The Woman They Could Not Silence

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Kate Moore
Genres: Non-Fiction, History
Pub. Date: Jun. 21 2021 (read Jan. 2021)

To all the women who have had someone call them crazy.

I stumbled across The Woman They Could Not Silence on Netgalley and immediately put in a request because I loved Kate Moore’s last book, The Radium Girls. In a similar vein, her new book shines a light on an important part of women’s history that has been somewhat lost to time. Moore excels at writing this kind of journalistic memoir in a way that is riveting to read and immediately connects readers to the protagonists. Despite this being a non-fiction book, it reads like fiction, bringing historical figures to light in a way that makes readers really empathize with their plight. In short, Moore knows how to ignite righteous anger at the injustices that have been, and continue to be, perpetrated against women.

This story starts in Illinois in 1860 and centers around one woman, Elizabeth Packard. After 21 years of marriage and bearing 6 children with her husband Theophilus, he has Elizabeth committed to the Illinois State Insane Asylum against her will. Her crime? Questioning Theophilus’ bible study teachings in the church in which he is a pastor. Pushing back against your husband, questioning religion, and being intelligent in general were all signs of mental illness in the 1860’s, and as such, Theophilus has no difficulty in getting his wife locked up.

Elizabeth immediately fights back against the claim that she is insane, but recognizing that such pleas will only make her look more insane, she does her best to maintain her dignity at the asylum and after her first meeting with the state hospital director, Dr. Andrew McFarland, with whom she develops a good relationship, she is sure her release will not be long in coming.

Though Dr. McFarland is unable to determine the root of Elizabeth’s insanity, he is convinced it is there and will be revealed in time. Due to her intelligence, she is granted special privileges at the hospital. However, despite these privileges, Elizabeth soon becomes aware of the level of abuse that is being perpetrated by hospital aides within the walls of the hospital and starts stirring up trouble with the other inmates. This results in the revoking of Elizabeth’s privileges and life at the hospital soon becomes very hard for her.

The rest of the novel is about Elizabeth’s struggles in the asylum and her fight for freedom. Elizabeth is very intelligent and an accomplished writer, and though Dr. McFarland tries to silence her within the walls of the hospital, she is determined to record and share her story. She makes friends within the asylum and keeps a secret journal of all the abuses she witnesses. I couldn’t help but compare her to Alexander Hamilton because the woman constantly wrote like she was running out of time!

However, her goals are not only to record history, but to change it. Elizabeth is strategic in going about this. She knows that raging against the machine will get you nowhere in an insane asylum and so she goes about cultivating relationships and manipulating those around her, including McFarland. I found it really interesting to read about Elizabeth’s experiences and progression while at the asylum.

The whole system is completely unjust for so many reasons, but the two that stand are that, first, almost no proof is required to lock a woman up in an asylum. All Theophilus needed was 2 certificates of insanity from local doctors, which he was easily able to procure thanks to his influence as a man and pastor. Unmarried women are entitled to a trial before being shipped off to the asylum, but married women need only the desire of their husbands. As they are considered his property, they are not permitted any voice of their own. Many of the other women in the asylum were in the same situation as Elizabeth and had been sent there without any legal rights.

Second, the whole premise of what qualifies a person as insane or cured is entirely stacked against the patients. Like I said, women could basically be committed for showing any inkling of self thought or governance. Theophilus didn’t like that Elizabeth was questioning things or flouting his authority, so he quickly put an end to it. But what’s really enraging is that women who push back against the diagnosis of insanity only further the diagnosis. Showing any kind of indignation at anything is basically a sign of insanity. Women were only considered cured when they would finally submit to everything: the will of the abusive attendants, their doctor, and their husbands. The injustice of the system is that it literally conspires to make you insane and then only release you at the moment when your spirit is finally irreparably broken.

I say Elizabeth’s progression is interesting because she somehow manages to hold on to this one thread of truth throughout the entire ordeal, the idea that ‘I am not insane’. She is determined to be free and she is determined to be free under her own will, not through submission. The longer she is imprisoned, the more frenzied she becomes in her desperation to get out. She documents her experiences and ideas in a kind of manic fervour that you can’t help but question if maybe she is going a little bit insane. Rather than diminish, her ideas of justice and equality of women only grow more and more ambitious to the point where she envisions women as totally equal to men and able to even hold public office, something that is quite radical in 1860 and unlikely to get you released from an insane asylum.

I don’t want to give away the whole book because even though it’s historical, it’s still a story and I did take joy from the experience of having no idea whether Elizabeth was going to succeed and to what degree. She inspired a book to be written about her, so I knew she was going to have some level of success, but it was honestly so bleak, it was hard to imagine how a woman would ever recover from either the trauma or the stigma of such an asylum.

But Elizabeth is a fighter and I honestly can’t imagine a woman with more spirit. She had a lot of influence on early American politics and it is a shame that her name is virtually unknown, even among the roll call of suffragettes. But such is the way of women’s history and I love that we keep hearing about more and more women who have contributed greatly to our society but who’s legacies have been little preserved.

The author added a post script at the end of the book that I really liked. The book will make obvious the impact Elizabeth’s writings and efforts had on the women’s rights movement, but it also highlights how these same ideas are still present in today’s society. The idea of insanity is still used today to threaten, discredit, and silence women. Men have always used the excuse of ‘craziness’ to belittle women. The idea that fault lies only with women is still wildly believed by many men and women, even if only subconsciously. When men don’t like the ideas or actions put forth by women, it’s only too easy for them to dismiss them entirely with the callously thrown away phrase “she’s crazy”. I think we see it used most often by men to either dismiss the actions or requests or a partner or to speak of their ex. But even women use it to describe other women, particularly in scenarios where it relates to how other women interact with men (I’m thinking of reality television here).

But the idea is everywhere. Moore draws attention to its presence even at the top level of the American government when Trump once screamed at Pelosi for being wrong in the head. Powerful men still seek to silence women through the threat of insanity. For this reason, I thought this an extremely important read. A lot of the content didn’t surprise me, but experiencing it through Elizabeth’s eyes did help to put it into perspective. Even after all the work that Elizabeth did, Dr. McFarland is still kindly remembered by the eyes of history while Elizabeth has more or less been forgotten.

This wasn’t a perfect book. I thought the writing was a little simplified in the beginning, though it got much stronger as the story went on. I also thought the story could have been shortened, some parts are a little over indulgent and I fear the length may deter some readers from this. But overall, still an excellent read and I would definitely recommend!

Anxious People

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Fredrik Backman
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2020 (read Jun. 2020)

Fredrik Backman writes some of the most random and interesting stories. I’ll admit I didn’t really know what to expect going into this book, but I definitely was not expecting what I did get. Anxious People is about a bank robbery that accidentally turns into a hostage situation where the bank robber somehow goes missing at the end. We’re introduced to a huge cast of characters as the police interview all of the hostages to try and determine what happened to the bank robber.

After Beartown, I can confidently say that Backman is great at large cast stories. His packs a lot of heart and character development into a 300 page book and his characters never become confused with one another. His writing style is very different, but in some ways he reminds me of Melina Marchetta in his style of relationship development. His characters and their relationships to one another always grow in ways you don’t expect.

Beartown is one of my favourite books of all time, Anxious People definitely isn’t a contender to unseat it, but I still really enjoyed this book. It’s about a serious topic without ever feeling serious, something I wouldn’t say about Beartown. Backman’s writing style continues in this book with the same level of gravitas and though given to each sentence, but the humour here is a lot more reminiscent of his earlier books. The story has a nice mystery component without every feeling like a heavy mystery novel.

Backman is just so wonderful at crafting his characters. This book has some flawed characters, yet you grow to feel an attachment to each and every one of them. I love that he can take something like a bank robbery gone hostage situation and somehow make you feel empathy for the bank robber. He explores our traditional notions of good and bad, black and white, and the very real grey area in between. I don’t think this book has quite the same depth as some of his other novels, but it was a fun and thoughtful read.

And of course I have to say special thanks to Atria Books for sending this over to me. I vaguely remember getting an email about this book, but I had no idea they were sending me over a copy and it was an awesome surprise. Backman is a wonderful writer and I’m always thrilled to see what he decides to write about next!

Things You Save in a Fire

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Katherine Center
Genres: Fiction, Romance
Pub. date: Aug. 2019 (read Sep. 2019)

Things You Save in a Fire is a book I was wildly excited for, but somehow got missed in my reviews. It’s now been about a month and a half since I read it, but I still really want to review it, so I’m going to do my best, but must admit that some of the details are a little fuzzy.

Things You Save in a Fire is about firefighter Cassie Hanwell. Cassie graduated top of her class and has spent the last few years building up a good reputation for herself at a progressive firehouse in Texas. She’s well respected by the rest of the male firefighters and has the pleasure of working for another female fire chief. But then at the peak of her career, her estranged mother asks her to move to Boston for a year to help her recover her health after a recent surgery. Cassie is reluctant to return, but due to other circumstances, it ends up not being a bad time for her to try something new.

The thing is, her firehouse in Texas was pretty progressive and well funded, but her new firehouse in Boston is not. The firehouse has fallen into disrepair is not well equipped in terms of what Cassie would consider important safety equipment. But the biggest difference is that Cassie is the first female to ever be hired at the firehouse and the male firefighters are not pleased about it. They’re used to things running a certain way and having the freedoms to act and speak as they choose, and despite Cassie’s protests that they can do and say all the same things around her, they choose to believe that they can’t.

As a female, Cassie has obviously had to work twice as hard to gain the respect of her peers, but she’s never worked in an old-school-boys-club firehouse like this one and she is really challenged. Cassie is used to training hard and knows how to fit in, when to speak up, and when to stay quiet, but she really struggles to be taken seriously and the other firefighters continue to be threatened by her female presence in their traditionally male place of work.

On paper, this story has everything I usually look for in a book. Although it is a romance, which is not something I’m usually drawn to, it is a book about powerful women subverting the status quo. There were parts of this book that I really liked – it draws attention to the challenges women face in male fields – how they have to work so much harder to be taken seriously and that everything that is expected of them is contradictory. You have to be as good as your male counterparts, but you can’t be better than them lest they feel emasculated by you. You can’t be girly, but you’ll never be one of the boys. And you can’t expect to be treated differently, even though everyone adamantly treats you differently. On top of the challenges at work, Cassie struggles with an incident that happened to her in her past. An incident that has made her keep her distance from dating for many years and is triggering when she finally develops a crush on one of the other firefighters.

Like I said, there’s a lot to like. Cassie is powerful, but also immensely vulnerable. She has built up a wall around her in order to keep herself safe, but you want nothing more than for her to finally tear that wall down so that she can really experience and interact with the world. So overall I quite liked the story. The romance was a little embarrassing at times, but overall I bought into it. While I generally liked the book though, there were definitely some parts where I couldn’t help rolling my eyes and wished the author had maybe taken a slightly different approach.

This is namely when Cassie repeatedly shows up the guys in her firehouse. I understand that Cassie has to work really hard to be taken seriously, but I was frustrated by how much she relied on physical strength to show up her colleagues or try and gain their respect. It just felt like she was good at everything and I didn’t buy that she would continuously beat everyone in every challenge. It had nothing to do with her being a woman, just that no one is that good at everything. I think its still okay to let female characters be vulnerable and not the best at things. It’s unrealistic to think that to be a successful female firefighter, you have to epically better than your male peers at everything. That is never going to happen and it’s discouraging to portray this as the only way to be successful in this field.

Cassie was just good at everything, even non physical feats, like applying for funding. Now don’t get me wrong because I thought this was actually a brilliant example of where a woman would bring valuable skills to a firehouse and a great example of how you don’t need to best everyone physically to be an asset. Though Cassie was vulnerable emotionally, I just would have liked to see a little more vulnerability at work.

Overall, I did like the book, but I didn’t love it and this was what made it a run of the mill 3 star read for me instead of a 4. A good read, but not a great one.

Special thanks to Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press, who provided me with a free e-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

The Turn of the Key

Rating:
Author: Ruth Ware
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub. date: Sep. 5, 2019 (read May 2019)

Let’s just start by saying: I love Ruth Ware. I’ve read everything she’s written and it’s taken me a while to figure out what it is I like so much about her. None of her books are my favourite, yet I always can’t wait to get my hands on her newest book. It took a while, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I love her books because they are just so damn readable. She has this old school Gothic mystery thing going on and her closed-door crimes are very reminiscent of Agatha Christie.

The Turn of the Key has similar elements to some of her other books, but I actually found it quite different. Ware takes a different approach to this book, telling us upfront what the central crime is, just not who is involved or how it happens. Rowan Caine is our main character and has been working as a nanny for the past few years when she takes a position in a private home in remote Scotland looking after the Elincourt family. Sandra and Bill are both wealthy architects and have converted their home from an old estate into a modern architectural marvel, integrating all kinds of fancy technology into the design to make it a “smart home”.

It’s a lucrative position for Rowan, but when Sandra and Bill take off immediately after arriving, leaving her alone in the huge house with their 4 children, she starts to wonder if there may be more secrets about this post than she was made aware. Previous nannies quit the position because of fears of the house being haunted, of which Rowan is skeptical, but as strange things start happening, she can’t help but wonder if the weird things happening are a result of the faulty smart home technology, or something more sinister.

Ware takes an interesting approach by opening the story with Rowan in prison for the death of one of her charges. We don’t know which child has died, or how, but Rowan maintains that she is innocent and recounts her story in a letter to a lawyer requesting he help her. This book is creepy. I could see how some readers might not like it as much as some of her others because it is more of a slow burn mystery, but I really liked it. Ware spends a lot of time developing the atmosphere of the story and drawing us further and further in to this creepy house in Scotland. It does take a while for the action to get going, but I loved how remote the story was and how it made me question every single interaction for potential answers. I also loved her use of smart home technology in the story. Technology has gotten so creepy and this really drew attention to the ways it has invaded our lives and in some cases made things more complicated.

One of the main complaints I’ve had with Ware’s books in the past is that I think she has really weird pacing. She tends to hit the climax at around 70% in the book, the mystery always continues, but when you hit the high point that early it’s hard to stay engaged for the last 30%. That was not the case with this book. She keeps you on edge, with the creepiness continuing to amp up until the very end.

The only thing I will say is that things finish up so quickly at the end and are so easily explained that it was a bit of a let down. I mostly correctly predicted the ending, but it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the book. The atmosphere was what won this book for me and I really liked the creepiness factor. My only complaint now is that I have to wait 4 months for everyone else to read this and another year or more for her next book!

Special thanks to Simon and Schuster and Edelweiss+ for providing me with a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

With the Fire on High

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Elizabeth Acevedo
Genres: Young Adult
Pub. date: May 7, 2019 (read Apr. 2019)

I have been struggling with YA lately, but I really enjoyed Elizabeth Acevedo’s second novel, With the Fire on High. I loved her debut, The Poet X, last year, so I was thrilled to get my hands on an advance copy for her new book. I’ll admit I was a little disappointed when I realized this book wasn’t written in prose, but not for too long because it was well written and I enjoyed the story.

With the Fire on High tells the story of high school student, Emoni Santiago, as she finishes her senior year and tries to decide what path to take upon graduation. The catch is that Emoni was raised by her abuela after the death of her own mother in childbirth and is now a mom herself to her 2-year old daughter Emma. Emoni has always struggled in school, but with the help of her grandmother, she is able to complete high school. She feels pressure to pursue post-secondary, but is unsure how she would manage or pay for more schooling and still take care of her daughter. Plus, her great passion lies in cooking and the only kind of schooling she can see pursuing, is culinary school.

To her amazement, her high school offers a culinary class in her final year under the fine arts credit and she signs up for the course. Emoni has always followed her intuition in the kitchen and she struggles with discipline when following recipes. The best part of the course though, is that it includes a one-week trip to Spain at the end of the semester. Emoni would love to go on the trip, but she’s not sure if she can afford it or make it work with her daughter. But she is determined to at least try!

This is a pretty straightforward novel, with nothing too surprising, but I loved the exploration of what it means to be a teen mom. I’ve read lots of YA books about bad decisions that lead to unwanted pregnancies, but I can’t think of a book set in modern day time that starts at this point in the story. Emoni has already come to terms with being a mother and all that it means. She is a great mom to Babygirl, but she struggles with the daily challenges of being a teenager while simultaneously trying to take care and provide for her daughter. She is mature and has risen above the criticisms of her peers, yet she is still undoubtedly a teenager in some of the ways that she reacts to her experiences. She’s not threatened by classmates that look down on her, yet still deeply insecure when she is challenged by her cooking teacher.

The book has a romance, but it’s a secondary story-line. Senior year is a confusing time for any teenager and I liked the exploration of how much more confusing it was for Emoni. She wants to continue to dream, but is faced with the realities of her circumstances. Can she really go to culinary school with a 2-year old daughter? How will she continue to earn money to pay for both school and life? She is a dreamer, but realistic. I thought that the book provided a good look at the power of dreams and having the courage to go after them, but also understanding that our dreams can change and that it’s not always going to be a direct path to achieve them. There are some things that are worth sacrificing for and just because you say ‘no’ or ‘not now’, it doesn’t mean you can’t continue to work towards those dreams.

Overall this is a lighthearted book, but it’s a lighthearted book with depth. It was enjoyable to read and Emoni was an inspiring character! Thanks to my friend for picking this one up for me at a book fair and thanks to HarperCollins Canada for the early copy. With the Fire on High is scheduled for release on May 7, 2019.