the focus is more on the present, I have decided not to count it for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.)

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Review: The Wolves of Andover, aka The Traitor’s Wife, Kathleen Kent

Kathleen Kent’s novel The Wolves of Andover, also known as The Traitor’s Wife, is something of a prequel to The Heretic’s Daughter, a novel told from the viewpoint of Sarah Carrier, daughter of Martha Carrier, who was executed in the Salem Witch Trials. The Wolves of Andover tells the story of the courtship Thomas Carrier and Martha Allen alternating with the story of several conspirators of Charles II bound for America to find and capture the man who cut off the head of Charles I in the English Civil War.

As the story begins, Martha is sent to her cousin Prudence Taylor’s house to serve as Prudence prepares to give birth to her third child. Her husband Daniel is often away on business, but two men, Thomas and John, work for Taylor household in the hopes of earning a piece of Taylor’s land. Whispers surround Thomas Carrier. Some claim that he was the regicide, the man who wielded the very axe that struck King Charles’s head from his shoulders. He is uncommonly tall and possessed of a quiet air of mystery. Martha soon finds herself in love with him. Meanwhile, several men in the employ of spy Tiernan Blood make their way across the Atlantic after a harrowing journey in an attempt to find the Welshman, known as Thomas Morgan, and capture him for execution in London. What they don’t realize is that Oliver Cromwell’s old followers have spies of their own, too.

One of the things I realized reading this book is that I have never really given a lot of thought to the ways in which the English Civil War created America, and (it could be argued) led to the American Revolution. Of course, I knew the early founders of Massachusetts were Puritans, and of course I knew Cromwell was a Puritan, too, but for some reason, perhaps because it’s the story we always tell, I always pictured the Puritans who settled New England as religious dissidents instead of political ones. I don’t think our own history plays up the role the Puritans played in the English Civil War very much, probably because the first group of Puritans to arrive in America came well before the English Civil War began; however, successive waves of Puritans arriving later must surely have included soldiers who fought with Cromwell, even if the greatest wave of Puritan migration occurred before the English Civil War. It certainly stands to reason that these early settlers had quarrels with the monarchy and that they passed their feelings down to their children and children’s children.

I was able to hear Kathleen Kent speak at an English teachers’ conference several years ago, so I know that she descends from the Carrier family, which is partly why the subject matter intrigues her. Though Martha Carrier’s notoriety is more established, as a documented victim of the Salem Witch Trials, Thomas Carrier’s is somewhat more speculative and based more on family and local legends.

The Wolves of AndoverThe violence in the book can be graphic, and I definitely was glad I was reading it instead of watching it, though nothing seemed so gratuitous that it strained credulity. The violence also offered an interesting contrast between the monarchists and the Puritans, who are painted as hardy survivalists, but ultimately peaceable and good people. To be fair, the monarchists presented are probably the worst sort of folks imaginable, but Charles II himself is not depicted in a good light (though I give props to the writer who does manage to make Charles II look like a fairly decent human being).

The stage for Martha Carrier’s later accusation is deftly set as Martha comes across as contentious and headstrong (which is why she’s not married at the book’s beginning). Another spoilery incident I won’t recount adds additional evidence to the pile.

Martha Carrier
I took this picture of Martha Carrier’s memorial on our trip to Salem.

Knowing how Martha Carrier’s story will ultimately end lends sadness to this book, but Thomas Carrier emerges as quite the character, and one of those folks family historians love to weave tales around—a Welshman who changed his name and has mysterious antecedents, who was nearly seven feet tall, who lived to be about 109. He’s a little hard to resist.

Upon its paperback release, the book’s title was changed, hence the two names. Since it appears to be more readily available in paperback form, I have linked to that version of the book. To my knowledge, the title and cover design are the only changes made.

Rating: ★★★★½


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Review: The Widow’s War, Sally Gunning

The Widow’s War: A NovelSally Gunning’s novel The Widow’s War is the story of Lyddie Berry who lives with her husband Edward in 1761 Satucket (Brewster), Massachusetts on Cape Cod. When Edward dies in a whaling accident, Lyddie finds herself not only bereft of his companionship but also of the life they shared: as a widow, most of her property—including her house, cow, and furniture—is now owned by her son-in-law, Nathan Clarke, who also happens to be a jerk and a pig. As the novel unfolds, Lyddie, determined to maintain her independence and continue living the life she led before Edward’s death, challenges Nathan and attempts to hold on to her freedom.

This novel is an enlightening peek into what women’s lives in the eighteenth century might have been like. Gunning’s research is meticulous, and her characters leap off the page in full relief. All the historical details ring true. One thing I think Gunning gets right in her historical novels is she is able to produce strong heroines who live within but also challenge the strictures of their time periods in ways that are believable. Lyddie’s struggle for independence was heartbreaking, realistic, and intriguing. I know that some reviewers have challenged whether or not the book realistically depicts Lyddie’s relationship with her Native American neighbor Sam Cowett, but I didn’t find it difficult to believe. I also liked that the author did not choose to have Lyddie be “rescued” through a second marriage or a sudden change of heart on her son-in-law’s part. I could have put a spoiler alert before that last sentence I suppose, but I liked the ending enough (and for a stretch of the book didn’t think it was going to happen that way) that I went ahead and spoiled it anyway. Lyddie is a likable character. She could be called stubborn, but no one would say she was stubborn if she were a man. She is independent in a time when it’s just about criminal or at least unheard of for a woman to be so, and I found myself rooting for her to be successful. She’s made of some pretty strong stuff.

The Widow’s War is the first in what she calls her Satucket trilogy. I previously read the third book, The Rebellion of Jane Clarke.

Rating: ★★★★½

I read this novel as part of the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

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