Finding Dorothy, by Elizabeth Letts*****

“Don’t let anybody steal your marbles.”

Maud Gage Baum is one of a kind. The godchild of Susan B. Anthony, child of first-wave feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage and an indulgent, progressively inclined father, she is unhampered by many of the traditional expectations that shackled women born during the American Civil War. But though her parents encourage her to develop her mind and talents, they have little prepared her for the wider world that greets her, and when she arrives at the women’s dormitory at Cornell University, she is considered peculiar by her classmates. She is a lonely young woman, until her roommate sets her up with Frank, an eccentric, clever man whose whimsy equals her own. My great thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the galley, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. It will be available to the public tomorrow, February 12, just in time to be wrapped in red paper and given to the bookworm you adore.

Maud’s story comes to us from two different time periods, one of which starts in 1871 during her childhood and moves forward in linear fashion, and the other in 1939, when she comes to the set where The Wizard of Oz is being filmed to fulfill her beloved Frank’s dying wish; he has asked her to look after Dorothy.  And though it initially means gaining access to the studio through duplicitous means, Maude befriends the unhappy but massively talented Judy Garland, and advocates for the intention behind her character, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

I love this book hard. It has an unusual appeal, not a thriller nor a grab-you-by-the-hair page turner, but rather a strangely comforting novel, one that offers us the chance to follow Maud to another time and another place. I read several books at a time, and this one became my bribe to myself, the reward I could look forward to after completing increments of other books that I wouldn’t abandon, yet didn’t love as I did this one.

How many times have I reviewed a book favorably yet with the caveat that it isn’t bedtime reading, and maybe not good for mealtime either? Listen up. This one is good for both. It will make you appreciate your meal as you move through the hungry years of the Depression, and as you read about poor Judy being starved with lettuce and cottage cheese, her penalty for reaching puberty when the studio wanted her to look like a scrawny waif. And at bedtime, even the sorrowful passages are wonderfully hypnotic.

The love story between Maud and Frank is one for the ages, and without Letts, who would have guessed? Midway through the story I felt the need to know how closely the author kept to the truth, and I skipped to the notes at the end. I am delighted to say that this writer did a great deal of research, and she tells the reader specifically where and when she departs from historical fact for the sake of the story.  The way that the character of Dorothy is invented, based on a string of actual events from the Baums’ lives, is riveting, and in fact had the author not told us otherwise, I would have assumed that much of it was made up, because it’s almost too cool to be true.

Letts develops her characters subtly, with never a caricature or stereotype. Though her settings are well drawn, this is a character based book if ever I read one, and it must truly have been a labor of love. I’ve read a dozen books between this one and the present, yet this is the title that makes me smile.

This beautifully crafted story is bound to rank high among the year’s best historical novels. Sweet, soothing, and highly recommended.

Lucy Stone: An Unapologetic Life, by Sally McMillen ****

lucystonealifeThis well-documented, balanced yet sympathetic biography serves to advocate for the inclusion of Lucy Stone among the statues of great Americans at the Capitol rotunda in Washington DC. Currently there is a suffragist statue that includes Stanton, Cady, and Mott. McMillen makes a strong case that Stone should be there as well.

Thank you to Oxford and Net Galley for the ARC. The book will be available at the end of January.

The history of the American feminist movement is a cause near and dear to this reviewer’s heart. I have studied it, taught it, and lived it. I have marched on that Capitol numerous times in defense of the right of women’s reproductive freedom, despite the fact that most of my life has been on the West Coast of the USA, and that is one long ride. And so, having recently veered out of my historical comfort zone, here I found myself right back in it. And most of the information in this book, while useful, is not new to me.

The reader should know that although there is extraneous material that ought to be edited out, it is all at the beginning of the book. If you are interested in the history of the suffrage movement and/or American feminist history in general, get a copy of this book, and don’t be discouraged by the initial ten percent. It does get better. It probably won’t change the statues in DC., but regardless, what McMillen imparts here is (for the last 90%)thorough, well documented, scholarly, and unflinching when less attractive issues arrive (such as the race-baiting, anti-immigrant speech-making, and the squabbling after the split in the organization occurred).

Stone was a remarkable woman, strong, charismatic, and imbued with many ideas that were well ahead of her time. Unlike most of the women who participated in and lead the women’s movement of the nineteenth century, her own origins were not petit bourgeois, or middle class. She was born into a farm family that struggled financially, and still she attended Oberlin College, the first in the nation to accept women and permit them to attend college with men. Her education was not a gift doled out from parental largesse; she taught school in order to pay her way. (Her father relented when she was a senior and paid for the last year).There were a number of restrictions on women there that seem ridiculous now and that Stone fought against and sometimes won. Her steely determination, keen intelligence, and personal magnetism led her to be the first woman to enter the then-popular public speaking circuit.

In these days before the American Civil War and after the Industrial Revolution, there was of course no media beyond the printed word. Many people were hungry for new information and ideas, but books were very expensive and newspapers, though plentiful, were often incorrect and for many, insufficient. (This paragraph is not in the book; this is me speaking.) So it isn’t really surprising that those who had the time and the means would turn up to hear speakers on important issues of the day.

Many were shocked, McMillen tells us, to hear that a woman, a single, unescorted woman, had taken this path. Stone was considered a radical, but her musical, sweet-sounding voice and her petite countenance, which she deliberately dressed in black silk and lace to take off the edge, took many off guard, and newspaper reviews were often quite favorable. Over the course of time she became famous. She proposed things suggested by no one else, such as the advantage of a woman’s remaining single so that she could keep her own money and property rather than to turn it all over to her husband, as the law required should she wed. Further, she suggested, the law ought to be changed so that such a choice need not be necessary.

Later she met Susan B Anthony, and the two were, for a time, close friends, addressing one another by their first names at a time when only the most intimate of acquaintances did so. And just as their political agreement formed the basis for what appeared to be an unshakeable friendship, so it would later cause a rift, not only personally, but in the movement itself.

For those interested in women’s history, American history, contemporary history, or Stone herself, consider this a must-read. Skim through the extraneous bits at the beginning and once the narrative truly takes wing, it will keep your attention.