Wellington writer, librarian and feminist MARIA McMILLAN contributes the latest installment of the Scoop Review of Book’s “Five Books that…” series.
Freedom Train: The story of Harriet Tubman
By Dorothy Sterling
As a child I read obsessively. I crammed books in and swallowed them whole not wanting to stop to sleep or eat. At night after my parents came to turn my light off I would take my lamp under the covers so they couldn’t see–it is there still somewhere, white cloth covered plastic misshapen on one side from heat it should never have experienced. After I finally relented to sleep I would dream new chapters and entirely new conversations among characters. I would read books in one sitting and instantly forget most of the plot.
Or, some books like Freedom Train, I would read over and over until I could recite parts by heart and the story line was one I’d lived, as vivid and revisited a memory as anything that went on in my Christchurch suburb. I must have been pretty young when I first started reading Freedom Train because I had in me a confusion that it was a real train. It wasn’t until the 3rd or 4th reading I remember figuring out there were no velvet lined carriages, no steam, no uniformed waiters or dining carts. That the Freedom Train was the series of safe houses on the route taken by black Americans fleeing slavery in the southern states and getting out to Canada.
I loved that Harriet Tubman, who herself escaped slavery and returned many times to help others escape, was short, not physically beautiful and plagued by narcolepsy. I knew the stakes were as big as could be and every time I read was stirred by the fact one woman, through cunning and cleverness and stubborness was responsible for life and death. I loved too the details of that cunning. The quilt left as a goodbye when words would be too dangerous, hiding behind a newspaper from authorities (Harriet was known to be illiterate), the blindfolding of Harriet’s father on one return visit so he could say honestly he hadn’t seen her…
And how could I resist the coded songs the slaves song to one another in the fields before a night of escape. Who wouldn’t want to grow up and go on the Freedom Train? I can still hear the rattle along the tracks.
Mary Anning’s Treasure
Like Harriet Tubman, Mary Anning was no beauty. She was gruff, proud, and as strong as a man. Once with an unexpected tide, she hoisted a woman across her shoulders and carried her to safety. I was going to be a paleontologist when I grew up because of Mary Anning. I cried bitterly one holiday when a promised fossil hunting expedition fell through. Nothing mattered as much.
Mary Anning was quite extraordinary. Bush’s account of her life was that her increasingly sick father took Mary on curio hunting expeditions, and taught her to pry from the soft rock of Lyme Regis, in the south of England, strange stones that he would sell as a sideline to his carpentry business. A year after Mary’s father dies and the family is destitute and near starvation, Mary wanders unhappily along the beach and absent-mindedly picks up one of these strange stones. When she discovers it in her hand she has an epiphany and realises that her father had deliberately taught her how to keep the family alive. She announces her intentions to start a curio-selling business and her mother and brother smile for the first time in months.
And Mary, age 12, over the next year discovers the first Plesiosaur skeleton and the most complete Ichthyosaur skeleton in existence. She made many other important fossil discoveries. She was uneducated but earned the respect of learned men from London. She had, they say, an uncanny ability to fit fragments of bone together. What never made it in to this book, perhaps because it was too remarkable to get away with in non fiction, is that Mary was considered a dull child until she was around fifteen months. Then a nanny was walking with Mary and two other children when the group was hit by lightening. All died except Mary, found in the arms of her dead nanny, and from that moment on, the girl was bright and looked about her with exceptional curiosity.
I had such a bad time at my horrible high school, that if I learnt anything, in any of my classes, I don’t remember. Joining a sports team was compulsory, and by some stretch debating was considered a sport. No-one watched debating so I was spared those particular torments, and the teacher who was the debating coach was comparatively non-toxic. In fact, the year our team took the affirmative in a debate on the topic “Fat is a Feminist Issue” proved positively liberating for me.
Reading the feminist classic on the control that the media held over women through tormenting them about their bodies gave me analysis I was hungry for. On the one hand, as a skinny teenager with a voracious and unfettered appetite, I was a shocked to learn that some people willingly starved themselves to death for the sake of appearance. Actually starved themselves. On the other, I was plagued by more than the usual adolescence hatred of my appearance, and was acutely aware of the injustices of high school popularity and prettiness parades. Orbach’s book made me see that, unless something was done urgently, what was going on around me would continue indefinitely. Highly motivating.
By the time I read this collection I was already a full-blown feminist, Adrienne Rich’s poetry, however, undoubtedly sustained my friends and I in our feminism. We’d pass her poetry around and read aloud from it in an awe of recognition. Rich seemed to capture perfectly our own struggles in dealing with the horror of a world that seemed particularly violent towards women, and a desire, despite it all, to love, laugh and celebrate.
Now I can hardly read Rich without feeling nauseated. The tremblingly important gut need I had for her work somehow translated into an equally strong resistance. I’m not denying the importance of what Rich made available to us, or the power of her particular craft, but too often now when I read her more overtly political work, it twangs with falseness, themes intruding rather than enhancing her work.
Rich is, on the whole though, superbly clever. She excelled in an era when formal verse dominated, one of the few women poets taken seriously by the canon. Her rejection of formality emerged with her political rejection of patriarchy and capitalism. In free verse she also excelled and was able to reinvent language so that once you’re familiar with Rich’s poetry, language itself sounds different afterwards. The Rich poems I love now, I love in part because I know only someone as engaged and complex and political could write so simply and convincingly.
You’re wondering if I’m lonely:
OK then, yes, I’m lonely
as a plane rides lonely and level
on its radio beam, aiming
across the Rockies
for the blue-strung aisles
of an airfield on the ocean.
You want to ask, am I lonely?
Well, of course, lonely
as a woman driving across country
day after day, leaving behind
mile after mile
little towns she might have stopped
and lived and died in, lonely…
The Changeover referred to is Laura Chant’s changeover from normal 14 year old to witch. Laura needs to do it to save her toddler brother whose life force is being sucked out of him by the fruity local antique shop owner and lecherous warlock-type Carmody Braque. It wasn’t that I was ever convinced by the fantasy elements of this book, I’ve read since that Margaret Mahy herself is unbelieving of the supernatural, but what The Changeover did was focus on a young woman who is forced, at a moment of crisis, to become something marvellous. She’s also occupied by reassuringly fourteen year old things, like being resentful of her mother’s new love interest, considering (but rejecting) her best friend’s suggestions for new hairdos, and checking out and ultimately falling for Sorry, the school prefect and ward of the witches who bring her into the sisterhood.
A Changeover, Laura is told, is different for every person, and with the aid of incense, and a hot bath, she gets to direct her own sort of hallucinogenic fantasy (she manages to include snogging Sorry) and transforms herself irrevocably into a supernatural being, who can and does take on Braque by surprise. Through sheer will power Laura convinces him that he doesn’t really exist and reduces him to a pile of autumn leaves and some crumpled clothing.
I had no brother to save but, as the world revealed itself to me at 14 as ethically bereft and deeply women-hating, I realised I had my own personal and intergalactic crisis to deal with. There was only one thing for it. Hmm, thought I was a mere human? Pyeouw! Take that, patriarchy.