Stone and Stanton and Bloomer

While acting as co-author on my late mother’s book, I got interested in Amelia Bloomer. I had not entirely realized who she was, or that she grew up thirty minutes from my house. And the more I read about her, the more interested I got. So I’m researching her now, and may write about her, that is, write more than the essay on early Muslim influence in “Western” feminism (ideas and trousers) that I’m trying to place right now.

My current reading is a biography of Lucy Stone, published in 1930 by her daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell. I bought it in part because it had a damn index, a pretty good one, which has two entries for Bloomer–one for her, one for the “Bloomer dress” she did promoted and wore, but did not invent.

Stone is mostly remembered for not taking her husband’s name. But she had a very significant career as an activist, was a brilliant charismatic orator, and was friends with Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, among many others in the suffrage and abolition and temperance movements.

She also wore the Bloomer costume for a few years, and a letter from her to Anthony is quoted in this book, scoffing at the idea that the main problem with it was that it detracted from their credibility.  “No, no, Susan, it is all a pretense that the cause will suffer. I wish that the dress gave me no other troubles; but I am annoyed to death by people who recognize me by my clothes, and when I get a seat in the cars, they will get a seat by me and bore me for a whole day with the stupidest stuff in the world. Much of that I should escape if I dressed like others.” And being pursued by hordes of boys in the cities, and the embarrassment when the wind blows up the short skirt–they all gave it up in time, once the hoopskirts came in. Funny to think that hoopskirts were liberating, but they were.

I also loved the story in this of the first, illicit, women’s debate society at Oberlin. They met in secret, out in the woods, with “posted sentinels” and then–well, I put that page on my Instagram if you want to read it.

I did not expect this to be an enjoyable read, but the prose is clear and she seamlessly combines family memories, letters and documents, and interviews. Of course it’s hard to know how much could be corroborated by other sources, but she is a lively writer, is not flowery, and does not romanticize.

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Last weekend, I  participated in a little group tour of Seneca Falls led by Laura Free, a Hobart and William Smith historian. She wrote Suffrage Reconstructed: Gender, Race, and Voting Rights in the Civil War Era, coming out in paperback next year, or so the marketing team tells her.

I hadn’t been up there since 1994, and wow, it so much more rewarding now.  I did a drive by of Bloomer’s house afterwards–it does not belong to the National Park Service as Stanton’s does, but there’s a craft shop across the road so I was able to pull over in their parking lot and stare from a moderately discreet distance.

The ranger sitting on Stanton’s porch told us that this horse chestnut tree was alive when she was. I love old buildings. but I love old trees more.

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American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

It is wise for readers to be skeptical of the hype machine that drives so much of the book world. American Dirt is due out next January, but is already on “most anticipated” lists. It sold for seven figures, comes with glowing recommendations from Julia Alvarez, Rumaan Alam, and Stephen King, and the movie adaptation is underway.

I found out about it on my weekly volunteer shift at Buffalo Street Books. The manager pressed an ARC on me after reading it herself. This is the author’s fourth book, but I had never read any of the others. In total ignorance, with no special anticipation, I took it on vacation. And then it took over my life for three days, with regular breaks to let my heart rate drop.

Cummins opens with a devastating massacre that could be the climax of another novel. It ignites an inferno of grief and terror that sends bookstore owner Lydia and her eight year old son Luca fleeing their home town of Acapulco north to the USA, through one lion’s den after another, with little time to reflect, let alone bury their dead.

They begin this journey wanted by the head of a drug cartel, but with the advantages of education, Mexican citizenship, and significant cash in hand and in a bank. Other migrants they encounter are from other nations, underage, penniless, illiterate, chronically ill. Two are middle class deportees with their lives and families established in the USA.  All of them are interesting and vivid individuals, and all are hounded by constant threats of murder, torture, rape, dismemberment, capture by traffickers and death by constant physical risks and deprivations. Sometimes they escape, sometimes they do not.

It feels heartless to call this novel a road trip thriller, based as it is on journalistic research and the real lives of so many people. But that is part of what raises the stakes so high: the knowledge of just how bad the reality can be. That one of the protagonists is an eight year old child raises them even higher. If she has to jump onto a moving train, so does he. If they are traveling with a group of migrants that runs into the “police,” there is no way for her to control what Luca sees, or suffers. He knows it, and for her sake, as children do, he tries to pretend he is just fine. Meanwhile they have not begun to absorb their extraordinary initial losses.

Cummins writes the effects of traumatic shock like someone with personal experience of it. Her prose is clean and effective, and when her research pokes through here and there, it gives only a faint pause as the story charges forward.  This is not one of those books that opens with a bang and then sags in the middle, or transforms into a disappointment by the end. It is a wild ride straight through, with genuine emotional depth, and new characters and fresh concerns introduced well past the halfway mark. It is crowded with tragedies, but it does not end with one. However, Cummins makes it clear that she is letting the reader off easy.  Early on, Lydia remembers how she loved the Choose Your Own Adventure books as a child. “At the end of each chapter you’d have to decide what to do next…When Lydia didn’t like the outcome of her plot, or sometimes even when she did, she would backtrack and make a different choice.”  Like a good coyote, Cummins guides the reader along one of the safest possible versions of this terrifying story, but wrong turns loom on every side, and not everyone makes it through.

This book may not be a good choice for anyone who is has experienced comparable traumas, or is close to others who have. For everyone else, it is not to be missed. And if an epic social novel can help attract public sympathy to the millions of undocumented immigrants who have too often been vilified and dismissed as subhuman, this could be the one.

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