Released earlier this week in paperback, The King’s Witch tells the story of Frances Gorges, a young courtier first to the dying Queen Elizabeth, and then to the precocious daughter of Elizabeth’s successor, King James. Living at the royal palace by force, rather than by choice, Frances becomes the target of the scheming Lord Cecil, as well as at first unknowingly involved in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605—finding love, but putting her and her parents’ lives in danger. Surrounding these events is King James’ obsession with hunting and burning witches—which thanks to Lord Cecil, potentially includes Frances.
In real-life England, as Borman so effectively portrays in The King’s Witch, King James’ paranoia and fear about witches affected all of England during his reign, which spanned from 1603-1625. Among many, his actions created the belief that hunting down witches, and killing them, was as necessary as going to church on Sundays.
That mindset was brought to the New England colonies during the “Great Migration” of the early 1600s, influencing Connecticut’s witch trials, Massachusetts’ witch trials, and the many others that took place throughout young America.
The King’s Witch is a must-read for historical fiction and witch lovers. And now’s the perfect time to read it. Just released this week in paperback, you can throw the softcover in your bag and easily take it anywhere. (Though I don’t recommend pulling it out at stoplights. You’ll get too engrossed and miss when the light turns green.)
An even better reason to read The King’s Witch now is that its sequel, book 2 of Borman’s Frances Georges trilogy, will be released on September 3. It’s title: The Devil’s Slave—and no one is more excited than me to have an advance copy!
For many, The Devil’s Slave will be a perfect book to sink into at the start of fall. And good news for those who haven’t yet read The King’s Witch. If you start it now—which you absolutely should! So good!—you won’t have to wait as long as the rest of us to read its continuation!
I use these Dorothea Lange photographs of destitute pea pickers, taken in California in 1936 during the Great Depression, as a tool to teach my college journalism students about the difference between reporting and storytelling.
Consequently, I was thrilled to learn about, and then read, Learning to See by Elise Hooper.
The novel provides a fictionalized account of Lange’s journey from a successful and self-focused portrait photographer in San Francisco in the late 1910s, to a controversial, politically-minded photojournalist during WWII, determined to show the truth about Japanese-Americans being held in internment camps. Hooper creates a compelling narrative, doing a great job blending historical fact with the complicated inner life of her fictional version of Lange, who relentlessly works to have both a career and keep her children and family together, despite a husband unable to provide either consistent financial support or fidelity.
The result is an engaging story that shows how our relationships, circumstances and choices shape not just who we become, but those whose lives we touch. Often selfish, though also a woman who makes soul-breaking sacrifices, Hooper’s Lange comes to life on the page—challenging us to consider like Lange does how and what we are willing to see.
I gave Learning to Seefour stars on Goodreads and recommend it to historical fiction lovers, those interested in journalism and photography, and to anyone with a desire—or who questions their ability—to make art and a difference.
Like May Alcott, little sister to Louisa and the protagonist in Hooper’s first novel, The Other Alcott, Hooper grew up in Massachusetts. She now lives on the West Coast and had this to say about Learning to See:
Q: Why did you decide to write about Dorothea Lange?
A: After I finished writing The Other Alcott, I decided to be practical and find a new story set closer to home. I’d always found Oregon-born Imogen Cunningham’s abstracted flower photographs to be beautiful and wanted to learn more about her. During my research, discovered that her best friend, Dorothea Lange, had also been a pioneering photographer, although the women had very different views on the purpose of art and photography. When I learned Lange had photographed the internment of Japanese Americans and that these photos had been impounded due to their subversive points of view, I decided to shift my focus from Cunningham to her best friend, Lange.
Midway through writing this novel, the political climate of the United States shifted with the results of the 2016 presidential election. Women took to the streets in January 2017 to express many grievances over the direction of the nation’s policies and values. This energy and rising political consciousness made me believe Dorothea Lange was more relevant than ever since she was a woman who had experienced a political awakening in her late thirties and acted on it. As a result of the worsening economic conditions in California and the breadlines threading down the sidewalk underneath her studio window in the 1930s, she became an activist for democratic values and social justice. Though she sometimes denied any political angle to her art, she often spoke about her desire for her work to prompt conversations about labor, social class, race, and the environment. Her awakening as an activist breathed new life into this project for me and made me more excited than ever to tell her story.
Q: It’s interesting that a woman who is best known for taking such poignant images of women and children had such a conflicted family life.
A: Dorothea’s complex and seemingly contradictory feelings about motherhood fascinated me. Her own father abandoned her family when she was twelve, and this left her with a powerful sense of rejection. So deep was her hurt that she rarely spoke of it to anyone. In fact, it wasn’t until after her death that Paul Taylor learned the truth of her father’s absence in her life. Yet despite the anguish that her father’s abandonment caused her, she fostered her own sons out during the Great Depression, a choice for which her children never forgave her.
No one faulted Maynard and Paul for not attending to their children, but people questioned Dorothea’s choices and this criticism stung her. Her ambitions and talents put her at odds with many of the norms of the time when few women were the breadwinners in their families. So, although she sometimes felt guilty and selfish, she persevered with work she believed was necessary and important. This tension between ambition and parental duty drew me into her story. While I wrote this story, there were times when I struggled to make sense of Dorothea’s choices to foster her children out to strangers, especially after she married Paul Taylor, but I had to remember that in the early 1900s commonly accepted ideas about child-rearing and child development differed from today. People tended to emphasize the resilience of children and overlook their emotional needs. In some ways Dorothea reminded me of another woman from the same era who is celebrated for her humanitarian work: Eleanor Roosevelt. Like Lange, Roosevelt had a fraught relationship with her children stemming largely from her active political career outside the home. The fact is that women who chose to pursue careers in the early 1900s lacked role models, mentors, affordable childcare options, and other supports that are now widely accepted to be critical to balancing motherhood with work outside the home.
Q: Why didn’t Maynard or Paul do more to help with the care of their children?
A: The expectations of the time were that women tended to children. It was that simple. Regardless of social class, it never appears to have entered into people’s consideration that men could have played a hands-on role with raising their sons and daughters. And this trickled down to the children of this generation. Interviews with Dan Dixon when he was an adult reflect that his hurt feelings were aimed mostly at his mother. He never seemed to hold Maynard accountable in the same way that he blamed his mother for leaving him.
Q: What happened to Lange’s impounded photos of the Japanese American internment?
A: The army impounded the images until after the war and then they were quietly placed in the National Archives. In 1972, Richard Conrat, one of Lange’s assistants, published some of them when he produced Executive Order 9066 for the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. It wasn’t until 2006 when Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro published their book Impounded that the photos received widespread attention. In 2017, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum produced an exhibit entitled Images of Internment: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II to commemorate the seventhy-fifth anniversary of FDR’s infamous Executive Order 9066. I visited the show and viewed photographs by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and others. Seventy-five years later these photos are still relevant and serve as a powerful reminder of the importance of maintaining civil liberties in our democracy.
Moore, also an actress, said she was inspired to write The Radium Girls while directing two London performances of “These Shining Lives,” which I saw earlier this month at the Milford Arts Council in Connecticut.
Written by award-winning American television writer and playwright Melanie Marnich, “These Shining Lives” tells the true story of four of Ottawa, Illinois, women who suffered the painful and deadly effects of radium exposure while painting glow-in-the-dark numbers on watches and clocks in the early 1900s. It’s narrated by a young woman named Catherine Donohue, who like all the female workers painting dials at clock factories in Illinois, New Jersey and Connecticut was told to use her lips to create a fine point at the end of her brush before dipping it in to the luminous green paint.
From roughly 1917 to 1940, this was the song of sometimes thousands of nicknamed “radium girls”—most of them in their 20s—who lipped and dipped each time they painted a number, 1 through 12, on up to 150 watch faces a day. The women became irradiated from within, leading to broken bones, grapefruit-sized tumors, their teeth falling out, jaws breaking, immovable arms and legs, and spines collapsing. Many reported rolling over at night, catching a glimpse of themselves in their bedroom mirrors, and seeing—with horror—that their bodies glowed in the dark.
Even though the men who ran the factories knew that radium was dangerous, the women were told the paint was safe. Many complained of its gritty taste and worried about what they might be ingesting. But as one of the women matter-of-factly states in “These Shining Lives”: “You get used to it.”
Lyrically written, “Shining Lives” uses the stories of Catherine and co-workers Francis O’Connell, Charlotte Purcell and Pearl Payne to show not just the excruciating pain and disfigurement that countless radium girls like them suffered, but also the endless courage, tenacity and resilience they displayed as they fought for recompense, justice, and the establishment of new protections for future dial workers.
At the performance I attended, audience members laughed, disbelieving, when the company doctor blamed stress for the cause of Catherine’s lost teeth and debilitating leg pain. They then gasped when she was fired for becoming too sick to work.
The play skillfully uses both humor and horror to connect with its audience. But as powerful as it is, there are limits to the depth of story that a stage can tell.
From page 1 of The Radium Girls, Moore uses unapologetic, no-nonsense and often gruesome prose to vividly show the extent that working with radium, and being lied to about its dangers, affected not just the women, but their families, the baffled doctors who did their best to care for them, and the legal experts who fought for the justice they deserved.
Moore does nothing to whitewash what Catherine and the other girls experienced:
Her mouth, empty of teeth, empty of jawbone, empty of words, filled with blood, instead, until it spilled over her lips and down her stricken, shaken face. … [It was] a “painful and terrible death.” She was just twenty-four years old. (Ebook page 69)
… New bruises bloomed on her body, blood vessels bursting under her skin. Her mouth would not stop bleeding; pus oozed from her gums. Her bad leg was a constant source of pain. She couldn’t take it anymore; she became “delirious” and lost her mind. (Ebook page 195)
She suffered excruciating, constant pain that required continuous administration of narcotics. Her jawbone continued to fracture into ever-smaller fragments, each new break more painful than the last, and with the new breaks came a new development. Catherine started hemorrhaging from her jaw. She lost approximately one pint of blood each time. (Ebook page 521)
Part of my wanting to read Moore’s book, and see Marnich’s play, was to learn about the radium girls who worked in New England at the Waterbury Clock Factory. I had heard a little about Frances Splettstocher, the first Connecticut woman to die from working there with radium. She was followed by Mildred Cardow and Mary Damulis. All were in their early 20s.
Between 1926 and 1936, the Waterbury Clock Company issued more than $90,000 in medical settlements to radium girls. Yet Waterbury was barely mentioned by Marnich, and only tangentially referred to by Moore. A little research led me to a 2002 Waterbury Observer article that perhaps explains why. While the New Jersey and Illinois dial painters received extensive media coverage—the impact of which Moore deftly shows—no news articles were ever written about the Waterbury women. Their cases were all settled privately, out of court, with no reports made to state or federal agencies.
Unlike the radium girls in Illinois and New Jersey, the Waterbury dial painters had no champions.
“No one in Connecticut with power was willing to help those women,” said Claudia Clark, author of Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935, in the Observer article. “The state was so ant-labor and pro-business. Even the women’s organizations wouldn’t help. It would have been great if someone with power and authority got involved, but it didn’t happen.”
As Moore explains, the radium girls’ cases that went public played a significant role in the establishment of new, strict federal occupational health and safety guidelines for those working with radium and other hazardous materials. They also led to Congress passing a law to give workers the right to receive compensation for occupational illnesses.
Yet the blatant lies these women were told; the bosses who stayed silent despite what they knew—unacceptable. Shameful. And in many ways, as viscerally painful as what these women went through. I’m nauseous as I think about it and type these words.
Moore’s The Radium Girls is a must-read not just for those interested in history, but for those who believe in equal rights and justice. Yes, this past century has seen advancements in gender, workplace, healthcare and economic rights. But so many more are needed. There are also too many similarities between the battles Catherine Donohue and other radium girls fought with those still going on today.
Published last year, Good and Mad examines the contemporary and historical impact of women’s anger on American society. According to the book description, Traister shows that while women’s fury over injustices has long been repressed and dismissed, it has also been one of the most powerful forces in U.S. politics and culture.
As an often-angry feminist who has been told that I’m crazy, irrational, and wasting my time, I can’t wait to crack the cover.
I DON’T USUALLY WRITE ABOUT BOOKS UNTIL I’ve finished reading them. But I’m too excited. A few days ago, I discovered that my current literary BFF Diana Bishop is right now in New Haven, Connecticut, just 15 minutes from my house.
I’m half-way through The Book of Life, the third and final installment of Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy. And I’m loving it. The writing is crisp; the story engaging; and Diana is a compelling, likeable, and authentic protagonist—intelligent, stubborn, determined, vulnerable.
Yet while I’ve known from the start of the series that Diana, a witch, is also a history professor at New Haven’s Yale University, there was never any hint she or the story would go there.
The first two books in the series, A Discover of Witchesand Shadow of Night, take the reader to London, France, Venice, and Prague of today and 1591 as Diana and her vampire husband Matthew search for the missing pages of an ancient and mystical manuscript. The book is known both as Ashmole 782 and the Book of Life, and it’s believed to hold the key to the origins of vampires, witches, and daemons—knowledge that some vampires and witches are willing to kill for.
The Book of Life starts with Diana, Matthew and their extended witch-vampire families at Matthew’s towered, 11th century castle Sept-Tours in France. Hunted by the Congregation of vampires, witches, and daemons that believes bloodlines must remain pure, and has outlawed supernatural beings from cross-breeding, a pregnant Diana and Matthew escape to the haunted, upstate New York house Diana grew up in. Aided by Matthew, her witch Aunt Sarah, her vampire nephew Gallowglass, and other family and friends, Diana works to hone her emerging magical powers. Talk of travel revolves around Diana and Matthew going back to England for the birth of their twins. But then Diana’s best friend, scientist and fellow Yale professor Chris Roberts arrives.
I won’t spoil how or why Diana and Matthew decided to go to New Haven. Unlike the first two books in the series, which were slower paced and sprawling, Life is as action-packed and urgent as the tasks Diana and Matthew must complete before death, or any other form of irreparable tragedy, strikes them or someone they love.
When we first see Diana in New Haven at the start of Chapter 15, she is sitting at a table at the New Haven Lawn Club:
The hushed confines of the main building dampened the distinctive plonk of tennis balls and the screaming children enjoying the pool during the last week of summer vacation. … “Here you are, Professor.” My attentive waiter was back, accompanied by the fresh scent of mint leaves. “Peppermint tea.” (Chapter 15)
Sitting in the New Haven Lawn Club myself, eating lunch at a table probably not too far from where Diana sat, I’ve heard the same thump of tennis balls, and splash of arms, that can float in to the club dining room. Continuing to read Life over the past few nights, I’ve also discovered more ways that my and Diana’s New Haven have overlapped.
Like her, I’ve researched rare books at the Beinecke Library, marveled at the “glass-encased books [that forms] the Beinecke’s spinal column,” eaten at Wall Street Pizza, and driven to nearby Sleeping Giant State Park (though admittedly not with a vampire husband) to look at the stars at night:
Matthew scanned the horizon, unable to stop searching for new threats. Then his attention turned skyward.
“The moon is bright tonight,” he mused. “Even here it’s hard to see the stars.”
“That’s because it’s Mabon,” Diana said quietly.
“Mabon?” Matthew looked startled.
She nodded. “One year ago you walked into the Bodleian Library and straight into my heart. As soon as that wicked mouth of yours smiled, the moment your eyes lightened with recognition even though we’d never met before, I knew that my life would never be the same.” (Chapter 22)
Reading Life, I know exactly where the Yale Center for Genome Analysis they work in is located; am sure I’ve walked past the tall, “red door with the white trim and the black pediment” that opens into Diana’s Court Street apartment; and have parked my car near Gallowglass’s condo inside a converted Catholic church on Green Street.
What distinguished the vampire’s house was that the drapes were tightly closed and only cracks of golden light around the edges of the windows betrayed the fact that someone was still awake. (Chapter 20)
I realize that Diana is a fictional character and only literarily, rather than literally, in New Haven.
But when you’re a bibliomaniac like me, an emotional connection to a literary character can feel as real as one to a real person. I’m one of those people who likes to take literary pilgrimages to places described in a book; to places where I can breathe the same air as the character or author I’ve fallen in love with; to places that inspired favorite writers, so that I can feel that inspiration, too. It makes the reading experience richer. And it makes me feel that much more connected to my understanding of the world and myself.
Doing a quick Google search before writing this post, I found a terrific website called The Tenth Knot, which features articles by Deborah Harkness superfans who have followed Diana’s and Matthew’s footsteps around the world. Among them are two posts that provide addresses, book quotes and other details about all the New Haven cites included in The Book of Life. They’re listed as New Haven, Part 1 and New Haven, Part 2. And for anyone looking to take an All Souls New England pilgrimage, they provide all the information you’ll need.
Deborah joked that while she created Diana to be descended from accused Salem witch Bridget Bishop, she herself has no such lineage: “I would be proud and delighted to have [a witch as an ancestor], but I have not found one yet.”
She also talked about how “wonderful and strange” it is that Diana and other characters she “fully created” from her imagination have become so vividly real to people like me: “That I could create something that people could embrace so fully. …. That’s a rare and precious thing,” Deborah said. “I feel so privileged to have met so many amazing people who feel this way, and to have been able to experience it.”
Like all the books I read, I’ll rate The Book of Life on Goodreads once I’ve finished it. In the meantime, if you’re a history-romance-fantasy fan, don’t hesitate to add the All Souls Trilogy to your #TBR list. And if you decided to take an All Souls literary trip to New Haven or other location, definitely let me know!
An historical novel about a Jewish nurse who plots revenge when one of her patients is the doctor who subjected her to damaging medical experiments in a New York City Jewish orphanage decades before, the book has a risky structure for a debut novelist. Chapters that take place in the present are written in the first person, while chapters in the past are written in the third. This change in voice is startling at first. But van Alkemade is a talented writer who, through rich prose and detail, makes you forget anything but the story as she skillfully brings protagonist Rachel Rabinowitz’s pain, vulnerability, struggle and desire for justice to vivid life.
The X-ray treatments Rachel undergoes as part of what her Jewish orphanage doctor believes will be groundbreaking medical research are part of what Kim and I will talk about on the show. Click here for a short teaser and, if you like what you hear, be sure to tune in at 8 p.m. Monday night! In addition to the author interviews, we’ll be giving away copies of each of these books.
But don’t wait to see whether you win a copy of Orphan Number Eight to add it to your to-read list. In it, you’ll travel with Rachel from the cramped tenement apartments of turn-of-the-century Manhattan, to orphanage cribs where children go weeks without ever being touched, to an off-the-map town in Colorado, to the impossibly soft sand and blue sky of Coney Island. It’s a terrific and affecting ride.
Attention Hollywood: Orphan Number Eight should be a movie!
Sorry Susannah Cahalan, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Philippa Gregory and Katherine Howe for taking the easy way out and posting this pic, rather than writing proper reviews. Will make it up to each of you lovely ladies, but in the meantime … Thanks for the great reads! Last month, when life was less hectic, I wrote about Jennifer Tseng’s Mayumi at length.
Despite my exhaustion from traveling all day and sleeping little the night before, I found myself leaning forward as she spoke. I couldn’t help it. Her sentences were like Sirens–poetic pathogens made up of words and phrases that lured, serenaded and hummed; that I wanted to get closer to; that wonderfully infected me with pure, unadulterated jealousy: How come I’ve never written anything as gorgeous and compelling as that? I want to! I want to now!
She started the reading at Chapter 1:
It began at the library. While the young man waited quietly to be helped, I stood neatly in thrall to the world outside the window. Momijigari was ending; leaves were falling in drifts like snow. Blackcaps were eating the trees, striking the bark with their beaks then rapidly chewing it, in that annual burlesque of sheer appetite I always found vulgar. When I turned, he cleared his throat and asked for a library card. He explained with darting, downcast eyes that although he’d been coming to the library with his mother since he was a child, he’d never had his own card. There was something in his manner–softness, reverence, a hesitation in the face–this is particular to a son close to his mother. Doesn’t intimacy foster reverence more completely than anything that can be taught? As I handed him the form and then watched as he filled it in–his fingers fumbling a bit with the tiny pencil–I didn’t think of having him yet, I simply gaped at his beauty. I had the thought: he is out of reach, a thought that, had I been younger, might have spurred me on, but in middle age, warned me to retreat.
Like Jennifer, protagonist Mayumi is a 40-something-year-old librarian who lives on a small island remarkably like Martha’s Vineyard. As Kirkus described in its review, Mayumi is also a woman “emotionally marooned in a loveless marriage, clinging for warmth to her 4-year-old daughter, and drifting toward middle age [who] finds unlikely, forbidden love and gasp-inducing passion in the arms of an alluring 17-year-old.”
It’s a complicated love story that, as it unfolds, Mayumi can’t help but compare to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. She, after all, is not just a librarian, but a voracious reader and re-reader. Yet Mayumi is no Humbert Humbert. And the relationship Mayumi and the never-named boy develop is nothing if not beautiful, despite the social mores she unapologetically sets aside:
I saw within myself a cup marked complacency and a cup marked disappointment, the contents of both spilling over. I saw that I had been staring impassively for years at the spectacle of my own pain overflowing, as if at a hideous waterfall. Now I turned my gaze toward the young man. … I saw that there was also within me an empty cup marked pleasure and I resolved at once to fill. I refused to be thwarted.
Who of us who’ve reached middle age haven’t felt that kind of longing for fulfillment of desire, whether that desire be for love, sex, the creation of art, the exploration of new places or so many other things? All of us have dreams and desires that are more than just wants. The brave, unconventional and unexpectedly erotic Mayumi shows that while taking risks and going after fulfillment has the potential to end in despair, it can also lead unimaginable happiness, unexpected friendships and unregrettable moments.
Someone said Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness “veers more toward the lyrical than the lurid,” and it’s so true. No one who reads Maymui will be surprised to learn Jennifer is also a poet. Each sentence sings.
A few days after that Bunch of Grapes event, I had the pleasure of spending part of an afternoon with Jennifer. Despite the rain, we sat on the back porch of the West Tisbury Library as I recorded an interview with her for the Literary New England Radio Show. That conversation will air at 8 pm Monday, July 6. We’ll also give away copies of Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness on that show, so don’t miss tuning in.
If you you’re going to be in Martha’s Vineyard this weekend, you can meet Jennifer in person at 6 pm Saturday, June 27, at the West Tisbury Library. As the flier below shows, the event will feature bubbles, cake, book talk, book signing, Mayumi swag and more.
In the meantime, no matter where you are, pick up a copy of Mayumi. Within a matter of minutes, you’ll be swimming in your own Sea of Happiness. Even for writers susceptible to contracting Writer Envy, this ravishing novel is absolutely worth the risk.