A consummate chronicler of the American South spotlights the extraordinary history of two kidnapped African-American brothers enslaved as a circus sideshow act.
Expanding on her 2001 co-authored article series in the Roanoke Times, journalist Macy (Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local—and Helped Save an American Town, 2014) reconstructs the folkloric yet true story of brothers George and Willie Muse, who, in 1899, at ages 9 and 6, toiled on a sweltering tobacco farm in Virginia. As black albinos bearing golden dreadlocks, the boys were considered “genetic anomalies” yet visually ideal when spied by Candy Shelton, a white bounty hunter scouring the area for “freaks” to enslave in circus sideshow acts. As circus entertainment crested in popularity at the turn of the 20th century, Macy writes, much money was to be made by sideshow managers eager to exploit those with physical abnormalities. Despite being falsely told that their mother had died, the Muse brothers went on to become “among the top tier of sideshow headline grabbers,” internationally known to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey audiences as “Eko and Iko, the Ecuadorian Savages.” Macy vividly illustrates circus life during the 1920s, and she movingly depicts how the brothers’ protective, determined mother, Harriett, eventually discovered and rescued them almost a decade and a half later. She sued the circus only to have George and Willie (along with little brother Tom) inexplicably return to the big top under Shelton’s management with decidedly mixed results. The story draws on years of diligent, investigative research and personal investment on the author’s behalf, and it features numerous interviews with immediate family, neighbors, distant relatives, Truevine townsfolk, and associated friends, most notably Nancy Saunders, Willie’s fiercely outspoken primary caregiver. Macy absorbed their own individual (and often conflicting) interpretations of the Muse kidnappings, condensing and skillfully braiding them into a sturdy, passionate, and penetrating narrative.
This first-rate journey into human trafficking, slavery, and familial bonding is an engrossing example of spirited, determined reportage.
A dual biography of the 30-year relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) and Lorena Hickok (1893-1968).
In 1932, Hickok was an Associated Press journalist writing about politics and other serious matters, unusual for a woman at the time. Soon after she met soon-to-be White House occupant Eleanor, the two formed an intimate relationship that lasted at various levels of intensity until Roosevelt's death. Biographer Quinn (Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times, 2008, etc.) delves into the privileged but unhappy upbringing of Roosevelt—she was the niece of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and distant cousin of her eventual husband, Franklin Roosevelt—on the East Coast and in Europe as well as the poverty-stricken, abusive childhood of Hickok in rural South Dakota. Roosevelt was normally demure, physically tall, and somewhat slender, while Hickok was loud, brash, and overweight. “[Hickok] reveled in food and drink, played a good game of poker, smoked a lot…and was capable of swearing a blue streak,” writes the author. “Unlike Eleanor, who kept strong emotions under control, Hick let it all out.” Indeed, the intellectual, emotional, and physical chemistry seemed out of sync on the surface. Quinn deftly explores how the unlikely relationship evolved, relying on correspondence between the women, oral histories in archives, various government documents, and numerous other sources that allow readers to learn a great deal about normally private affairs. The author’s exploration of Hickok’s journalism and government jobs offers detailed, fascinating human portraits of citizens caught in the grip of an extended financial depression. The benevolent and often daring initiatives of Roosevelt have been copiously documented for decades; Quinn sorts through the massive volume of material, making wise choices about how best to illuminate Roosevelt's character.
A relentlessly captivating study of two remarkable individuals who helped extend the roles of American women in the public policy realm.
So much more than a memoir about trying to conceive.
The situation in which Boggs (Mattaponi Queen, 2010) found herself has become increasingly common and is thus likely to resonate with a large readership. Having long put any thought of motherhood on hold—using birth control and focusing on her writing, career, husband, and the other priorities of a life without children—she figured that she would get pregnant when it was time. And when it was time, and then it seemed like time was running out, she couldn’t. A book about the author and her husband might have seen suspense build along with expenses, with new and different options explored as readers wonder whether all of this will result in a baby. But this deeply empathetic book is about more than one woman’s challenge; it’s about the whole scope of maternal urges, of how culture (and literature) treat the childless (or “childfree”), how biases against medical intervention serve to stigmatize those who need such expensive (and not always successful) assistance, and how complicated can be the decisions about whether to adopt rather than continuing to attempt to conceive, the moral dimensions of international adoption (and surrogates), the additional hurdles facing gay couples, and the seemingly arbitrary differences between states as to what procedures are covered and to what financial limit. While dropping a couple of offhand references early on to the fact that, yes, she became a mother, Boggs writes with considerable heart and engagement about the decisions that are so tough for so many. “Nothing about this experience had been what we expected when we thought of having children, or even when we first guessed that the road to parenthood might be a long one,” she reflects. “It was more uncomfortable and expensive than we imagined, and less private.”
In her reporting, researching, and sharing, Boggs has performed a public service for those in a similar position—and for anyone interested in the implications of parenthood or in a story well-told and deeply felt.
A history of the danger-seeking young Winston Churchill during the Boer War, which “had turned out to be far more difficult and more devastating than the amusing colonial war the British had expected.”
Although Churchill’s life has been amply documented by himself and many others, Millard (Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, 2011, etc.) ably weaves a seamless and gripping narrative of the future statesman’s early career and involvement in the Boer War (1899-1902). It is the story of a man unfailingly convinced of his destiny to lead, undaunted by setbacks, and supremely confident of success. “I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending,” Churchill wrote to his mother from the bloody battlefield of Malakand. As the author demonstrates, even as a child, Churchill shared his countrymen’s idea that war “was about romance and gallantry.” “There is no ambition I cherish so keenly,” he said, “as to gain a reputation for personal courage.” At 24, he passionately urged Joseph Chamberlain to recover Britain’s prestige in South Africa by avenging a humiliating defeat; in an electrifying speech, he whipped up fervor for war. In October 1899, Churchill’s wish was realized: Britain was at war, and he was off to battle, this time as a journalist. He meant to travel in comfort: along with his personal valet, he brought wine, spirits, liqueur, and luxurious accessories from London’s finest shops. Although he became dramatically involved in the army’s travails, he, along with around 60 officers and soldiers, was taken prisoner. For Churchill, it was a fate almost worse than death. “With the loss of his freedom,” Millard writes, “he had, for the first time, also lost his ferocious grip on life.” In vivid, entertaining detail, the author chronicles Churchill’s audacious escape, which was reported in British newspapers with pride and glee. As Millard concludes, he had proved himself exemplary: “resilient, resourceful and, even in the face of extreme danger, utterly unruffled.”
A fresh, captivating history of the enduringly colorful Churchill.
While living in London as a staff writer for the New Yorker, Collins fell in love with Olivier, who grew up in a beach town near Bordeaux. He spoke English fairly well, but the author spoke no French. In her cleverly organized, well-written story, Collins explores how language differences can be overcome with difficulty but can also threaten romance due to poor communication. Raised in North Carolina, Collins chose London as her overseas locale partly because she lacked confidence about developing a work life and a private life in a foreign language. Due to her sudden interest in Olivier, the author had to find the resolve and the skill to learn French beyond the tourist basics. As the memoir unfolds, Collins does not spare herself, sharing her apprehensions and her missteps with candor and frequently with humor. She also shares her misunderstandings and arguments with Olivier as they labored to reach a comfortable place in a bilingual romance. Collins was also painfully aware of differences other than language. She was a writer, he a mathematician; she was a believer in organized religion, he an atheist. She also acknowledged that her romantic history featured poor judgment in men, even when language and culture presented no obvious barriers. As Collins gradually decided to commit to learning French because Olivier seemed worth the effort, she breaks from the personal narrative to share scholarly knowledge with lay readers—e.g., why is the world divided by so many languages and dialects? How did French develop specifically? What are the sometimes-surprising differences between English, especially American English, and French, regarding sentence structure, gender identification of specific words, and linguistic purity? Throughout, the author ably weaves together the personal and the historical.
A memoir filled with pleasing passages in every chapter.
An engaging, sympathetic portrait of the writer who found the witchery in huswifery.
Critic Franklin (A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, 2010) ably captures both the life and art of Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) in this sharp biography. Franklin presents her as the classic square peg: a woman who didn’t easily fit in to midcentury America and a writer who can’t be neatly categorized. Jackson was the ungainly, rebellious daughter of a socialite mother who never stopped nagging her about her weight or appearance. Later, she would be the neglected wife of an esteemed critic and teacher, Stanley Edgar Hyman, who all but flaunted his adulteries under her nose. It was an anxiety-ridden life, but she had the imagination to put it to good use. Her stories and novels involved people fighting losing battles with either themselves or society, whether they are usurped by the big city or run up against the barbarism of cozy small-town life—as in her classic story “The Lottery.” She wasn’t a witch, although she let people think so; rather, she was a harried domestic goddess who also wrote children’s fiction, bestselling chronicles of life with Hyman and their children, and—further resisting pigeonholing—a masterpiece of horror fiction (The Haunting of Hill House) and a curiously comic novel about a young lady who poisons her parents (We Have Always Lived in a Castle). Jackson’s life was both disciplined and devil-may-care; she ate, drank, and smoked like there was no tomorrow until finally, at the age of 48, there wasn’t. Franklin astutely explores Jackson's artistry, particularly in her deceptively subtle stories. She also sees a bigger, more original picture of Jackson as the author of “the secret history of American women of her era”—postwar, pre-feminist women who, like her, were faced with limited choices and trapped in bigoted, cliquish neighborhoods.
A consistently interesting biography that deftly captures the many selves and multiple struggles of a true American original.
Investigative reporting that uncovers the rape culture surrounding college sports, particularly football.
Drawing on the sports playbook idea, where one play combined with another and another leads to a single, unified, successful act, Luther writes about the prevalence of rape and assault on college campuses as a combination of many factors. She discusses the role coaches, universities, sponsors, the police, and other authority figures play in perpetuating a subculture in which the aggressive acts of sports players, particularly gifted football stars, are often ignored because “boys will be boys.” She delves into many cases, giving graphic details from victims of the abuse, often from multiple attackers, and then discusses the lack of support for the victims, the fears they often have after the attack, and the dismissiveness of so many toward the victims, which allows the perpetrators to continue as if nothing had happened. Luther explains how many schools turn the other way when confronted with a possible assault case even though they have a legal obligation to investigate the attack under federal Title IX laws. “The idea that universities don’t care about victims is perceived to be worse whenever the accused is a high-profile athlete,” she writes, “someone the school has a serious financial and emotional stake in.” As Luther, who helped break the story about sexual assaults on the campus of Baylor University, points out, college sports (especially football) generate billions of dollars in revenue, and the idea of the game often unifies many small towns that would otherwise remain divided. Distressing to read, even more so when one learns how many college abusers have gone on to join the NFL, Luther’s research into rape on campuses is an important exposé demonstrating that the problem still lies within the male locker room. The book is particularly timely in the wake of recent allegations at Baylor and Stanford.
Highly relevant, hard-hitting, much-needed information that reveals the widespread existence of rape by sports players on college campuses.
An esteemed novelist offers alternately wry and haunted ruminations on a life of literature and intrigue.
In his 80s, le Carré (A Delicate Truth, 2013, etc.), the author of espionage-themed bestsellers and a Cold War–era member of British intelligence, seems keenly aware that his life blurs into his fiction. In this memoir, in which he pointedly uses his real name, David Cornwell, the author acknowledges the difficulty of teasing biography from a life devoted to novel writing. “Pure memory remains as elusive as a bar of wet soap,” he writes. “Or it does for me, after a lifetime of blending experience with imagination.” He avoids strict chronology in favor of a loose, episodic structure that outlines his work’s real-world influences and allows him to consider his evolving views on patriotism, geopolitics, the lives of writers, actors, directors, and rogues (specifically his con-man father), and other topics. He offers nuanced looks at unnerving times, especially regarding his intelligence work in West Germany; he argues that the soft reception given ex-Nazis fed leftist terrorism by young Germans decades later. Le Carré captures the creeping crises of the Middle East via the pursuit of a cagey Yasser Arafat, which inspired his novel The Little Drummer Girl: “After Arafat, anything else feels normal.” Similarly, the author contrasts his experiences in perestroika-era Russia with the robber-baron 1990s. He wonders, “were the new crime bosses the old ones in new clothes?” while expressing rueful nostalgia for his old-school adversaries. “I met two former heads of the KGB in my life and liked them both,” he writes. Le Carré also thoughtfully captures the tenor of his friendships with many luminaries (Alec Guinness, Richard Burton, Joseph Brodsky) while soft-pedaling old animosities (with the exception of traitor Kim Philby). Yet for all the cinematic glamour of le Carré’s experiences, reflections on the workaday realities of fiction writing may provide the most engaging aspect of this colorful valediction.
A satisfying recollection of a literary life well-lived.
The story of Irena Sendler (1910-2008), who saved more than 2,500 Jewish children from the Nazis, was buried for decades by the communist administration of Poland. It finally came to light in the 1990s, and Mazzeo (The Hotel on Place Vendome: Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris, 2014, etc.) has combed archives and interviewed the few survivors to tell the tale. Like so many who tried to save Jews from the Nazis, Irena would only say she could have done more. When she was 7, her father, a doctor, died working in the typhoid epidemic of 1916-1917, and her mother struggled to educate her. At the University of Warsaw, she rekindled her friendship with Adam Celnikier. He was a radical Jewish lawyer and the love of her life even though both were married. She supported and protected him in hiding throughout the war. In the community internship program at the Polish Free University, Irena met Dr. Helena Radlinska, the driving force behind the resistance of Warsaw. When the Nazis invaded in 1939, resistance quickly built up, led by older men, the Jewish community, and women. That resistance is a large part of the reason Poland was subject to such brutal repression. As a social worker, Irena and her colleagues were able to manipulate paperwork to create new identities. They were also granted passes to enter and leave the Warsaw ghetto, allowing them to smuggle in medicine and false papers and eventually help set up their network to free the children. Sometimes on their own or led by local teens, the children escaped through the filth of the sewers. Irena and her small band found safe houses and orphanages where the children could ride out the war. Her careful records were written on cigarette papers so children could be reunited with surviving family after the war.
Mazzeo chronicles a ray of hope in desperate times in this compelling biography of a brave woman who refused to give up.
A gender nonconforming cultural impresario recalls a life marked by drugs, displacement, a mentally ill mother, and rare but cherished pockets of solace.
Nothing about Wright’s three-decade life has come easy, as this eventful if narratively loose memoir has it, including her own birth—her mother endured more than 35 hours of labor and needed to be ferried through a crowd of homeless men in her scruffy East Village neighborhood. Wright’s mother, Rhonna, was a head-turning model and dancer, and Wright followed in her footsteps as a child actress. Stability was endlessly elusive: Wright’s parents split early, Rhonna was booted from their public-housing apartment, and she was prone to angry, overprotective rages when it came to her daughter. The term “daughter” is complicated as well. Though she was born a girl, Wright decided to “become a boy” when she was 6 and eventually dispensed with gender distinctions entirely. Externally, this created a host of anxieties regarding classmates and the boys and girls to which the author was attracted. Internally, Wright was a roiling sea, getting kicked out of various schools and slipping into drug-soaked jags of self-loathing. For all that struggle, though, rhetorically, the author puts on a brave face throughout the memoir, writing with a street-wise cool even when she discusses turning her mom in to the child welfare authorities or discovering her father’s heroin habit. "The foundation of my personality is the dance of regaining my balance from slamming into rules,” writes the author—which is why she’s not much for delivering familiar lectures about gender identity or surviving a tough childhood. It’s unclear how this engagingly reckless soul found the poise to launch a publishing, acting, and writing career; she just seemed to be doing it by her late teens. If Wright can pull it off, there’s hope for just about everybody.
An earnest and heartfelt memoir cloaked under a battle-toughened exterior.