Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Borrowed Names - a new verse novel

Books in verse appeal to me, and I’m in awe of the author’s ability to sift through mountains of material and come up with just the right bits to tell a powerful story. Two authors who are masters of this style are Marilyn Nelson (Carver, A Life in Poems, Fortune's Bones, A Wreath for Emmett Till) and Karen Hesse (Out of the Dust, Aleutian Sparrow).

I’ve just read Borrowed Names by Jeannine Atkins, Henry Holt, 2010. Atkins presents the lives of three mother/daughter pairs. In the chronicles of their interactions, separations and homecomings, we glimpse pieces of our own mother/daughter relationships.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C.J. Walker and Marie Curie were born miles and even worlds apart in 1867. They made lasting contributions to literature, business and science. They also raised daughters who grew up with strength to make their own choices.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter Rose travels the world and then returns to the prairie to help her struggling, aging parents. After she builds a new home for her parents to ease her guilt over accidentally setting the house on fire when she was three, Rose encourages her mother Laura to write.

“Whatever happens now
here’s the grace:
a writer can change even a burning house
depending on where she begins or ends her story.”

We now have the classic Little House books because Rose helped her mother make writing a priority.

“The dream begun under a tree
is sweeter than stories you tell yourself
over dirty dishes.”

Madam C. J. Walker was the daughter of former slaves. She bent over washtubs and lugged clothes baskets to back doors with her daughter. She followed a dream and created hair treatments that brought her fortune and fame and secured a life of ease for her daughter, A’Lelia.

“One can slide between poor and rich,
the difference as slight as between
paper and parchment
one voice and a choir
arms hanging by sides and a hug.”
Marie Curie’s two gold medals were always in the back of her daughter’s mind. Irene dreamed of earning her own. The day she and her husband succeeded in making artificial radium, Irene feels her mother’s (Mé’s) pride.

“A milky haze coats Mé’s eyes,
which meet her daughter’s. This gaze is her gold.”

At Marie Curie’s burial, Irene wonders:

“Can the past press closer than the present?
Who is a daughter without a mother?”

Atkins has selected patches of these mother/daughter stories. In Borrowed Names, she has skillfully turned history into poems and empowered the reader to stitch them together into an heirloom quilt.

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