Radiant essays inspired by “slivers and bits” of real women’s lives.
The Dreamland was both a real dance club that burned down in 1923 and a dreamscape, where Livingston (Creative Writing/Univ. of Memphis; Queen of the Fall: A Memoir of Girls and Goddesses, 2015, etc.) reunites women as disparate as activist Susan B. Anthony, tightrope walker Maria Spelterini, artists’ model Audrey Munson, and poet Adelaide Crapsey. The author calls her startlingly original essays literary nonfiction, but some read more like historical fiction, spun as they are from documented sources; and some—a brief evocation of Virginia Dare, for example—read like lyrical prose poems. Livingston is taken with wild women: daredevils and rebels who do not “stick to crosswalks and curfews and submit to regular cholesterol testing.” Human wildness, she writes, “is a precious and fleeting thing,” worth celebrating. Among the subjects in her panoply are schoolgirl Alice Mitchell, who fell in love with Freda Ward and proposed that they elope, Alice dressed like a man. Freda’s family quashed the plan, leaving Alice so bereft that she cut Freda’s throat. Insanity was the verdict at her trial: her love for a girl, in turn-of-the-century Memphis, “was considered more outrageous than the act of murder.” Based on scanty correspondence given to Livingston by her mother-in-law, she revives the mysterious Manuela Grey, who sailed on the Saturnia for Bologna, to be treated at an orthopedic hospital for arthritis in her hip. It is 1935, and Livingston pictures her as Claudette Colbert, a fashionable sophisticate who reads Edna St. Vincent Millay. In portraits of 15-year-old May Fielding, a white slave; Krao, a girl exhibited as Charles Darwin’s missing link; and a shunned Filipino classmate, the author displays uncommon empathy: “Aren’t we all looking for something to connect us to others while locating the truth of who we are?”
Wise, fresh, captivating essays.