Finding Dorothy: A Novel by Elizabeth Letts

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“Oh,” Maud said. “I don’t know the first thing about theater. How does one go about becoming a theatrical man?”

“Well, I wasn’t fit for anything else,” Frank answered, his eyes crinkling up into a smile. “Not a whit of business sense, I’m afraid- unless that business is magic.” 

Maud Gage “understood that she has been anointed- she must not let her mother down.”  Matilda, her mother, had fought for women to be seen as equals to men, for women to have the right to earn college degrees (the only hope for a better future) something she herself was denied. When Maud’s older sister Julia cannot fulfill her progressive mother’s expectations due to health difficulties, Maud must take her place. At Sage  (Sage Hall was built to house females at Cornell back in 1875) she befriends Josie Baum, and realizes that her ‘eccentricities’ that at home were encouraged make her feel like a complete misfit at Cornell. Women may have more doors open to them than her mother ever did, but aren’t meant to be engaging, are expected to fade into the wallpaper. For all the talk of equal rights, women are still expected to be ‘like a houseplant’ more for pretty decoration, to be less engaging, to bend to a man’s will and be a rapt audience who fawns over the male pontificating in the classroom rather than voicing their views. If they don’t land a husband their only other option, educated or not, is to return back home to their parents, where they are managed instead by their father or mother. It is through her friend Josie Baum that she meets her future husband, when Josie invites her over to her to a party at her house over Christmas break.  Josie’s cousin Frank, a man of the theater (actor, director, stage manager of the small traveling  Baum Theater Company) who will go on to write the much-loved children’s classic, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Frank, whose name starts with F. F, the letter that during a seance with her group of friends at the college appeared on the board, whose name her future husband begins with, if you believe that sort of thing and of course… of course she doesn’t. Does she?

The joy of this novel is how Maud and others served as Frank’s inspiration, from a fear of scarecrows to a sad, lonely niece, her special doll and the dress that inspired Dorothy’s iconic gingham one. Anyone who has ever watched Dorothy will warm while reading about the birth of Oz. It wasn’t all success for Maud, whom watches her own sister’s poor choice of the heart and every sorrow and hardship that follows. Her own path now tied to Frank Baum’s, she must bust free from the confines of her mother’s plans, marrying a man whose life is spent on the road with his theater. When she has a child, he must find a career to support Maud and their infant son, working as a salesman and trying to ignore his ‘flights of fancy’. They experience loss, Maud’s severe illness during her second pregnancy,  changes in career for Frank, family strain and deep grief between she and her sister Julia while living in the vastness of Dakota territory.

Future Maud is a widow, nearing 80 and on the set of the film The Wizard of Oz. Here she meets and befriends Judy Garland, developing tender feelings for the lonely, young woman whose overbearing stage manager mother doesn’t seem to protect enough. Bullied by everyone from the director to her co-stars, spies watching her diet like a hawk, young Judy Garland spends a lot of time on the verge of a breakdown, her insecurities fueled by on set cruelties but finds a nurturing presence in Maud, as well as insider information on the part she wants to play to perfection. Who understands Dorothy better than Baum’s own wife, inspiration behind the beloved characters? Too, Maud will fight to keep one of the now most famous songs Somewhere Over the Rainbow from being cut from the film, as much as fight to see young Judy isn’t smacked around, literally. This ‘old woman’ will not be pushed aside, she has made a promise to her husband’s memory and herself that this film must do justice to Frank’s tale, not diminish it! Having been raised by a mother who was quite the suffragette, it seems like destiny that Maud witnesses the binding of Judy’s developed body, to make her appear younger, after all Dorothy was a little girl in the book and the attempts to deny her proper nutrition of course Maud sneaks tasty snacks to feed Judy herself! Such control a far cry from the rights her mother demanded, so far into the future and women still being handled, unrealistic expectations forced upon them. Maud, despite giving up her degree for marriage wasn’t one to retreat, her marriage to Frank dealt her many hardships that even the most educated, progressive woman would break under. They always had love and respect, and she is due credit as much as Frank’s own diligence, for his success. Maud was a woman who managed their family finances, raised their two sons while Frank’s career often pulled him away, who pushed her husband to realize his dreams.

While the relationship between Maud and Judy Garland is tender, the past is the heartbeat of this novel. I don’t think I will ever watch the film without thinking of all the sorrows that touched the Baum’s. There is a lot of heartbreak, the story isn’t all rainbows and good witches but that’s not to say there isn’t a lot of happiness too. Beautiful, I didn’t expect to like this novel as much as I did. It’s a very rich story!

Publication Date: February 12, 2019

Random House Publishing

Ballantine Books

 

 

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Brides in the Sky: Stories and A Novella by Cary Holladay

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They couldn’t get the winter out of their lungs, was how Kate thought of her parents’ deaths.

The collection of stories begins with the tale of eighteen-year old Kate and her sister Olivia, twenty. Shocked by the grief of having lost their parents, now tied to land they must learn to farm on their own, either that are get hitched. With a mean harvest, they soon meet two young men, brothers Martin and Andrew heading out West for the promise of gold or better farming. Before long, change arrives as the sisters tie their fate to the men. A journey that will change everything between them, shape their futures. The perils they face on the Oregon trail will force both Kate and Olivia to find strength, when faced with darkness they never could have foreseen.

In the story Shades, Natalie takes a fancy to little Warren and takes him for a ride, ending up with her sorority sisters during rush week. “She was too beautiful and scandalous” and maybe a little criminal. Is she babysitting him? Comanche Queen begs the question, can you really ever go home? 1860, Cynthia Ann Parker is being rescued from her captive, once kidnapped by Comanche Indians when she was only nine-years old, now one of the Chief’s wives, mother to his infant child. After living and learning the ways of the Comanche, now her people too, what will happen when she returns to the world of the white man? Why is she enraged by her saviors? Women’s lives are shaped by luck, good and bad. There are choices that can ruin a life or save it, illnesses that can take children, violence, unwelcome touches and desirous ones. Through the pages of history a woman can disappear or live to ripe old age but never untouched by the times. There is the story with Etta Place, the Sundance Kid’s sweetheart, and her admission of the “wonderful feeling of being chosen” and too she tells of the end that such excitement must come to. The tale end, her great grand-daughter crying, holding her hand and “she grabbed my hand and held on, like I could go back and change things.” Wow! Gut punch.

The best of the stories is A Thousand Stings and I was happy to end the collection immersed in the sister’s lives. Coming of age, chasing after the handsome Ray, the summer of love stirring things up when the preacher in their town begins growing his hair and nails long, strumming his guitar, sweet on a young thing while his wife and daughter are away on a trip. Scandalous! Times are changing as much as the sisters. Their mother’s moods, usually predictable sometimes seem worn out from mothering, tired for all that is to come with her three girls.  “It is a cumulative exhaustion she feels, a crushing sense of responsibility.” The story is focused more on Shirley than the other sisters, Patty and Diana but each of the sisters are fully developed characters, as is their mother. Shirley is the watcher, “on guard against harm” of the family. She is the eyes, she knows “when to just listen” too. You forget, as you age, what it’s like a to be so young, dealing with your ever-changing body and only half understanding the adult world, or your own siblings. With Patty, the need to fit in with the girls her own age, to have the perfect party, all that longing for things go right, and how we fear being embarrassed by making the wrong move or our mothers. There is a lot of story in their everyday actions, if you pay attention. The ending is adorable, the rain, the shampoo! It’s the letting go, a release, a ‘forgetting your troubles’ and stealing happiness, a sisterhood of freedom. I would have loved a full novel about these girls and their mother alone! I stayed up just to finish their story. This is an author I will be watching!

Publication Date: January 14, 2019

Ohio University Press

Swallow Press

 

 

Mother Country: A Novel by Irina Reyn

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She preferred to think of herself as an observer, a temporary traveler, someone waiting for a new life to begin, rather than who she really was: a worker executing an invisible task within the neighborhood’s complex ecosystem.

Nadia splits her time as a Nanny to the privileged little girl of a Russian born woman who demands she teach her child Russian, even if she cannot speak it well herself and as a caregiver at VIP Senior Care, tending to the elderly.  Often feeling invisible in the eyes of her employers  “That she had her own family on the opposite side of the world? That her life was far rounder than the reflection in the woman’s eyes?” she pushes on through her days, biding time until everything she has worked for finally comes to fruition. Relying on Skype, Nadia can keep contact with her beloved daughter Larisska whom she had no choice but to leave behind with her mother in Ukraine, a fractured country that has gone to war. Larisska, feeling abandoned, has her own acts of defiance, barely coming to the video call, refusing to answer her mother about her  level of health, to say whether or not she is keeping up with her insulin injections but even that is preferable to the dead silence of unanswered calls and the fear that they could have died, and if they are alive, how will she get her medicine if everything has ceased to function? Then there is no hope as America isn’t granting asylum, everything on hold thanks to Homeland Security.

There was a time when Nadia worked hard as a  successful bookkeeper in Ukraine, a diligent employee who caught the eye of the married midlevel manager at their manufacturing company. A place where she was respected, proud to do her work, had her own routines like meeting up with her childhood friend Yulia and their old schoolmates often, then the brief affair (if a moment of bliss and passion can be called an affair) that leaves her pregnant with Larisska. Understanding that he will never leave his wife and children for Nadia and their unborn child, or acknowledge Larisska as his, surely he must know she bore his fruit, Nadia is happy just to be in his charming, handsome presence. She is sure that each extra kindness he gives her is his way of showing he loves her and knows about Larisska. Then changes begin in her country, subtly at first. Storefronts altering signs from Russian to Ukrainian, government documents changing to the Ukrainian language, soon currency being phased out and then, payment at work in mandarins. How is Nadia, a single mother, going to keep her child and mother alive on mandarins?

Her daughter Larisska, ” such an adorably willful little thing,” a neighbor once told her of her newborn was stubborn from the start, refusing even to nurse from her breast. Then, the diabetes diagnoses when Nadia couldn’t possibly afford the insulin. Their only hope is America, but the years pass and when it’s finally Nadia’s turn and her application is approved, there is a flaw in the plan, Larisska at 21 is too old (has aged out) to be approved. Nadia makes the hard decision to go anyway without her girl, leaving Larisska feeling at once betrayed and discarded. To Nadia’s way of thinking, it is the only hope she has of keeping Larisska healthy, her medication supplied and she will get her daughter to America, once she herself is settled in. Larisska thinks they should stay together, it’s too late anyway to move away. Nadia knows America is the land of opportunity, the prize! It is a hard transition, a land with so many different people of many colors, some she had only read about before, and at first, she fears them all but she has no choice but to adapt if she is going to get Larisska there.  America, however, has other plans. Applications continuously get declined and Larisska’s life goes on without her. With the fighting between western Ukranians, separatists and Russians her fervent prayers that they leave her homeland aren’t enough to make it happen, soon access to medication stops, and Nadia devises a brilliant plan to save her Larisska after a night out on the town with her friends. With no man in her own life, her thoughts are never focused on her own loneliness, and instead of love for herself, she will find a man for Larisska, in America! Mother knows best, always.

This is a story about mothering when you’re pinned to a wall with threats coming at you in all corners. When you don’t have the luxury of choices and war turns your world upside down, when I love yous aren’t easy to utter because you are just trying to stay afloat, love is obvious in your actions, don’t need to be stated. That sometimes in trying to be your child’s salvation, you may just forget that they too have plans of their own and time doesn’t stand still when you leave. It is terribly missing your ‘Mother Country’ while trying to adapt to your adoptive one, because the country you left never remains the same nor do the people you had to leave behind. It is about sacrifice but will it all be worth it in the end, will Larisska ever make it to America? Will she continue to resent her mother? Will Nadia forever be stuck mothering someone else’s child while her own is sick on another continent in desperate need of her?

I thought this was a wonderful novel, it is not solely about the immigrant experience, it is also about motherhood, and crumbs of love some people delude themselves into accepting, as we see with Nadia and the technolog (the manager who fathers Larisska). Nadia seems to spend much of her life making assumptions about people. She is a woman who really needs to learn to let go, that sometimes you have to just flow with what destiny has in store for you. Not easy when she has had to figure out so much on her own. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: February 26, 2019

St. Martin’s Press

 

Where Reasons End: A Novel by Yiyun Li

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Since Nikolai’s death I had asked people to send poems. They came like birds from different lands, each carrying its own mourning notes. 

I felt the deep sorrow expressed in this novel so much I researched the author. I wondered, did she herself lose a son to suicide, only to discover more about Yuyin Li’s own breakdown. Li wrote a memoir Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life  while she was struggling with deep depression. In Where Reasons End, Yuyin Li tells a fictional tale of a mother composing a story in conversation between she and her son, who has taken his own life. This is a story about the elusive presence of grief, how it transforms us even if we don’t understand it. It is a mother reflecting on memory, where her son can now only live for her, and questioning how memory isn’t enough. If she can just keep the conversation going, she can keep him alive, stop the essence of him that lingers from escaping, disappearing. Too, she knows words are incapable of expressing the all consuming sorrow, pain. That clichés cannot carry us through life, nor the losses in one. How to recapture time? How to breathe and exist through the worse thing that can ever happen, to know her son has succeeded in the biggest win of hide-and-seek.

“I was almost you once, and that’s why I have allowed myself to make up this world to talk with you.” Our narrator promised her son she would understand, didn’t she? Her own past sufferings, were they inherent in the blood? She can’t lose him more than she already has. The old things remain, things Nikolai made or wrote, remembrances of the Nikolai his friends knew, objects she has never kept tract of nor made an effort to freeze in time, not much of a keeper of life’s detritus nor treasures unlike other mothers whom fiercely cling to ‘things’. This conversation is made up, right… but “sometimes what you make up is realer than the real.” Such a bright boy, whose perfection hurt him too much to anchor him to the world.

Not a day will pass, when you’re left behind, that you don’t imagine how your loved one would react to each of your remaining days, from the mundane to the eventful. It truly is a novel about ‘inescapable pain’ and the solitude of grief. There is a gut wrenching chapter, Catchers in the Rain that left a lump in my throat because there isn’t anything thing left to catch, she can longer be her child’s safety net. This isn’t the sort of novel that makes you weep with the obvious moments, nor is it an attempt to explain suicide. Though through the intimacy between mother and son, remembering even the stories he himself wrote where the boy characters often died hints that maybe he was sad for a long time, and she didn’t see. Or maybe not, maybe that’s what we do in the aftermath, look for reason where maybe there is none. Maybe fiction is just sometimes fiction. The Nikolai she gives life through writing is as witty and biting in her creative story as he was in life. She utilizes her gift of authorship (which her son himself showed promise of early on) to attempt to soothe herself and carry on in this abyss she never asked for.

Yes, Nikolai took his own life but it is as much about motherhood because even when it is taken from you in such a way, you are still a mother. How should one find meaning in their child’s death, in this backwards way to travel in time, when a child should never go first, especially through their own hand? With the novels closure,  I want to ask only who are you today, instead of how are you?

Publication Date: February 5, 2019

Random House

 

Look How Happy I’m Making You: Stories by Polly Rosenwaike

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A woman’s body was suppsed to know exactly what to do.

In Polly Rosenwaike’s debut collection of stories, women are confronting more than just motherhood. There are relationship struggles, bodies that are failing to behave as nature intended, and conflicting emotions within their own minds. Growing up girls are rarely privy to the reality of pregnancy and childbirth. It isn’t like all those movies where an unexpected pregnancy is a happy blessing, or the moment you try for a baby its immediate succes, the men are all adoring, the mother to be is glowing and when the time comes the couple has supportive family, friends, money and boom her body is back to its pre-pregnancy shape. Of course the baby and mother bond instantly, there isn’t any struggle breast-feeding, absolutely no sign of postpartum depression!

The reality is, there is jealousy particularly when you can’t get pregnant and all around you everyone else seems fruitful. Some women wait for a partner to arrive and realize they are stuck in a constant state of expecting, better maybe to have a child alone, for another her child’s birth represents the cycle of life and death as her beloved aunt is dying, a moment of joy tangled in grief. Pregnancies themselves aren’t one size fits all, for some months are spent consumed by illness, stress, pain. Some women get desperate and lie, their desire to grasp at their last chance to have a child before their biological clock turns everything off. Maybe forcing a man who is too young, who hasn’t chosen to be a father, through deceit. That sometimes, dishonesty feels like the only way to get what you want.Then there is the depths of postpartum depression, because expectant mothers never truly think it will happen to them. Your emotions turning you against your own nature, a dual person who can love and then feel resentment towards the baby, repulsed with breast-feeding, exhausted, visualizing doing terrible things to your child. Oh no, you would never! Courting thoughts of your own demise…all the panic within’. This is just one window to look through at the characters within.

A woman  psychologist is a ‘curator’ of babies laughter, but one infant’s silence is a tragedy that forces her to face her own cowardice. A childless couple (by choice, in agreement) find a shift in their desires when the husband changes his mind, because men can feel the tick of a daddy clock too. The manuals will tell you a lot, but not everything. There is so much advice about pregnancy, parenthood in books, from friends, doctors, family, strangers and online, and still yet it might not speak to your situation. Parenthood makes you hate and love your partner, it can seal your bond or break it. A woman may dream of being a mother her whole life, idealizing motherhood but when the moment comes may feel like an absolute failure. Another woman may become a mother on accident, with reluctance and fall head over heels, discover she was born for it, a natural! Others may decide to go it alone, or to never have a child at all. The kingdom of parenting never truly runs smoothly. It is a land dominated by disruption, illness, surprise attacks as much as celebration and love. Our bodies through pregnancy are the same, they can be foe or friend. Our thoughts can betray us just as much as those we love, and that bundle of joy along with our hormones can wreak havoc too, reminding mothers “Look How Happy I’m Making You”. Yes, read it! There has been quite a bit of fiction recently delving into the territory of motherhood and I champion it! We need to explore every crevice of what can go wrong (or even just feel wrong) as much as the good. When a woman is struggling, it shouldn’t be a desert period with no one to help. It’s good to know that it isn’t all teddy bear picnics, that women just like you struggle sometimes. There really isn’t a solid ‘supposed to’ in pregnancy, parenthood. It isn’t ‘one size fits all’. What pressure to be told what you should feel, how you’re meant to engage as if each baby is quiet, peaceful. Some babies come into this world squalling and how can you not resent the smugness of mothers whose little sweatpea sleeps like an angel bragging about their special bond. I wish I could have read such fiction when I was a young mother. This will be out in the new year!

Publication Date: March 19, 2019

Doubleday Books