Rating: ⭐⭐⭐ Author: Jessica J. Lee Genres: Non-Fiction, Memoir, History Pub. Date: Jul. 2020 (read Jan. 2021)
I was really intrigued by the title and synopsis of this book and picked up a copy from my local bookstore. Soon afterwards it was shortlisted for Canada Reads 2021 and I was even more excited to read it!
Two Trees Make a Forest is Canadian author Jessica J. Lee’s second book. As the name suggests, it’s about her travels in Taiwan whilst trying to learn more about her grandparents past. Her grandparents were both Chinese, but immigrated to Taiwan where they raised their daughter, before eventually all settling in Canada. Lee grew up in close proximity to her grandparents, yet in many ways felt like she didn’t really know them. They talked little about the past and though her family held a close connection to Taiwan, Lee knew very little about their life there. After the death of her grandfather, the family discovered a letter he left behind about his past, inspiring Lee to visit Taiwan and learn more about both her family history, and the unique history of the island.
This was a well written book, but it was a struggle for me to finish it. I found Lee’s stories about her grandparents and family to be really interesting, however, they are really only a small piece of this book. Revisiting the title of the book, it does tell us that this book is as much about “Taiwan’s mountains and coasts” as it is about her family, but I guess I was just expecting something a little different. This is not a story of Lee following her roots around Taiwan, but rather Lee finding herself around Taiwan, while simultaneously coming to terms with the family history that has been in many ways lost to her.
Lee is an interesting storyteller and the book focuses just as much on Taiwan’s geographical history as it does her personal history. She talks about the history of the island the geographical uniqueness of it. Her love for Taiwan certainly shines through and I did learn some interesting facts about Taiwan and it’s history, but I also learned a lot more about Taiwan’s trees and mountains than I really bargained for. On paper, as an avid hiker, you would think I’d love it, but I’m not really a big non-fiction reader, and certainly not a history reader, so it just didn’t quite deliver on something I was excited about reading.
So it’s a bit of a hard book to rate because I did think it was good, I just wasn’t invested in it. I read everything about her family history, but I ended up skim reading a lot of the geographical information. Good, just not for me.
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!
Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐ Author: Lisa See Genres: Historical Fiction Pub date: Mar. 5, 2019 (read Jan. 2019)
I read The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane back in 2017 and really liked it. I’ve been meaning to read some more of Lisa See’s work ever since, but the content is quite heavy, so I keep putting it off. So when I received an early copy of The Island of Sea Women from Simon and Schuster Canada, I was excited to finally read another one of Lisa’s books!
I clearly need to prioritize reading some of her earlier works because I liked this just as much as I like the Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, maybe more!! The Island of Sea Women is about a matrifocal community of female divers on Jeju Island. Jeju Island is a large volcanic island located to the south of South Korea. It was under the control of the Japanese until the end of WWII, when it was taken over by the Americans.
What’s interesting about the island and many of its communities, is that they are mostly focused on women. Many of the traditional gender structures still exist in that men own property, the ownership is passed down through the male line, and giving birth to boys is valued because only boys can attend school and perform ancestor worship. However, the women are viewed as the providers and decision makers and the men stay home and raise the children. This is because it is the women on the island who become Haenyeo. Haenyeo are a collective of divers who are widely respected. They row offshore every day to dive in the frigid ocean for sea-life to feed their family and to sell to wealthy Japanese colonizers. The most prized catch is the abalone, but they also dive for sea urchins, octopus, squid, and other species.
See focuses her story on Young-sook. Young-sook is the daughter of a Haenyeo chief, so she learns to dive from an early age and develops a very close friendship with another girl in the community, Mi-ja. The two girls are inseparable and both join the Haenyeo collective when they come of age and travel together as young women to do leave-home diving work. However, as they grow older, their friendship is challenged and circumstances arise to drive a wedge between the two women. This book tells Young-sook’s life story, her friendship with Mi-ja, and the sad history of Jeju Island.
I was really interested in the Haenyeo culture and how they work together as a collective. I thought it was fascinating the ways that traditional gender roles were sometimes switched in this culture, but remained similar in other ways. I find diving to be fascinating (and terrifying) and I really liked learning about the Haenyeo traditions, how they would organize and dive together, and how resilient these women are. But what I really loved about this book was the way it also takes us through South Korea’s history.
I read Min Jin Lee’s book, Pachinko, last year and really liked it. It’s about a Korean family that immigrates to Japan and the challenges they faced there as immigrants. It was a good introduction the the history between Korea and Japan. This book also focuses on that conflict, but from a different angle and perspective; between the two books I learned a lot about Korea and Japan. The history covered in this book is upsetting to be sure, but it is a very good look at how Western countries can tear other countries apart in their own political disputes. Korea was split at the end of WWII, to be governed by the Soviet Union in the North and America in the South. Russia obviously promoted communism and America, democracy.
As everyone knows, American’s were extremely threatened by the rise of communism. I’m still not super familiar with Korea’s history, but from this book, it seems that there was support for communism on Jeju Island, which created conflict between the island and the rest of the Korean mainland. Rebel groups popped up among the mountain tribes on Jeju Island and fighting ensued between rebel groups and the authorities. Korea had a culture of guilt by association, whereby if a member of your family committed a crime, you were considered tainted by association. This resulted in consequential killings in which families and entire communities might be punished for the actions of an individual. The Jeju uprising officially began on April 3, 1948, and resulted in the destruction of many villages and left many people homeless.
I’ll admit, I know very little about Korea’s history, but I loved learning about it from Young-sook’s point of view. The people of Jeju had always had a tumultuous relationship with the Japanese and she observed that little changed within their communities with the end of WWII and that their power mostly just changed hands between the Japanese and the Americans. Young-sook observes that they have always been oppressed, but that Korean’s always looked after one another. However, because of differing ideologies between a democratic and communist state, she was upset to see Korean’s start to turn on one another.
From this setting, we also see how the Haenyeo were forced to change and adapt over the years and the impact the conflict had on their diving activities. The Haenyeo are still very popular, but more as a tourist attraction. The birth of daughters was also celebrated on Jeju as it ensured the financial stability of the family. However, very few girls are training to become Haenyeo these days and the collective has greatly aged, with few young women to take their places. I loved how See balances the challenges and changes to the collective along with the changing and increasingly challenging political climate on the island. It also linked in with Young-sook’s changing relationship with Mi-ja. While the novel takes us through 70 years of Korean history, at it’s core, it is a story about friendship and forgiveness.
As much as I loved this book, I do have one criticism, which is what brought my rating down from 5 stars to 4 stars. The story is told in 5 parts and progresses pretty naturally through time. However, each part starts with a flash forward to 2008. While I see some value in the 2008 timeline, I think it would have worked better as a short epilogue focused on remembering the April 3 incident and finding peace. I did not like the inclusion of Clara in the story. While Young-sook struggles with her feelings and forgiveness throughout the second half of the novel, I felt this last storyline came too late in the story and timeline. Personally, I thought the ending felt forced and manipulative. I felt like the author was trying to manipulate me into this cathartic moment at the end, but the catharsis was too late in coming and not believable to me.
Despite the ending, I still loved this book. Though the story focuses on Young-sook, I loved the exploration of Mi-ja’s story as well. The history and decisions of some of the characters were upsetting, culminating at the April 3 incident. However, I felt that they demonstrated how things can change in an instant and how in life and death situations, what might have been a well-meaning action or decision can be interpreted in the aftermath. It’s a somber realization, but it was the defining moment of Young-sook and Mi-ja’s relationship. I would definitely recommend this book.
The Island of Sea Women will be available for purchase in stores on Mar. 5th, 2019. Thanks to Scribner and Simon and Schuster Canada for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.
Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ Author: Elizabeth E. Wein Genres: Historical Fiction Pub date: June 2013 (read Dec. 2018)
I liked, but didn’t love, the first book in this series, Code Name Verity. It was a good book, but it felt a little slow moving to me and I struggled to get into it, so I wasn’t super enthused about reading the second one, but I already owned a copy and I knew if I didn’t read it right after the first book, it was unlikely I’d ever get to it.
I’m so glad I did though because I actually liked this book a lot more than the first book (rare, I know). I would actually call this a companion novel to the first book rather than a sequel, so you could definitely read this one as a standalone, but there are spoilers for how the first book ends, so don’t read it first if you still want to read both books. But the plots are quite different, so if you’re more interested in this one, you could skip reading Code Name Verity.
Rose Under Fire tells the story of Rose Justice, an 18 year old American pilot who travels to England in WWII to fly plane for the Air Transport Authority, who ferry planes between different locations for the Royal Air Force (they are not combat pilots). It is nearing the end of the war and Germany has just been pushed out of Paris. Rose has the opportunity to drop off a plane in Paris, but she disappears on her return flight to England and no one knows what happened to her.
In reality, she ran into some German pilots and they forced her to fly and land in Germany. When she is unable to provide them with any meaningful information, they ship her off to Ravensbruck, the notorious woman’s prison near the Polish border. For those who are unfamiliar with Ravensbruck, it was not a death camp like Auschwitz (though many died there and gas chambers were constructed near the end of the war), but a work camp. But it is most famous for the Ravensbruck rabbits, a group a 74 Polish women on whom horrific medical experiments were completed.
I knew about Ravensbruck and the experiments, but I’ll admit it’s a topic I’ve been avoiding reading about because it’s just too horrific to think about. I avoided Lilac Girls when it was published in 2016 because despite sounding like something I would like, I was too afraid to read it. I’ve read a lot of books about the holocaust, but this is definitely one topic I’ve been avoiding because it’s just so disturbing. However, I really liked Wein’s depiction of the rabbits in this book. Rose is a witness to the rabbits rather than being one of them. Some of the rabbits died in the experiments, but many of them survived and were still living in Ravensbruck when Rose arrives. At this point in the story (late 1944), the Germans have ceased their experiments and in the face of the approaching allies are mostly trying to hide the evidence of the crimes they committed. I liked the depiction because Wein doesn’t get into the nitty gritty, horrible details of the experiments, but rather focuses on the spirit, tenacity, and courage of the women who survived.
Rose carries the story, but it is never really about her. Wein obviously took some liberties with the plot, but generally it is based in truth (not with Rose, but about the camp and the rabbits). What I found most inspiring was how vivacious these characters were, despite being the subjects of such atrocities. Instead of being defeated, they were mad and they wanted justice. Despite being forced to live in terrible living conditions while still healing from the experiments, they had a great capacity for love and willingly took Rose into their family when she was assigned to their barracks. They still had hopes and dreams for their futures. They wanted to continue learning so that one day, when they escaped Ravensbruck, they would still have a future ahead of them and could seek justice against the Nazis. They always looked out for one another and actively rebelled against the Nazis, trying to smuggle out pictures and stories of what had happened to them, ensuring the names of the women would be remembered despite the Nazi’s best attempts to hide them.
What was also inspiring was the respect the rest of the camp paid to these women. Before the allies arrived, the Nazi’s tried to mass murder the entire group of rabbits, and the other prisoners of Ravensbruck conspired to hide the rabbits from them. They hid them among other barracks, in hospital wings, and among the dead, sneaking them food and water to sustain them throughout this time. Everyone recognized that these women had been wronged and deserved to survive in order to tell their stories.
This story is also striking because of parallels to what is happening today in parts of the world (yes, it kills me to type this about a holocaust story). Wein talks about how unrelenting the Nazi’s were in their desire to wipe undesirable people from the face of the planet by the fact that in the face of the advancing allies, rather than leave the prisoners, they were determined to kill as many of them as possible to hide their crimes. Prisoners from Auschwitz and other death camps were transported to Ravensbruck as the allies approached. Gas chambers were constructed to aid in killing prisoners, but mostly they were just left to starve.
When Ravensbruck reached its capacity, prisoners from other death camps would be housed in tents and left without food or water until they died. Some of the rabbits would hide in these tents to escape their own executions and Wein talks about how the prisoners would lie at the bottom of the tent flaps to drink the rain as it poured down the sides because that was the only source of water they had. People literally died waiting to be processed. One of the big headlines in the papers while I was reading this was about the 7 year old migrant girl who died at the American border after walking hundreds of miles with her family to seek refuge, only to die of thirst at her destination while waiting for officials to do something. We have gone down this road before and we must do better, we must be better.
Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐ Author: Lisa Wingate Narrated By: Emily Rankin Genres: Historical Fiction Pub Date: June 2017 (read Mar. 2018 as an Audiobook)
I listened to Before We Were Yours as an audiobook. It reminded me a lot of The Alice Network, which I also listened to as an audiobook and had a similar format, alternating back and forth between a present day and historical perspective based on true events. I thought The Alice Network told a fascinating story about a real-life individual, Louise de Bettignies, who ran a spy network in World War I, but I found the second narrative boring, poorly written, and unnecessary to the story. Fortunately I felt differently about Before We Were Yours and while I still thought the writing was a little cliche in places, I thought this story was better done overall.
The whole present day narrator investigating the past is such a common troupe in historical fiction and a lot of the time it’s just not well done (also thinking of The Life She Was Given) but I didn’t mind it too much in this book. In my opinion, this troupe doesn’t always add something meaningful to the story, but I do think this element worked in this book because of the way that families were torn apart and how it took many families generations to reunite, if at all. Audiobooks also tend to make the writing seem a little cheesy and there were definitely parts where I rolled my eyes, but overall this translated well in audiobook and I thought the narrator was fantastic.
Let’s get into the plot. Before We Were Yours focuses on a little known piece of American history that is both fascinating and horrifying. The story starts in Tennessee in 1939 and looks at real-life individual Georgia Tann and her work with the Tennessee Children’s Home. Rill Foss and her 4 siblings have grown up as river gypsies, living in a house boat, running their way up and down the Mississippi River. At the beginning of the novel, their mother is about to give birth with the help of a midwife, but things become complicated when they discover she’s actually pregnant with twins and the midwife forces her to go to a hospital to deliver the babies. The rest of the children spend the night on the river boat with Rill in charge.
However, the following day the police show up and basically kidnap them before dropping them off at the Tennessee Children’s Home. Rill has no idea what happened to her parents or why they’ve been forced to stay at the Children’s Home, but does her best to keep her siblings together, despite the horrors they start to experience.
At the same time, we’re learning about Avery Stafford. A wealthy young lawyer who has returned to her childhood home in South Carolina to be groomed to take over her father’s role as a senator. On a political visit to a senior’s home, she bumps into a old woman named May who seems to know her grandmother and is drawn into a decades old mystery of how these women are connected and what threat this mystery might pose to Avery and the Stafford family in her bid for senator.
Georgia Tann is a real life woman who is often known as the “mother of modern adoption”. She ran the Tennessee Children’s Home, which took care of orphans and children whose parents were too poor to properly take care of them or who turned them over to the state for care. Tann oversaw the care of the children and worked to find them all loving homes (for a price). But what was not known until later is the horrifying conditions the children were forced to live in, the ways they were abused, how they were exploited for financial gain, and the horrifying circumstances through which many of the children were obtained.
While Tann did undoubtedly (indirectly) rescue many children from poor conditions and abusive families and place them in loving wealthy families, she also obtained a lot of the children through shocking means. Some children were kidnapped out of their family homes or off the street, like Rill and her siblings, while others were obtained by tricking the birth mother or parents who were often poor or illiterate. Tann had workers in hospitals who would tell mothers that their newborns had died or trick them into signing papers giving up their children to the state, while Tann would take the children and sell them to wealthy buyers. The extent of the network that Tann had set up is actually shocking and it’s hard to believe that so many people were able to turn a blind eye to the suffering of the children and the birth parents.
Many victims on Tann’s schemes were abused or died while in her care. She did everything to ensure that the children’s families would never be able to find or reunite with their children and separated many siblings, destroying any paper trail that might enable to birth parents to try and get their children back. Equally shocking was that she would sometimes later even harrass the adoptive parents to get further payments from them under the guise of lawyer fees.
Unfortunately Tann was never prosecuted for her crimes as she was very old and sick before they were ever discovered and people generally were of the opinion that the wealthy adoptive families were more fit to raise the children than the poor families would have been anyways. I thought this was a fascinating opinion, although Wingate didn’t explore it very extensively in the novel. I think it’s a question that is still relevant today. Do poor parents not deserve the right to raise their own children just because someone else could better financially provide for their children? Is money all that matters when it comes to raising a child? What is the long term impact on a child who has been stolen away from their biological parents, whether they can remember it or not?
It was a really interesting story and I did find myself engrossed in both May’s story and Avery’s story. Audiobooks aren’t my favourite way to read because I find they are very exposing of an author’s writing, which can sometimes detract from the story. Like I said, this still had some cliche writing, but overall, I did like this book and was fascinated by the piece of history that it exposed.