I first stumbled upon Svetlana Alexievich’s work about ten years ago, when I visited the library and randomly picked up a copy of her brilliant Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of Nuclear Disaster. Of course, Alexievich has been around much longer than that; Voices from Chernobyl was published 20 years ago, and she’s been chronicling Soviet history for decades now. She garnered a lot of critical acclaim in 2013 with Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, and I finally made the connection between her and Voices from Chernobyl when she won the well-deserved 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature for her unique way of blending a chorus of voices into her oral history storytelling.
Luckily, that Nobel Prize has created a push for her works to be republished and translated for broader audiences. Her first book, The Unwomanly face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II, was first published in 1985. It was recently translated into English by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and published in hardcover in the United States about a month ago. The introduction includes journal excerpts from the years she spent collection the oral histories, but it also includes newer insights and a few clips that the censors had taken out of the original version.
A century ago, radium was one of the most exciting wonders of modern times. Not only could it make things glow in the dark, it also had healing properties that could be used for medicinal purposes. Then America went to war, and the demand for radium products skyrocketed. In 1917, many young women from Newark, New Jersey were presented with the opportunity to work for the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation. Painting radium on watch dials paid well, and the positions were highly sought. The women, most in their late teens and early twenties, were taught how to mix radium — a fine powder that floated everywhere — with water to create a paint. To get a fine enough point on their paintbrush, they were instructed to put the brush tips between their lips. Lip…dip…paint.
The Newark plant was rather strict about how much of their product was used, and the women were reprimanded if any was wasted. Demand for radium products increased, and a second plant in Ottawa, Illinois was opened. There, they weren’t so strict. Radium was fun — and healthy! — and the girls were allowed to take leftovers home to paint on their skin and clothing; their fashionable glow made them the envy at dances.
In the 1920s, riding high on the pro-eugenics wave that had swept across the nation, key individuals in Virginia pushed hard to advocate for mass eugenic sterilization. Unlike other states that were moving their sterilization programs forward with zeal, however, Virginia took a somewhat more cautious approach. A law was passed that would give the state the power to sterilize the unfit members of society who had been institutionalized in state facilities. However, the state would not proceed until the law was tested before the Supreme Court. The unfortunate target of that test case was a young woman named Carrie Buck.
Carrie came from a poor family; her father died when she was young, and her mother, Emma, struggled to provide for her daughter. She occasionally lived with other men and received charity to make ends meet, but she ultimately gave Carrie up to John and Alice Dobbs in hopes that she’d have a better life. The Dobbses ended up treating Carrie as little more than a servant; she was pulled out of school and sometimes hired out to help neighbors with domestic work. When Carrie was fourteen, her mother was arrested and sent to live at the Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded for the rest of her life (she was neither epileptic or “feebleminded,” though she was labeled a “moron”).
I spent part of the summer of 2012 reading — and falling deeply in love with — Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. Talk about perfect timing: soon after I finished reading that book, The Black Count was released to great critical acclaim and went on to win the 2013 Pulitzer in the Biography or Autobiography category. Tom Reiss dug into a historical figure who’s been largely forgotten: Dumas’s father, General Alex Dumas.
Although Alexandre Dumas (the author) would grow up experiencing poverty and racism, his father’s rise through the ranks during the French Revolution are almost inconceivable. General Dumas was born in Saint-Domingue (what is now Haiti), the son of a slave and a plantation owner. His father doted on him and took him to live in France, and though General Dumas would eventually renounce his father, he came of age during an idealistic period in France where he was afforded opportunities that were unheard of for people of mixed-blood everywhere else in the world. An intelligent and skilled fighter, he rose up from his station as a lowly officer to become a general in the French Revolution fighting alongside Napoleon. And though Dumas proved himself time and again as a leader on the battlefield, it was ultimately Napoleon who would be his undoing (in fact, it was also Napoleon who helped dismantle all of the laws that had helped people of color).
For centuries, little has been known about Betsy Ross’s actual life, but she’s been an American icon almost from the beginning: as legend has it, she’s the woman who created the first American flag. Yet considering the myth-like role in the American Revolution, it’s shocking to realize that no biography had ever been published about Ross’s life until Marla R. Miller decided to write Betsy Ross and the Making of America. Even more unfortunate is the fact that so much of Ross’s life is now lost to the winds of history; few records remained by the time of her death, and much of what did survive was either destroyed or lost. Most historians — Miller included — also agree that Ross probably didn’t create the first American flag. So who was this woman, and how did she end up with such a storied role in United States history? Miller manages to piece together an impressive biography as she set out to answer those questions.
Elizabeth “Betsy” Griscom was born on New Year’s Day in 1752, the eighth of seventeen children. Her parents were Quakers, though their children — including Betsy, who was supposed to marry within the church but didn’t — would clash with the church years down the road. She picked up her sewing skills by being an upholsterer’s apprentice, a job that would serve her well and keep her family fed in the nation’s rough first decades. Widowed twice by the time she was thirty (first by John Ross, then by Joseph Ashburn), it was John Claypoole whom she would be with for most of her life.
Most notably, the time frame that her legend stems from comprises only a tiny slice of her life, occurring during her two-year-long first marriage to John Ross. Her husband was a member of the local militia, and women were also encouraged to participate in the war effort by buying American products, being virtuous and patriotic, and having some knowledge of politics; these were all efforts that headstrong and decisive Betsy embraced.