All Maggie Louise Higgins knew growing up was cleaning and childcare. Her mother, Anne, already frail from recurring flares of tuberculosis, was always pregnant; out of 18 pregnancies, 11 were live births, though not all of her children made it to adulthood. The house was always filthy, diapers always needed washing, children always needed feeding. The family fretted constantly whether Anne would survive childbirth.
Maggie, whom the world would eventually come to know as Margaret Sanger, always wanted more than a life of drudgery and childbirth. There were few options for girls as the nineteenth century drew to a close, especially poor ones. The older Sanger girls each had dreams of an education, only to have those dreams dashed as the family’s economic realities weighed down on them. The family then lay their hopes on Maggie, outspoken and intelligent, and pooled their meager resources to try to send her to school. At the very least, maybe she could be a teacher one day.
But Maggie didn’t want to be a teacher. She didn’t exactly know what she wanted, but she knew that she didn’t want to be stuck in the narrow confines of what was allowed of women of the era.
Kristin Lavransdatter is actually three novels — The Wreath (1920), The Wife (1921), and The Cross (1922) — compiled into one massive book. I bought the Penguin Classics deluxe edition a few years ago, back when I read Gunnar’s Daughter and had traveled to Norway and was still on a Viking high. To my low-key chagrin, the book was not another thrilling, over-the-top epic about Vikings. On my shelves it sat for the next three years until the 45-hour-long audiobook version was released (about the same amount of time it would take, I’d estimated, to finish a king-sized quilt I’d been working on for months). It was perfect timing.
The trilogy follows its title character from girlhood to old age in fourteenth-century Norway. It’s a period in the Middle Ages when the last vestiges of paganism have given way to Catholicism. As the eldest daughter of Lavrans, a privileged and well-respected landowner, Kristin is well-liked by her community. Lavrans, whose sons all died in infancy, dotes on his girls, especially Kristin. When she reaches a marriageable age, she’s promised to Simon Darre but begs her father to let her spend a year in a convent first. Ironically, it’s there that she becomes a scandalous woman; she meets the love of her life, Erlend Nikolausson and promises herself to him no matter the cost.
Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s whirlwind life is legendary. She was the It Girl of the 1920s; he was the brilliant writer¹ who burst onto the literary scene with This Side of Paradise and later produced The Great Gatsby. In Therese Anne Fowler’s fictionalized account, however, readers meet Zelda Sayre when she’s seventeen and still living at home with her parents in Montgomery, Alabama.
She meets Scott at a local dance. He’s an army lieutenant with grand literary aspirations. Zelda is taken with him, but her pragmatic father is unimpressed. The two fall in love, and after a long-distance courtship, Scott sells his first novel — a sign that he can provide a living for a wife as an author — and Zelda is off to New York to marry him in St. Peter’s Cathedral. The rest is history: he’s a best-selling and in-demand author, and Zelda plays her role as a fashionable scenester with gusto. Hollywood comes calling, and the two are ready to take on the world.
They bite off more than they can chew, living way beyond their means once the royalties from Scott’s first book start to dry up. Scott is under pressure to produce his next novel and he’s frozen with writer’s block. He tries to sell short stories, and though that does bring in some income, it’s not enough to keep them afloat. He needs a new novel.
Ever since 2010, I’ve been working my way through all of the Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction. To make it more manageable, I set a goal to read all the winners for the years ending in the current year’s number (so in 2016, I focused on the winners for the years ending in 6). I’ve yet to actually complete those mini-tasks, but they serve as good reminders to not just focus on recent contemporary winners. They also not-so-gently nudge me into reading the books I know I’ll probably hate, just to get them over and done with. *cough* Updike *cough*
Which brings me to Lonesome Dove, a cowboy Western that’s 850+ pages long. I don’t really do cowboy Westerns, and the thought of one that’s the size of 2-3 average books put together was just not my idea of a good time. But there it was, sitting on my Pulitzer TBR list for this year. What finally pushed me towards it? On Goodreads, several people whose reading tastes I trust had all reviewed the book with variations of, “Don’t let the Western thing throw you off. This book is amazing.”
Y’ALL. Don’t let the Western thing throw you off. This book is amazing.
Set mostly in the late nineteenth century, Eowyn Ivey’s latest novel is set in motion when Colonel Allen Forrester receives a commission to go deep into the Alaskan wilderness to find a way north through the Wolverine River. It is a dangerous task that has never been done before, but if he and his tiny crew of men can figure out how to do it, the United States will have access to Alaska’s gold and natural resources.
The group decides to try walking down the river when it’s frozen over, so timing is key. Before they even reach the river, they’ll have to deal with the harsh elements of nature as well as indigenous populations that may or may not be receptive to them. The entire journey could take a year, and Allen is not happy about the prospect of leaving Sophie, his young and newly pregnant wife, for so long. And Sophie, who had originally planned to come along with Allen and see him off at his Alaskan starting point, is disappointed over seeing her one chance for adventure dashed by the pregnancy; instead, she’ll have to embrace domestic life in the Army barracks while she awaits Allen’s return, so she takes up the unladylike hobby of nature photography to distract herself from her other worries.