Thursday, June 21, 2012

book recommendation: not quite 'summer reading', but terrific reading

i'm a big fan of well-done historical fiction.  my usual era is medieval/early Renaissance, but my most recent read is patricia o'brien's 2008 harriet and isabella, about the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin,  Harriet Beecher Stowe, and her suffragist sister Isabella, as well as the rest of the Beecher siblings around the time of the huge scandal around their famous preacher brother Henry Ward Beecher and his probable affair with his best friend's wife.  Fascinating piece of US history, and I like the fact that I got to meet Isabella: when you think of Harriet's sister, you almost always think of Catherine, writer of domestic books for housewives---and she does appear quite a bit in the novel.  But I never knew about Isabella, certainly my kind of woman!  During the scandal  she was the only sibling to believe in Henry's "guilt," and urged him to admit it, explain it, repudiate, and get on with his life and work.  He didn't and Isabella was banished from the family circle.  In that sense, she comes across as the Beecher who loves her brother best, since she believes in his guilt and never ceases to love and admire him.  (She was also among the few of the major suffragists who accepted Victoria Woodhull for who she was, and remained loyal to her as well--the only one who visited woodhull in prison.)  Beautifully written, and with the crucial ability to take these people on their own terms in their own era (which she captures with great detail.]

If this appeals to you, I'd also recommend Marge Piercy's  The Sex Wars.  It's a larger book, both in subject and length, whose major characters include Woodhull, Anthony Comstock (of the  infamous Comstock Law), Elizabeth Cady Stanton, etc.  And of course the Beecher clan figures into it, as does one fictional character, a working class woman (few of whom are documented enough to find specific info on--but Piercy is able to reconstruct the life of such a woman from contemporary documents.)

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