Tag Archives: historical fiction

WOMAN 99 by Greer Macallister

Woman 99 by Greer Macallister is what I call “historical adventure fiction”. It’s about Charlotte Smith, a wealthy young woman growing up in 1880s San Francisco whose sister Phoebe has been sent to Goldengrove, a renowned insane asylum in Napa Valley, due to her erratic mental health. For a few reasons, Charlotte feels responsible for her sister’s being sent to Goldengrove and decides to rescue her by getting herself committed there too.

Woman 99 by Greer Macallister is what I call “historical adventure fiction”. It’s about Charlotte Smith, a wealthy young woman growing up in 1880s San Francisco whose sister Phoebe has been sent to Goldengrove, a renowned insane asylum in Napa Valley, due to her erratic mental health. For a few reasons, Charlotte feels responsible for her sister’s being sent to Goldengrove and decides to rescue her by getting herself committed there too.

This may not be a smart plan, but it allows Woman 99 readers to follow along as Charlotte ends up at Goldengrove, a place that turns out to be much more sinister than it’s purported to be. Not everyone at Goldengrove is insane, it turns out – many of the women there are simply inconvenient, and their husbands or families want them to disappear. Conditions at the asylum border on inhumane, and as Charlotte learns more about the doctors, nurses and “cures”, she becomes increasingly outraged at the ways the women are treated. She also has to locate her sister, which proves to be much more challenging than she’d hoped, and find a way to get them both out.

Woman 99 is a story about female resilience and the loyalty between sisters, as well as a sad statement about the treatment of women at the end of the 19th century. Goldengrove is fictional, but Macallister did her research into private asylums at that time and created a place that is sadly entirely conceivable. Charlotte’s character is inspired by Nellie Bly, a real American journalist in the 1880s who herself exposed brutality and neglect at asylums for women, and Bly’s writing clearly informed Macallister.

Woman 99 is a bit of a departure for me – I don’t usually read books heavy on adventure and twists, but I enjoyed this one a lot. Charlotte was forced to be resourceful in the face of very long odds and depended on help from the friends she makes within Goldengrove, women whom others have written off. There are many disturbing images throughout Woman 99, but is ultimately a hopeful story of empowerment and justice.

I was very luckily invited to moderate a panel with Greer Macallister and Lynda Cohen Loigman last night at Kramerbooks in DC to talk about Woman 99 and Lynda’s new book, The Wartime Sisters (reviewed here). It was a great time! Here’s a pic of us during the discussion.

THE WARTIME SISTERS by Lynda Cohen Loigman

Lynda Cohen Loigman’s debut novel The Two Family House (reviewed here) is about two Jewish families connected by brothers who live above and below in each other in a house in Brooklyn in the 40s. Her new novel, The Wartime Sisters is also set in the 40s and focuses on two sisters, Ruth and Millie, who grew up in Brooklyn but move to Springfield, MA during the early days of WWII to work in the armory there.

Ruth and Millie have had a strained relationship since childhood. Ruth, resentful of Millie’s beauty and the attention she received from their parents and suitors, has grown brittle and bitter, despite her loving marriage to an army officer and twin daughters. She moves happily to Springfield to get out of her younger sister’s shadow, eager to start a new life where she wasn’t compared to Millie. Meanwhile, Millie is courted by Lenny, a rough, working-class man who her parents don’t approve of, and despite their efforts to keep them apart, she agrees to marry him soon after they die suddenly in a car accident.

When The Wartime Sisters opens, Millie has followed Ruth to Springfield, arriving on her doorstep with her young son and bearing the news that Lenny is gone. Ruth takes her in and Millie gets a job putting rifle triggers together at the armory. The sisters negotiate an uneasy truce in Springfield, but as the story unfolds, Loigman reveals that each sister is hiding secrets from the other, preventing them from truly understanding and accepting each other.

Once again, Loigman has vividly recreated a very specific time and place, this time through painstaking research into the community that built up around the Springfield Armory. I enjoyed the details of life in Springfield – the social strata determined by the roles on the base, the role of women as “soldiers of production” necessitated by the exodus of men into the army – and I admire Loigman’s creation of her fictional world within the physical structure of the Armory.

Loigman teases out Millie and Ruth’s complicated relationship, exploring how years of resentment and miscommunication have ossified into emotional estrangement. Circumstances ultimately force Millie to reveal what she has been hiding, forcing Ruth’s own reckoning with the past and the role she herself played in leading to Millie’s dire situation. Loigman shifts perspective throughout the book and goes back and forth in time to paint a full picture of the sisters’ past and the new lives they are living as adults.

Like The Two-Family House, The Wartime Sisters looks at how the grooves forged in childhood by parents and siblings only deepen with time and can determine the course of adulthood until they are addressed and softened. In The Wartime Sisters, Loigman has created another well-written story with memorable characters and a compelling historical setting.

THE MIDWIFE OF HOPE RIVER by Patricia Harman

The Midwife Of Hope River by Patricia Harman is about Patience, a thirtysomething midwife living in West Virginia during the Depression. Patience, an orphan with an (implausibly) complicated past, has moved to West Virginia to escape the law. She had formerly lived with a midwife who trained her how to deliver babies, so when she gets to West Virginia, word gets out that she is a midwife and she makes a living going to women’s homes once they are in labor and bringing their babies into the world.

The Midwife Of Hope River is basically a diary of Patience’s deliveries, with some plot developments thrown in to fill in the distances between them. She lives in an old house outside of town, trying unsuccessfully to make on her meager earnings. She ends up taking in Bitsy, a young African-American woman, as a roommate, both to save money on expenses and also to train her in midwifery. Over the course of the book, Harman covers race relations in the town, domestic violence, the market crash, and Patience’s developing relationship with a nearby veterinarian, delving rather incompletely into Patience’s past – the death of two husbands and a son, her role in union-related violence, and her time as a show dancer.

On the one hand, there’s a lot going on here, but on the other hand, not much happens. The details surrounding the births are kind of interesting, especially given Patience’s rudimentary tools and short training. But Patience is a pretty immature person, despite her former relationships. She is very clinical about the births she attends, recording the details faithfully in her journal but rarely expressing any emotion about them other than worry over her own reputation. Her  halting relationship with the veterinarian also evolves strangely, with neither of them expressing any emotion about each other, but leading to the inevitable coupling that seems to have been fated from the day they met. Patience is often moody and selfish, caring little about those around her but intensely missing those who are gone from her life.

Harman is clearly very experienced in midwifery and really did her research when it comes to 1930s West Virginia, and for those reasons The Midwife of Hope River is an interesting read. As far as character development, that’s where the book is lacking. I had an easy time putting this book down and was rarely compelled back to finish it. If you want some historical fiction and are OK with not a lot happening, then you may enjoy it. Otherwise, I’d give it a pass.

RED SCARF GIRL by Ji-Li Jiang

Our January Mother-Daughter Book Club read was Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang. This was probably the most serious and definitely one of the saddest books we have read for book club. It’s a memoir about the author growing up in China in the late 60s during the Cultural Revolution.

Ji-Li’s family had been relatively well-off before the Revolution, especially compared to other families around them. They all lived in one room – Ji-Li, her parents, her grandmother, and her sister and brother. But they employed a housekeeper and had nice things in the house. After the Revolution, they were considered to be a “bad class” because her grandfather had once been a landlord. Red Scarf Girl is a chronicle of the years of anxiety, fear, deprivation and pain that Ji-Li’s family suffered when the Communists targeted them as capitalists who had built a fortune on the backs of working people. Her parents were persecuted, her father was jailed, her grandmother was physically abused, and their apartment was repeatedly ransacked and looted by the Red Guard.

Ji-Li had been an honors student before the Revolution, and when the book opens, she is still trying to remain faithful to the party and obey the directives she is given in school. Over time, however, she becomes aware of the capriciousness and ruthlessness of the Red Guard, and when her loyalty to the Party is tested against her loyalty to her family, she chooses her family. Her disillusionment with authority, exacerbated by her disappointment with her schooling under the new regime, makes for a powerful coming-of-age novel about adherence to political views and the nature of sacrifice for one’s beliefs.

I had feared that the girls wouldn’t enjoy Red Scarf Girl, but I was pleasantly surprised by how many girls had read it and really thought about it. The subject matter was difficult, but it was easy to digest. We had a good discussion about how different characters in the book reacted to the harshness of the Cultural Revolution and what the girls would have done in Ji-Li’s shoes. We admired how brave she was, even as things just kept getting worse and worse. The Epilogue is worth reading, as it talks about how Ji-Li looks back on those years (she now lives in America). Rather than feeling angry at Chairman Mao and his government, she explains how her classmates and the families around her were brainwashed by Mao’s messages and believed that the Cultural Revolution was necessary for China’s survival. Her message – that without laws, a small group or even a single person can take control over an entire country – is just as relevant today, and we talked as a group about how important it is to preserve and retell stories like Ji-Li’s.

Red Scarf Girl was not an uplifting or easy read, but it was an important one. I am glad that we picked it for book club and that my daughters read it.

THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND by Elizabeth George Speare

Our November Mother-Daughter Book Club pick was The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. I had never read it when I was my girls’ age, so this one was new to me.


The Witch of Blackbird Pond opens when Kit Tyler, a 16 year-old who has grown up in Barbados, arrives in Connecticut after taking a five-week boat trip from her home. Her grandfather, with whom she lived, has passed away, and her only remaining family is an aunt living in the American colonies.

From the moment she arrives in Connecticut, Kit is aware of how different she is from her Puritan family. Her rich, colorful dresses are a stark contrast to the grey, simple muslins worn by her cousins. Kit grew up swimming and reading secular books, both of which are unheard of in her uncle’s strict household, and her lack of interest in the church sermons and readings to which she is subjected provide a constant source of tension with those around her.

After her arrival, Kit is terribly homesick until she discovers the Meadows on the outskirts of town, and an old woman named Hannah who lives in a modest house there. Hannah is wise, patient and kind, but she has been run out of town because she is a Quaker and people believe she is a witch. Kit comes to care deeply for Hannah, but she has to keep their friendship a secret because she has been prohibited by her uncle from visiting the Meadows and seeing her. When their friendship is exposed, Kit must decide how much she will risk to protect Hannah, and she has to face the consequences of her actions when the town turns on her too.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond is about leadership, fundamentalism, standing up for one’s beliefs, adherence to social norms, and religious freedom. (There are also some love stories threaded through the book). It kept my daughters’ attention and provided lots of fodder for discussion. The girls found several characters to admire (and a few to hate), and everyone agreed that Kit was more brave than they would have been in her shoes. I liked that most of the characters were multi-dimensional, even if they seemed closed-minded and rigid at first. There is also a lot of detail about life in Colonial America and some exploration of how the colonists broke free of England and the Royalists.

I highly recommend The Witch of Blackbird Pond for middle grade readers. It is a palatable dose of history and ethics that goes down very smoothly and provides a great springboard for conversation.