Where did we get this book? Hmm. It looks brand new. I think we must have bought this at Barnes and Noble on a Sunday browse, and then let it slip to the bottom of the stack.
It’s time for a palate cleanser after two rather serious books about the bonds women create, one a hefty tome, the other a thoughtful work of non-fiction. It’s time for something lighter, something fun. It’s time to read a book I can talk about with my son James.
James is 24, bright and funny. Jim is on the autism spectrum, which gives him the ability to focus intensely on a topic, and his intense focus is on sci fi and fantasy story. He loves the written word and he loves film.
And he loves to share those interests with us, his parents. Sometimes our interests overlap, and sometimes our interests are far, far apart. So it’s nice to find a book we both like.
Ordinarily, I’m a wimp about the supernatural stories—I am not at all a fan of vampire lit (Jim loves it) or tales of moldering evil. But I’ve seen some of Neil Gaiman’s work made into film, and I see that he handles his topics in a way that makes the supernatural seem commonplace and matter-of-fact.
So The Graveyard Book begins with a horrific murder, and the fact that a toddler is taken in by the spirits in an old cemetery seems right and just.
The baby never learns his birth name. He is adopted by a kind dead couple, the Owens, and he becomes Nobody Owens: Bod for short.
In Gaiman’s hands, a wee one growing up in a cemetery doesn’t seem weird at all; it’s warm and safe and fascinating. Bod grows into a kind and brave young man, and he is a favorite of all the spirits. He learns how to read and write, and he learns graveyard skills. He can Fade. He can pass through walls.
But the evil that killed his family is pacing, waiting to find him, too, and so Bod must grow stronger and stronger until he can face and defeat—we hope—his foes. It’s a classic coming of age tale told with a witty flair.
It’s a riff on the Jungle Book; did I ever read the Jungle Book? It’s going on the list of books to read after the shelves have been cleared.
I recommend The Graveyard Book; it’s a well-written quick read, and it’s something squeamish moms like me can share with their bold-reading kids.
***** The Graveyard Book has won a slew of awards, including the Newberry; go to http://www.neilgaiman.com to learn more. Gaiman said the book began to percolate when his son was two; the child was riding his tricycle on graveyard paths and a story began to nudge… Many years later, the award-winning The Graveyard Book emerged.
I enjoyed the black and white drawings that accompany, but don’t overwhelm, the story. I think I might (once the shelves are clear, of course) check out some of Gaiman’s work for grown-ups, too!
“What KIND of book is that?” asks my son, and I ponder. Is Once Upon a Quinceanara: Coming of Age in the USA a memoir? Sort of. It’s also, a little bit, investigative journalism. There’s poetry dancing through the language on its pages. It’s a cautionary tale, philosophy, and a prophecy.
“It’s…non-fiction,” I tell him. He nods.
I could have said, “It’s a book about stories: the ones we tell our children; the ones someone told us; the ones we wished we’d heard; the ones, ultimately, that need to be told.”
Alvarez, who started out in the Dominican Republican culture and came to rest in the United States American, has a panoramic view of the Quinceanara. She loves the way it folds the generations of Hispanic women together, grandmother, mother, daughter,–hands entwined, braiding a custom.
She hates the way it glorifies commercialism, encourages families to spend beyond their means, and the girls themselves to see themselves as princesses—princesses dressed in $5,000 dresses waiting for their princes to arrive in stretch Hummer limos.
This is about a culture and its future embedded in a larger, more vacuumous one.
This is about the need of children in all cultures to have a valid rite of passage.
And what IS that rite of passage?
It is not just an event, although, as Alvarez attended party after party for the young ladies turning 15, she began to see their value. The party/event may be the door opening, the signal that the time of change has come.
Door open, though, the elders are to come through and surround and support the youngster. They are to reflect back what they see. “You are a gentle nurturer,” they might say, or “Your music makes stodgy old men want to dance!” “The way you write is a gift from God.” “No one makes people feel as good as you do when you listen so carefully.”
It is the time for the elders to tell youth their stories: this is who we see you are. And the young people gather those tales like scraps in a basket, and after a time, they take them home and sort them out, and use them, along with other materials they have gathered and other dreams that they have dreamed, to piece together their own stories.
“This,” the young one may write, “is who I think I am, and this, I think, is my quest.”
And then, with encouragement from those supporters, the young one ventures off on that quest. What will s/he find out there? Will it be successful? Will s/he fall? Will s/he be hurt?
All of the above could happen, but with the right support and the right understanding, the young one will think and heal and grow; her/his story will deepen. The path will open up.
If. If. If. The rite of passage as beginning of supported journey—a need for all children, but especially, as Alvarez notes, for Hispanic girls, in danger of early pregnancy, dropping out of school, drug addiction, and death by suicide.
We need to re-learn the art of supporting the journey. Alvarez’s work explains that beautifully, in the stories of the girls she meets, in the stories of her own steps and miss-steps, and in the research that she shares. It took me a chapter or two to get into this book, but then its voice took hold, and its wisdom drew me in.
***** Quotes I Liked From Once Upon a Quinceanara
(8) And for those who like myself are entering into elderhood, this book is an invitation to take up that mantle or mantilla of elders of the tribe, to consider what it means to be at the other end of our young people’s coming of age.
(10) But even when I am writing about myself, that self is not personal but a creature of language in a story that is ultimately about all of us.
(22) It’s worth remembering the old adage about how our strengths are often so tied up with our failings that we’d better be careful where we snip and what we cut off.
(44) This is the voice of experience, looking back at the excesses of our youth which we always want to say were our parents’ fault.
(55) We Abbott [Academy] girls were encouraged to develop our minds, not leave our brains parked at the door of our gender.
(57) Quoting Bruce Lincoln: …women’s initiation offers a religious compensation for a sociopolitical deprivation.
(94) Being thrown together with other points of view can mollify our own views, round us out, add extra lanes to our one track minds.
(160) “[The Quinceanara] should not be about just one night, but about the girl and what happens afterward in her life.” Quoting Bisli of Bisli Events
(217) I know enough about ritual to understand that it involves a surrender to cosmic time, so that one is safely, symbolically ferried past those jolting transitions of our mortal life.
(252) Change is necessary, but it should be change based on the needs of our young people, not a corporation’s bottom line…Traditions are made of sturdier stuff, and our ongoing responsibility is to revise and renew them so that they continue to fulfill their authentic purpose, to empower us.
(268) Wisdom is not a fixed quality. It circulates among us.
I looked Julia Alvarez up on a couple of sites: the Encyclopedia of World Biography, and on http://www.biography.com, and I found the basics of her life:
Born in New York City on March 27, 1950, she returned to the Dominican Republic when she was three months old. There, her father, a doctor, ran a hospital. He was very involved with politics—opposing dictator Rafael Molina. Dr. Alvarez became involved in a plot to overthrow Molina in 1960; the plot was uncovered, and an American agent helped the family escape to the US. They again settled in New York City.
Alvarez, the biographies say, found assimilating difficult. She read constantly. As if–caught between two very different worlds—having fled from one, not quite embraced in the other—she escaped again into a third world—the universe of books.
Alvarez earned her bachelors at Middlebury College in Vermont (1971), and her masters in creative writing at Syracuse University (1975). She turned to teaching to make a living, and wrote poetry; her teaching took her across the country as a migrant poetry instructor, into the high school classroom, and finally back to Middlebury.
She married Bill Eichner in 1989. In 1991, she received tenure at Middlebury and her novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, was published, to, as they say, great acclaim. Since then, Alvarez has written another novel, children’s books and books of non-fiction. She and Eichner own a sustainable coffee farm in the Dominican Republic.
After finding all that out, I discovered that Alvarez has her own website (www.juliaalvarez.com); on the website is a link to an interview she gave about Once Upon a Quinceanara:
Once Upon a Quinceanera, by Julia Alvarez (2007, Viking)
Discovered with delight while working our library’s ‘buck a bag book sale’ last November
Shayne is my darling oldest niece, my godchild, and the mother of three beautiful children: Gabrielle, Patrick, and Madelyn. She is fair and blonde and feisty. Her husband, Noel, is Nicaraguan and as dark as Shayne is fair. Their children have his dark hair and snapping eyes—and interesting combinations of their parents’ personalities. They are wonderful kids with impeccable manners, and each is fully individual.
Gab, soon to be finishing up high school, is an athlete and a scholar and a darned hard worker. Her part-time fast food job supports the car she proudly drives, — quite an accomplishment, I think, for a kid her age. Gab has never been afraid to speak her mind; her personality leans toward the bold and the dashing.
When Gab was four, she came North with her mom for Mark’s law school completion party; we rented an old farmhouse in a beautiful rural setting in western New York. Family and friends came for the day and celebrated; Shayne and Gab came for three days and stayed at the farm with us.
City girl that she was, Gab quickly settled in, and was soon explaining to an interested audience how to tell the difference between cow corn and ‘people corn.’ Like any child far from home and the focus of attention, she got a little rambunctious, and Shayne tried to ramp her down. The ramping didn’t work, and finally Shayne, frustrated and, I think, a little embarrassed, burst out, “That’s it, Gabrielle! You are IN TROUBLE.”
And without missing a beat, Gab replied, “Gooooooood. Trouble is where I WANT to be.”
And come to think of it, when Patrick was four, the whole family came to visit us in Ohio. Jess, another niece, was getting married, and Shayne, Noel, and the kids stayed with us.
Noel shared a story about Patrick, who is funny, thoughtful, and creative. Noel was resting in a chair after work, and he asked Patrick to get him something from the kitchen.
Patrick stomped to the door and said to his father, “You are not the boss of me, Noel.”
And Noel said, “Fine. Now go get that for me.”
And Patrick cheerfully did.
I visited the family in Florida this Fall and had a chance to really get to know Miss Maddie, who was four at the time, as well. Where Gab was hard, at that age, to wrestle into a dress, opting for jeans and sneakers, Maddie loves skirts that swing and swish, shoes with bows, feathers, and bling. She has a flair for the dramatic and a titanium will, totally balanced by a beautifully loving heart.
She is, Shayne says, her little diva.
On a shelf, in a pretty frame, I noticed a photo of Maddie sitting on her cousin’s lap. Her cousin, Noel’s niece, was resplendently gorgeous in a princessy dress and a tiara. Maddie was almost as resplendent, with all the bling a four year old can successfully cadge adorning her sweet little self.
Prom photo? I asked Shayne.
No, she said. In the Hispanic/Latina culture, there is a rite of passage for girls as they turn 15, a kind of debutante ball, called the quinceanera.
Shayne can foresee Maddie, ten years hence, campaigning for the whole nine yards.
It was the first I’d ever heard of quinceanera, and I was fascinated. So, two weeks after that wonderful visit, when I saw Julia Alvarez’s book at the library’s annual book sale, I scooped it up. I have enjoyed learning about Noel’s country and culture—and particularly enjoyed eating Nicaraguan cuisine—and this book, I hoped, would help me understand some of the feminine traditions. I promised myself I’d read it as soon as I finished “…And Ladies of the Club.”
I have not read Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, although it’s always been on my list of things to read when I get caught up. I did, however, enjoy A Wedding in Haiti, in which Alvarez writes about attending the wedding of Piti, a young Haitian, whom she and her husband had taken under their wing and into their hearts. They promised Piti that when he got married they would be there with him, and despite unrest and obstacles, they fulfilled that promise.
So I look forward to reading Once Upon a Quinceanera. I have reason to believe it will be a well-written, fascinating read, and I look forward to learning more about some of the practices of my nephew-in-law’s culture. Maybe it will help me prepare for the time, not too soon yet, when our darling little diva Maddie turns 15.
A quiet Sunday afternoon. It’s what I call a cozy day–gray but dry outside, cool but not dauntingly cold–a day to curl up with a book once the flurry of necessary activity is complete.
Mark, who was up before dawn to travel to Erie, Pennsylvania, where his dad is hospitalized, called to say that there is no immediate crisis. His siblings had gathered round, and Matthew, our older guy, was there. They were buoying up Pat, Mark’s mom.
Angelo is 94 and frail; but he enjoys life and loves company, and I am glad it is not his time to go just yet.
So James and I straightened the house and threw laundry in. We pored over ads and gathered coupons and special offers, and made out a list and went shopping. We drove from drugstore to dollar store to supermarket. Our savings were legion.
Triumphant, we came home, fixed lunches and went in separate directions. James sat in front of the TV with his laptop; now his snores compete with the sound of the furnace kicking on.
I sat in the brown chair in the corner of the living room, pulled an old quilt over me, dragged the ottoman closer with the heel of one foot, and finished “…And Ladies of the Club.”
Framed in Angelo’s sudden illness and the frank reflection of the book, it is hard not to ponder the passage of time and the process of aging. Santmyer deals kindly with the aging; written, as it was, when she herself was nearing the end of her life, this book gives great sympathy to the old. And it’s written with no sense of fear that Death approaches, but with a feeling of aptness. The time, she seems to be telling us, has come for this part of the story to end…
…But the story itself goes on. Santmyer, it seems from the little bit of background reading I’ve done, has written herself into the book as Theresa, the chronicler, the young woman so chagrined at Sinclair Lewis’s treatment of small town America in Main Street that she determines to write a sweeping opus showing the real story.
Little Sally Ann is a child at the book’s end who will remember her great-gran always, and who will take comfort in Ann’s wisdom as she faced the light. Born in the 1930’s, Sally Ann bridges the time till today.
The story’s families continue, with foibles and frailty, strength and moments of luminescence. They are shaped by the ones who came before…even the ones they did not know or no longer remember clearly.
And the club goes on: the meeting of women to share their learning. The Christmas party that draws all the disparate families together takes place, a little differently perhaps, but with the same sense of occasion. The women meet every two weeks, dependable, predictable, providing a strength that undergirds life in a small Ohio town.
I think about this, as Ang’s ‘kids’–the youngest in her forties, the eldest, Mark, turning the corner to 60 this year–gather to be with him in this sudden illness. Time moves and roles shift and fingers release as hands let go. Mark texts me a photo of our two beautiful granddaughters, grinning in a shining hospital corridor. Alyssa is 16; Kaelyn is eight. No longer babies, they are dreaming special dreams for themselves and the lives ahead.
It is good that the family circles now; a time of great change approaches—although I hope it will not come too soon–and they will need to struggle together to define that change.
And that’s it–that’s the role the Club played in Santmyer’s book…it bound together a range of women after the Civil War. They were vastly different in age, in ethics, in religious bents; perhaps, if not for the Club, they’d never have even acknowledged each other. But the Club gave them a mechanism for making sense of change, of pinning change down, and for defining and redefining their lives.
They didn’t even always like each other. They surely didn’t always agree. But in the framework of the Club they flourished, drawing in daughters and friends and young ones in need of mentoring from the next generation, inculcating a sense of the Club’s meaning. When the last charter member is gone, she is celebrated and eulogized by the Club members, who move forward. World War One is over; Roosevelt has been elected; the women do not know how long the Depression will last or that it’s ‘cure’ will be a war more devastating than the last.
But the club will survive.
I look at the club I’m in, a club that has been meeting for more than 140 years, which has its roots in the same beginning era as the fictional Club in Santmyer’s book. Traditions prevail even as practices change. But the commitment to learning, to expanding, to continuing–to appreciating the past and looking toward the future in company–is quite the same.
Santmyer wrote the beginning; in clubs and in groups and in families, we continue to write the latest chapter.
Quotes I liked from Helen Hooven Santmyer’s “…And Ladies of the Club”
Astonishing how attached one can become to a group of essentially incompatible women. (625)
Or was it possible to act a part so long and so faithfully that that was what you became in the end? (691)
Now we’re middle-aged, and the Club is a little more than just something to do. Somehow, there’s a bond—something between us—between women who’d never see each other if it weren’t for the Club. (752)
It gives her contacts outside the family, a feeling of belonging: as a member, she is connected with something outside herself. (801)
…men do not have a reputation for gossiping, but information spreads among them at remarkable speed… (982)
Almost 900 pages into “…And Ladies of the Club”, I needed to find out more about the woman who wrote it. I was growing the image, for some un-based reason, that Santmyer was a one-work author, a little old lady who cranked out her one book long after retirement. I suspected she had spent her life in small Ohio towns, and only blossomed in her ‘golden years.’
I think…I thought she was one of her own characters.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Santmyer was a highly intelligent adventurer whose first literary successes came early. Clearly, she wove lots of her own life into the work, but the book is not a thinly veiled autobiography. I bet a Santmyer biography, however, would be a fascinating read!
I visited Ohio Reading Road Trip (www.orrt.org/santmyer) and the Ohioana website (www.ohioana.authors.org/santmyer) to see what I could find out about Helen Hooven Santmyer. Here’s what I discovered.
Santmyer was born in November, 1895, in Cincinnati, Ohio; she grew up in a small town, Xenia, not too far from that city. Her mother, an educated woman, encouraged Helen’s love of reading; Helen was nine when she read Little Women, and she knew, then and there, that she would grow up to be a writer.
Helen’s father, a former medical student, worked as a salesman, served as deputy county auditor, and managed a rope company–professions that reappear in “…And Ladies of the Club.”
So Helen knew what it was like for a child to grow up in a small Ohio city-town; she’d played the games, and gone to the schools; had friends, watched the adults and their dynamics; heard the Civil war stories; went to the parties and attended the funerals. She must have been a sharp observer of life and its foibles.
Helen graduated from high school in 1917, and had to defer college for a year: she had contracted typhoid fever. In 1918, she attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where she majored in English Literature and Composition.
She spent three years in New York City, but big city life just never took for her. Santmyer’s first job was working with female suffragists, a job which proved, at the least, to be disappointing. According to Ohioana, Santmyer said of her colleagues, “They considered a day lost when they hadn’t succeeded in going into jail.” A staunch Republican, Santmyer herself might have advocated the vote for women, but she wasn’t interested in serving jail time.
Mrs. Ballard, that radical activist, is one of my favorite Ladies of the Club in the first half of Santmyer’s book. I wonder how much of her loving but wry characterization comes from Helen’s interaction with the NYC suffragists.
Santmyer finished out her time in the Big Apple as a clerk at Scribner’s. In 1921, her mother ill, Santmyer returned to Xenia to help the family. She taught high school English in her home town briefly, and then took a position at Wellesley. And then, finally, she went to Oxford, a Rhodes Scholar. Her first novel, Herbs and Apples, was published in 1925; Santmyer received her degree from Oxford in 1927.
The Ohioana website suggests that Oxford was a long-deferred dream; this is a life that teaches me much about deferred dreams and perseverance!
Santmyer published her second novel, The Fierce Dispute, in 1928, and began a book of essays about life in Ohio, tentatively entitled Our Town. And then she went to Cedarville, Ohio, College, where she taught English and served as Dean of Women. She didn’t publish again for many years.
I understand this—and I bet other educators will, too. The immediacy and urgency of higher ed work sweep in and erase time to concentrate on hefty projects outside academe. I wonder if the illnesses Santmyer began to experience were signs of the writer trying to bust out of the academic.
In the 1950’s she began to experience what Ohio Reading Road Trip termed ‘debilitating illnesses.’ She left Cedarville, and went to Dayton, where she ended her professional career as a reference librarian. During this time, she met Mildred Sandoe; they became a couple and were together for 30 years.
Ah! No wonder Santmyer writes so matter-of factly and kindly about Kate—and shares that poignant episode between Binny and Julia—in “…And Ladies.” I don’t remember any scandalized responses back in the early ‘80’s; what a lovely handling of topics only whispered about in the time frame she addresses.
Retired from all outside work, Santmyer could devote herself to writing. She finished her book of essays; it was quickly picked up for publication in 1963, and earned an Ohioana award for excellence. Then Santmyer turned to a project she’d been waiting to take on: the writing of “…And Ladies of the Club.”
The Ohioana essay suggests that Santmyer wrote the book in angry reaction to Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, a cynical look at small town life in the United States. Santmyer’s book is far from an idealized picture; her characters are flawed, some of them deeply. But there is strength among the people in “…And Ladies of the Club”; there is creativity and growth, acceptance, forgiveness, and true change.
When Santmyer finally finished the book, a magnum opus at 1176 pages, she packed the manuscript up in several boxes and carted it to the Ohio State University press, which quickly agreed to publish it. They printed a small batch of copies in 1982, most of which were bought by libraries. A librarian in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Grace Sindell, thought it was the best thing she’d ever read.
Sindell called her son, a Los Angeles producer, to tell him about the book. He looked into it and phone lines began buzzing. A miniseries was in the works (as far as I can tell, it never materialized), and GP Putnam scooped up the novel for widespread publication. It became a Book of the Month Club selection and an immediate sensation.
Unimpressed, Santmyer said, “Ninety percent of the hoopla is because I’m an old lady.” When asked what she’d do with the money the book was bringing in, she said, “I have no plans for the money…but it’ll be awfully nice to have it.” (www.ohioana.authors.org/santmyer)
I love her comments! I get the mental image of a sharp and savvy lady, so seasoned by her adventures that she was comfortable with, but unimpressed by, her own achievements.
By the time the book was redistributed, Santmyer had about two years to enjoy the proceeds; she died in 1987. Her final book, a novel called The Farewell Summer, was published posthumously in 1988.
I’m putting Santmyer’s other books on my ‘List for Later.’ AFTER I finish the books on my shelves, I’d like to see if I can track down some of her other work. I wonder what The Farewell Summer is about, for instance—her last book, is it, as the title suggests it might be, a story framed by the perspective of great age and imminent farewells?
I look forward to reading her Ohio essays, too.
But meanwhile, I have almost 300 pages left of “…And Ladies of the Club”. The young ones are moving into adulthood; the original members of the club are becoming grandparents, leaving long careers, learning hard lessons, suffering heart-breaking losses. They’ve turned the corner into the twentieth century, and I am anxious to see what happens next to the ladies of the club.
“…And Ladies of the Club”
–Helen Hooven Santmyer
GP Putnam’s Sons, New York
Joyfully snagged at a Half-Price Books store for 5.99; I hear this book is out of print and so, a treasure!
I am reading Santmyer’s book because I am, in a turn of fate that sometimes startles me, a ‘lady of the club.’
I have been, in our travels through time and place, a member of book clubs and civic groups, of parent organizations and academically-related organizations and once, of a wonderful group of supportive women writers. But I never thought of being in the kind of a club of women that Helen Hooven Santmyer writes about.
My image of that sort of group was formed, I guess, as a very young child, when my mother quit her ‘card club.’ It was, I overheard her tell my dad, a pain in the neck–she felt the club members enjoyed inspecting the home of the hostess, who was expected to have an immaculately clean house and tiered platters of sandwiches made from bread dyed at the bakery, crusts cut off, mayonnaise-y fillings oozing.
I internalized a vaguely negative feeling about ‘ladies’ clubs’–that they were a little frivolous, a little ostentatious, maybe. (Now it occurs to me that with an off-beat household–five rambunctious kids, one foster kid, a husband whose job demanded great deals of overtime, a rollicking dog, not much money, dust bunnies in odd corners, and a fragile emotional state, Mom might have WANTED to be part of that long-ago card club, but maybe just didn’t have all the pieces in place to make it a go.)
In the swinging 60’s and early seventies, I took my cue from those who sneered at sororities and fraternities. The state college I attended didn’t even offer such things. Instead there were groups dedicated to the pursuits of a discipline–literary club, say–or groups aiming to accomplish in the name of good causes–one sponsored a yearly carnival that raised money for, and made connections with, disadvantaged children, for instance. And I had little time for joining anyway; I needed to work–at the college library and a supermarket during the term, at an ice cream factory and a book store during the summers.
I was, I liked to think, a serious student, then a serious young teacher, who didn’t have time for such frivolities.
Before long, I had married–and then I had married again–and I had my own off-beat, rollicking household, and I often felt lucky to escape for a half hour walk around the quiet neighborhoods of my sleepy town. Mark worked at a company we knew deeply was indestructible;but it wasn’t, and he changed jobs, I went to grad school, I graduated, we moved.
We started thinking seriously about law school for the boy. Now or never, right? Never didn’t sound like the better option. We embarked on a five year journey that involved searching for programs, a second baccalaureate, and relocation.
None of that offered opportunity for establishing long-term ties or joining clubs. It was a fun, intense interlude with the ambience of a long roller coaster ride: This is great, but hang on–we can’t get off till it’s over.
And then, the aftermath: leading us to this home, these jobs, allowing us to sink roots into this wonderful Ohio community, and opening up the possibility of joining a club.
My friend and colleague–and Dean–Susan invited me to attend a meeting of the club I’m in; I wasn’t sure about it, but I went and listened to papers prepared by two members, and I was thoroughly charmed. I am not sure what I had expected–pinkies out, maybe–but what I found was a group of educated, intelligent women who enjoy researching topics about which they are passionate and sharing their findings with others who have open, inquiring minds. The group has been meeting since the late 1800’s; it has wonderful traditions, and there’s the often the opportunity to hear the voices of women who’ve gone before.
At one meeting, not so very long ago, someone mentioned a book about another Ohio women’s club, “…And Ladies of the Club.” I remembered that book; it had been a best-seller when I worked at the Book Nook in the 1970’s and 1980’s. We were encouraged, there, to take books home and read them, gently coddling the volumes, so we could return them to the shelves and then talk to customers intelligently. I read a LOT at that job, but it was the time of Marilyn French and Mary Gordon; I re-read, too, the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy and all of CS Lewis, I dove into Dune, into Anne MacCaffrey, and I read Katherine Kurtz…somehow, the ladies of Helen Hooven Santmyer’s club didn’t beckon me then.
But now, I developed a real curiosity about the book; the women of MY club mentioned a former member, Marilyn, who had gone to Xenia and visited with Helen Hooven Santmyer twenty years before. Then Marilyn presented a paper on “…And Ladies of the Club,” complete with primary research. The fictional club and our actual club, Susan pointed out, had uncanny parallels. I said I’d really like to read “…And Ladies of the Club“; some of the women looked a little dubious. It was, they thought, long out of print. Someone said the library’s copy had been read and read again into oblivion.
But that very weekend we took a little road trip to Half Price Books, and there on the shelf was Santmyer’s book, obviously in my path for a very good reason. I snatched it up, paid the pittance, and brought it home to my shelf.
I am 572 fascinating pages into this book, a sweeping saga at 1176 pages: a not-surprising product of the ’70’s and ’80’s (it was published in 1982). Think Thornbirds; think Roots. …And Ladies… would provide the perfect base for a mini-series.
The book begins with commencement for two young ladies from Waynesboro, Ohio’s Female College–not really a college, but more of a church-sponsored secondary school. Anne gives the valedictory that day as Sally sets her sights for an ambitious young blond man who’s visiting. They’re excited and apprehensive about life after school, and they are a little nervous when their teacher, Mrs. Lowrey, asks them to stop in her office before leaving.
What’s that all about? they wonder uneasily, even as they realize that they no longer fall under the disciplinary realm of the school’s hierarchy.
But Mrs. Lowrey has an invitation for them: some of the intellectually minded women are planning a “…a literary club, in Waynesboro, a women’sclub, not a ‘female circle,’ to meet at intervals and promote an interest in culture–in letters, in poetry–at least in a small group.” And Anne and Sally, so recently thrilled to be free from study and academic discipline, surprise themselves by accepting on the spot.
The club formed that day is the structure for Santmyer’s story. This is not, by any means, a saccharine, all-will-be-well tale. There is bigotry in Waynesboro; there is back-stabbing and connivance. The story blooms in the shadow of the Civil War: the young men who become Anne and Sally’s husbands have been scarred and shaped by their roles in it. The War’s legacy stains the characters’ lives in both healthy ways and ways that bode ill.
The club members are good, decent people, but they are not mindlessly contented women, sipping tea as they embroider cozies and discuss literature suitable for ladies. Their lives involve poverty, infidelity, hidden homosexuality, suicide, mental illness, and death. There are class differences; there is a divide between the married women and the women who stay single (by choice or by fate) and work. There are children who turn out in unexpected, and not always welcome, ways.
The women represent a variety of ages and backgrounds, but the club binds them closely together. Despite their faults, their stumbling, their timidity or their brashness, the ladies of this club are sympathetic and likable.
By page 572, Anne and Sally are settling into middle age; their oldest children are teenagers; they have established a lending library; they have come to be leaders in the club. There have been losses and new arrivals and disappointments and triumphs. The club has formed a constant in their lives, an unchanging certainty no matter what else may happen.
I look forward not only to finishing this book, but to finding out more about its author. I hope to track down Marilyn to ask about her visit with Helen Hooven Santmyer, who was born in 1895, making her 87 when the book was published. There’s a story there, I bet; and I look forward to finding out more about Santmyer’s life. Was she, I wonder, a lady of the club?