WOMEN’S SIDE OF AMERICAN HISTORY

There’s nothing like a good historical novel to open your eyes and give you new insight into an era or a place you thought you knew, and there are two new historical novels this month which bring into focus fascinating characters and periods of the past, from a female perspective.

The first, chronologically at least, is Carnegie’s Maid, by Marie Benedict (who also wrote The Other Einstein).  Starting in the 1860’s in Pittsburgh, the book follows the life and times of Clara Kelley, a young Irish immigrant who finds herself working for the famous Andrew Carnegie and his family. Clara comes from a poor farming family in Ireland, with nowhere to go and nothing to her name when she decides, out of desperation, to impersonate the experienced Irish maid who disappeared after being hired to work at the Carnegie house.  It would be hard enough for Clara to work as a maid anywhere, since she has no skills or experience, but her ruse is made much more complicated by the demanding lady of the house, who rules the place with an iron fist and has no tolerance for error.  However, Clara is tough and desperate (a dangerous combination) and keeps her head, working her way into the affections of the patriarch of the household, Andrew Carnegie himself. It’s not that she’s trying to worm her way into his bed, but first her business instincts and then her personality win him over. Clara, however, never forgets that she’s a fraud, and that if anyone in this household were to find out who she really is, it would mean disaster for herself and for her family back home. Her disappearance spurs Carnegie to look at the world differently, and to see that there’s more than just the making of money for its own sake.  A vivid look at a vanished world and the development of a ruthless industrialist (look up the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 if you want to see how ruthless he could be) into a great philanthropist.

And if the Gilded Age isn’t your thing (though it should be — it’s a fascinating period of American history), how about a trip through the earliest days of movie making in Hollywood?  The Girls in the Picture, by Melanie Benjamin, brings to life the silent movie era, focusing on one of the earliest and most brilliant stars of the medium, Mary Pickford (known as “America’s Sweetheart”), and Frances Marion, a screenwriter who seized on the potential for “flickers” to become something huge and wonderful.  The two women were good friends, both working in the same industry, both ambitious and hardworking, and both running up against all the limitations that industry, and the society around it, placed on women in the teens and 1920’s. All the larger than life figures of the world of movies make their appearances in the book: from Douglas Fairbanks, who was romantically entangled with Mary, to Charlie Chaplin, to Rudolph Valentino and Lillian Gish and Louis B. Mayer.  It was a wild time and Mary and Frances reached the heights women could achieve, though not without heartbreak and trials.  If you’re a fan of silent movies or the 1920’s, check out The Girls in the Picture.

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VOICES FROM THE PAST: NEW HISTORICAL FICTION AT THE FIELD

Whether you’re interested in Ancient Egypt, or the nineteen-teens, or pre-World War II Europe, we’ve got you covered with new historical fiction at the Field Library.  Come in and take a look!

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Ancient Egypt is the setting of Wilbur Smith’s new book, Pharaoh, which continues the series he began with Desert God and River God. The former slave, Taita, has risen to the rank of general in the army of Pharaoh Tamose, now mortally wounded and close to death. As the book begins, Egypt is under attack, and Taita has to use all his cleverness and resource to save the critical city of Luxor.  When he manages to call in allies to defeat the enemies of Egypt, he might reasonably figure he’s in good shape, except that Tamose has died and been succeeded by his weakling son, Utteric. Utteric is jealous of Taita’s influence in the palace, and brands him a traitor, throwing him in prison.  Utteric’s younger brother, Ramose, is placed in the position of leaving Taita to his fate or standing up against his brother, the new Pharaoh, but, being the kind of man he is, it’s not really a question: Taita must be released and Utteric opposed.  For people who love stories of battle, intrigue, blood and passion (I’m looking at you, fans of Game of Thrones), Wilbur Smith’s Egyptian series should be right up your alley.

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Across the ocean and across the centuries, come to a younger, more innocent America in the aftermath of World War I in Rita Mae Brown’s Cakewalk.  Set in Runnymede, the same Maryland area as Brown’s former bestseller, Six of One, the book revels in small-town life and the relatively low level issues and problems the people in the town face: a rich young man who “has to” marry the mother of his illegitimate child, a well-to-do woman trying to take care of the man she loves without making it so obvious his pride gets hurt, the wild doings of the Hunsenmier sisters who are free spirited, free thinking and out to upend the social conventions of their town. Rita Mae Brown is talented at creating vivid and lively characters, and the Runnymede books are based, loosely, on the doings of the author’s mother in that era, so you can expect a good time with plenty of accurate period detail.

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Of course everybody knows, at least in general outline, the story of Albert Einstein, creator of the theory of relativity.  But very few people know about his first wife, Mileva Maric, and the extent to which she might have contributed to Einstein’s understanding of the universe.  Here to rectify that lack is The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict.  Mileva was born with a hip defect, and assumed from an early age that she would never marry, so she devoted herself to physics, in which she believed she saw the hand of God in mathematics.  Her father, unusually for this time (the late 19th century), supported Mileva’s desire to learn science, and sent her to the Swiss Federal Polytechnic, in Zurich.  There, she had to fight to be taken seriously by her fellow students and professors, with the exception of one disheveled young man, Albert Einstein, who insinuated his way into her heart and her life. When the birth of their daughter and her subsequent marriage to Einstein caused her to lose her place in the university, Mileva hoped to continue working in the field of physics, collaborating with her brilliant husband and trusting — unwisely as it turned out — that he would acknowledge her contributions to his theories. Mileva is a fascinating character, a brilliant mind in her own right, caught up in the contradictions of her time and place, and the question of how much she was responsible for the theory of relativity is still an open, and controversial one.  

Escape to different times and places and get absorbed in the wonders of historical fiction.  Check them out at the Field!