Amanda Peters, Beethoven, books, Charlene Carr, Emily Franklin, family, flowers, Jane Austen, L.M. Montgomery, Maira Kalman, motherhood, photography, spring
I’ve just finished reading Maira Kalman’s beautiful book Women Holding Things. (My friend Lisa recommended it to me, and we decided to give each other copies of the book, just as we did with Heidi L.M. Jacobs’s novel Molly of the Mall and Juliette Wells’s edition of Jane Austen’s Emma, to mention a couple of examples.) Kalman considers “all that can be held. And not held.” She says, “Holding a specific thing is a very nice thing to do. … The simple act of doing one thing.” She writes of (and illustrates) a woman “holding opinions about modern art”; of “Gertrude Stein holding true to herself writing things very few people liked or even read”; of “Hortense Cézanne holding her own”; of a woman “holding consoling and comforting her daughter”; of a girl holding a violin, a tutu, a doll and book; a woman “holding her red cap after swimming across the Hudson River”; of “women holding malicious opinions while I play piano”; of “Virginia Woolf barely holding it together”; of “Sally Hemings holding history accountable.”
She draws a portrait of her mother’s family in 1931: “They also loved holding things before half of them perished in Auschwitz.” On a page devoid of illustration or colour, Kalman writes,
The terrors of the world exist.
And we are wounded.
“It is hard work,” she says, “to hold everything.”
Another of Lisa’s recommendations is The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, by Dan Gemeinhart, in which Coyote and her dad, Rodeo, who’ve been driving from one state to another in an old school bus named Yager, begin a journey back to Washington State for the first time in five years. Coyote is determined to dig up a memory box she and her mother and sisters buried in a park near their old house, and her dad is equally determined not to return to the place where the five of them were a family, before the two sisters and their mother were killed in a car accident. I loved reading about the bond between Coyote and Rodeo, and the tensions between the two of them, and the friendships they make with the people and animals who join them on the bus on the long drive across the country: Lester; Salvador and his mother, Esperanza; Val; a kitten named Ivan; and a goat named Gladys.
Coyote’s courage is remarkable. She’s dealing with a tremendous amount of sorrow, and she has tremendous compassion for the sufferings of others. “I guess sometimes life does seem like too much, especially during the big moments,” she says. “But usually you can dig inside yourself and find what you need. You can find what you need to grow into those big moments and make ’em yours.”
I’ve been rereading some of the short stories and plays Jane Austen wrote when she was a teenager, including “Jack & Alice,” in which we meet the Johnsons, who, “though a little addicted to the Bottle & the Dice, had many good Qualities.” I also love “The beautifull Cassandra,” in which the heroine “proceeded to a Pastry-cooks where she devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry Cook & walked away.” I think her play “The Mystery” is hilarious—full of secrets, not one of which is ever revealed. “Shall I tell him the secret? … No, he’ll certainly blab it … But he is asleep and wont hear me … So I’ll e’en venture.” Such fun to hear the voice of young Jane!
If you’d like to hear more about Jane Austen’s early work, you might be interested in this conversation with Emma Clery on the TLS podcast (from last year): “Crossing the threshold into Jane Austen’s unpublished writings.”
I chose “Holding true to herself” as the title for this post because I liked Kalman’s description of Gertrude Stein, and because it reminded me of a favourite line from one of Jane Austen’s letters: “I must keep to my own style & go on in my own Way; And though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other” (April 1, 1816).
(The painting and the message in a bottle were created by my daughter when she was younger)
I want to recommend a couple of novels by Nova Scotia writers. First, Hold My Girl, by Charlene Carr, a gripping page-turner that explores what happens to Katherine and Tess, whose heartbreaking stories of infertility, IVF treatments, pregnancy loss, and motherhood intersect in ways neither of them could ever have imagined. After Tess endures the pain of losing her daughter Hanna, who is stillborn, and Katherine gives birth to a healthy daughter, Rose, the two women learn from the IVF clinic that their eggs were switched. As Tess begins her fight to be involved in Rose’s life and Katherine tries desperately to keep Tess away from Rose, both women struggle with profound feelings of failure.
“On the surface,” Katherine had “kept up the charade. She built her business. She kept fit, kept house, playing the role of perfect daughter, perfect daughter-in-law, and as best as she could perfect wife. Not letting anyone, even her mother, know her pain.” When Katherine’s efforts to protect her role as Rose’s mother make Tess feel like she is “nothing,” Tess longs to numb the pain. “Instead, she had to rein it all in, walk down Spring Garden Road with her head held high, gait measured, looking perfectly normal as every cell within her felt it was exploding.” This is a novel about the complexities of defining motherhood and family, but it is also about the challenges of pretending everything is fine, and the cost of keeping a secret.
Next, The Berry Pickers, by Amanda Peters, a powerful, deeply affecting novel about family, grief, and injustice. When a Mi’kmaw couple and their children travel from Nova Scotia to Maine in the summer of 1962 to pick blueberries, their four-year-old daughter Ruthie disappears. Unable to find her, they appeal to the police for help, only to hear that there’s “nothing much we can do. She’s not been gone long enough, and you not being proper Maine citizens, and known transients.”
Ruthie’s six-year-old brother Joe was the last to see her, and he feels responsible, having wandered away from her to skip stones on the lake after the two of them had eaten their sandwiches together. When he hears other women at the camp talking about how losing a child is “the worst thing that could happen to a woman,” he begins to think he ought to have been the child who disappeared, not Ruthie. His mother has three boys and two girls. “I was the youngest boy and one that could be spared. At least that’s what I told myself that night, the firelight throwing sad shadows on the ground. It was a simple matter of math.”
The Berry Pickers asks why “no word exists for a parent who loses a child,” no word comparable to “orphan” or “widow/widower.” Perhaps “the event is just too big, too monstrous, too overwhelming for words. No word could ever describe the feeling, so we leave it unsaid.” This beautiful novel shows how the traumatic disappearance of Ruthie reverberates through the lives of every member of the family over the decades as they search for the truth.
Here are a couple of other books I heard about recently and would like to read:
The Lioness of Boston, by Emily Franklin, dramatizes the life of Isabella Stewart Gardner. Franklin says in her introduction to a reading list she put together in honour of Gardner’s Boston that “after early rejection and tragedy, Isabella might have cloistered herself away in her lovely Boston home. Instead she explored the greater world—infiltrating the male-dominated Harvard intellectual world, collecting art, and finding friends in other misfits, and her place in the larger world.”
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum:
I’m also keen to read Twice Upon a Time: Selected Stories, by L.M. Montgomery, edited by Benjamin Lefebvre. Thank you to my friend Deborah Knuth Klenck for sending me a copy of Catherine Taylor’s review of this book in the TLS, along with a beautiful card. (Having written about Shawna Lemay’s theory of the “sponge-cake model of friendship,” I now think of cards and emails from friends and family as sponge-cakes.) Lefebvre writes that the book includes “stories that, with a few exceptions, were first published in periodicals between 1898 and 1939, and that consist of early versions of well-known characters, plot points, conversations and settings in her books …. [it] seeks not only to add to the canon of known Montgomery texts but also to trouble the notion of a canon, showing the complex relationship Montgomery saw between periodical work and book publication.”
A couple of days ago, my mother and I watched an online celebration called “Poetry & the Creative Mind,” hosted by the Academy of American Poets, and we enjoyed hearing poems read by Kimiko Hahn, Malala Yousafzai, Ada Limón, and others. I especially liked hearing Ethan Hawke read W.H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening,” part of which he had performed in the 1995 movie Before Sunrise.
And I was glad to hear poems that were new to me, including “Why We Oppose Pockets for Women,” by Alice Duer Miller (“4. Because women are required to carry enough things as it is, without the additional burden of pockets”), and “Note to Self Work,” by Beau Sia (“beat the drum when hands / want to become fists … be a metaphor / when literal is too much … be too vibrant for lingering / on those who neglect”).
I’ll end today’s post with some photos I’ve been collecting to share with you. From my sister Bethie, a photo of “coffee with Beethoven” in Bonn:
From me, a few photos from a trip my friend Marianne and I made yesterday to St. John’s Anglican Church in Lunenburg, NS, for a wonderful chamber musical called “The Missing Pages,” by Tom Allen. It tells the story of Theodore Molt, the only Canadian who ever met Beethoven. Molt signed one of Beethoven’s conversation books—but then the next four pages were torn out. Allen imagines what might have happened between Molt and Beethoven during that visit in December of 1825. There’s another performance tonight in Halifax, at the Music Room, and I think there are still tickets available. (We also went book shopping in Lunenburg—Marianne bought a copy of The Berry Pickers, and I bought Claire Keegan’s Walk the Blue Fields.)
From my parents—who are always up for an adventure!—photos from their trip to Jordan earlier this month: the Temple of Artemis, the Dead Sea, Petra, and Wadi Rum.
From my friends Sheila and Hugh, photos of spring flowers in Kent, England:
And (from me) a couple of pictures of Admiralty House in Halifax, where Jane Austen’s brother Francis lived when he was Commander-in-Chief of the North American and West Indies Station of the British Royal Navy, between 1845 and 1848:
Sheila and I created a walking tour, “Austens in Halifax,” which provides more information about the years Francis and Charles Austen spent in Halifax with their families.
Dear Sarah, I read and re-read Jane Austen’s “Emma” – the depth is so wonderful! Of course – I read, and re-read all of Jane Austen every year – with wonderful rememberings of firsts and sharings. Right now, I am going back, gently and carefully – to Persuasion. That book and those words touch my heart deeply. …and make me a more sensitive and loving person, I believe. You are so correct about her juvenile writings though – glimmers of her maturity shine through!However…..when I am given or purchase any new-to-me Austen book, I find with amazement that I spot and notice errors in the text – .!!!!! Now – would you say that I am rereading Jane Austen too often? (NO of course not – never! Hugs to you! Jean T Long Our daffodils are open and Little Traverse Bay MI is free of ice. The hummingbirds and the loons are returning! Bless you, DEAR SARAH! I love your insight and thoughts! hugs, Jean T Long in Petoskey, MI.
Sarah Emsley said:
Hello and happy spring to you, Jean! Thank you so much for your wonderful note. I agree, of course, that it isn’t possible to read Jane Austen too often. She does have a way of touching the hearts of readers—a truly extraordinary gift. I feel very grateful to spend so much time with her words, and also to have met so many wonderful friends through JASNA and our shared love of the novels. I’m delighted to know about the uplifting signs of spring in your part of the world. Thanks for your kind words about the blog. Sending you a big hug!
Your trip to Lunenburg sounds like fun! The sky in your pictures is so broody.
I also just finished reading The Berry Pickers and thought it was a page-turner. Poor Joe. And Hold My Girl is gut-wrenching.
I’m looking forward to Twice Upon a Time! I’ve always hoped that someday they discover a whole new bunch of unpublished manuscripts written by LMM. Wouldn’t that be great?
Sarah Emsley said:
We had a great time! Glad to hear you enjoyed both of those novels. I read them back to back and it was an intense experience. More LMM would be wonderful!
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