Sunday, March 28, 2010

Pope Joan

I didn't hate Pope Joan. I appreciated the rich world the author created—a product of years of research—and it seemed valuable to immerse myself and really imagine what the Middle Ages might have been like. Too, the legend of Pope Joan, several hundred years ago assumed true and as widely known as King Arthur, had faded from our view and deserved to be resurrected. The legend of a female pope is definitely great story material. Plus, this book kept me turning pages.

But I did sometimes feel manipulated. It had too much soap opera flavor for my taste, with romance drama and battle drama and intrigue drama. And way too much deaux ex machina. I couldn’t resist reporting my disgust to Eric every time another unbelievable coincidence came along, and I started keeping a log of them at the front of the book. I wasn’t a big fan of the ending either—again, things came together too perfectly.

I thought Joan and Gerold (her life-long love) were both overly perfect too (as opposed to just the right amount of perfect . . . ). They needed flaws, and the flaws needed to cause some problems. Joan's only supposed flaw was her stubbornness in sticking to what she believes is right, and that doesn't count. We're supposed to admire her courage. If it causes problems, it's because other people are stupid, bigoted, whatever. And Gerold had no flaws whatsoever. Lame.

On the other hand, the book did inspire a good discussion about the power of education. The author says, “I wrote this book with my own daughter, and all the daughters of the world, very much in mind. If, as I hope, this story inspires young women to cultivate their minds and pursue their education, to follow their own dreams wherever they may lead, then Joan's legacy is secure.” In sharing this message, the book definitely succeeds.

Pope Joan also got our group talking about women. One person brought up how the book has no positive female characters other than Joan, and we talked about how Joan had to become a man to gain power. Someone else asked if Joan was really true to herself by giving up all her femaleness, comparing her to Martha Ballard in A Midwife’s Tale, who found real power in her community and family through her talents and her femininity. (Of course, things were a lot more open for women by then.) We also talked about how our modern culture still buys into the idea that real power is in being like men.

So . . . the book immersed me in the Middle Ages, sparked a very lively discussion, and kept me turning pages, but lots of stuff drove me crazy.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

As a friend put it, this is a book you could recommend to anyone. At first glance it might seem like chic lit, but even my husband found this little book worthwhile. It offers a bit of everything—lively writing, stuff to learn, humor, charming characters, themes to ponder, a perfectly paced story arc crafted through a seemingly disjointed hodge-podge of personal letters. What begins as a light-hearted jaunt becomes a life-affirming account of “the immeasurable sustenance to be found in good books and good friends." (People)

Without losing its optimism and humor, the book gives an inside picture of a Nazi occupation, a perspective on WWII that was new for me. In each vignette, some heart-wrenching and some humorous, characters choose ingenuity and integrity, banding together to solve problems and stand up for what’s right.

In their letters, the characters feel like real people, people I wished I knew—quirky and endearing, each heroic in their own small ways. I still smile when I think of them, and I wonder how the authors mastered so many unique voices. All in all, a thoroughly satisfying and enjoyable read.

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on her Diary, 1785-1812

A fascinating example of social history, this book finds its foundation in an early American midwife’s simple daily diary of activities and transactions. Using a wide range of other original sources, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich brilliantly expands the picture of Martha Ballard and her times. At first glance Ballard’s simple, unemotional daily entries don’t seem like interesting source material, but enriched by Ulrich’s extensive research, they form a valuable window into early American society.

Ulrich keeps her research process pretty transparent, always describing which documents shed light where. This makes for somewhat slow reading, but it’s worth the trade-off in being able to see and appreciate how she knows what she knows. Though I only had attention for about half the chapters, I was glad to have been invited into the research process.

All chapters begin with passages from the diary, “fleshing out this midwife's bare entries with interpretive essays” on a particular aspect of early American society (Publisher’s Weekly). Topics include medical knowledge and practice, the roles of men and women in the community economy, the evolving relationship between midwives and doctors, and marriage and family life. Throughout, I appreciated the new vision of empowered women Ulrich’s portrait gives. We often think of women from earlier times being downtrodden and without opportunity, but Martha and the women around her together formed a female economy as vital to the survival of their community as the men’s contributions.

In the middle of these big issues, I came to know an ordinary woman who intelligently, sensibly, compassionately improved her small world. As midwife and herbalist, Martha Ballard touched every household in her community, often at their most vulnerable times. As one Amazon reviewer writes,

[Ulrich reveals] the complex routine of a woman who kept a household for seven people, ran a cottage textile workshop, and served as midwife at the birth 816 infants during her 27 years of practice. . . . Ballard's ministrations, in fact, went far beyond birthing to the practice of general medicine. She could apply poultices, lance abscesses, expel worms, induce vomiting, stop hemorrhages, bring down a fever, and—all else failing—gently close the eyes of the dead. In this way, writes Ulrich, the midwife "mediated the mysteries of birth, procreation, illness, and death.”
I’m glad Ulrich helped me know her.