I first heard of this book when the author, the first female president of Harvard University, was interviewed on Freakonomics Radio. Originally from tI first heard of this book when the author, the first female president of Harvard University, was interviewed on Freakonomics Radio. Originally from the South, she was raised with the expectation to be “a lady.” She completely defied it by doing the unladylike thing of raising farm animals alongside her brothers. She sounded like another Nelle Harper Lee, except she chose academia instead of novel-writing. Her book examines the lives of an earlier set of Southern ladies: the generation of white women whose husbands and sons fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.
The author claims that the book is meant for lay audiences and not academics, but as you’d expect from the president of Harvard, the book was somewhat academic in tone. Though it’s not especially long – about 250 pages without the footnotes – it was rather a heavy read. Each chapter addressed a different facet of life and how it was impacted by the war. Unsurprisingly, the biggest change was in relation to the slaves. Without men around to enforce the women’s commands with the threat of a whip, there was plenty of “insubordination” and plain old running away. One woman lost her slaves in one fell swoop. They just up and left, and there was nothing she could do about it.
The result of this was that these upper class white women were forced for the first time in their lives to perform their own domestic and even farm work. For the most part, they failed at it. But as the title suggests, necessity is the mother of invention, so even though these women didn’t always rise to the circumstances with great competence, they did develop more independence. In that way, the Civil War upended the traditional role of “ladies.” After the war, though, most women were only too happy to try and regain the pre-war race and class structure, except now they had to pay servants instead of owning slaves.
My very favorite chapter was on how central reading and writing was to these women’s lives during the war. That humanized them, and this was a group most of us wouldn’t feel much sympathy for. The chapter on the vocation of nursing was my second favorite. Most white Southern women did not follow in the path of Florence Nightingale, though she did make nursing a respectable vocation for women. Before her, it was considered inappropriate because it involved too much intimacy with male bodies. The nursing of wounded soldiers until then was carried out by permanently wounded soldiers or by men of lower class. Because of that, most of the nursing of wounded Confederate soldiers was carried out by African Americans, both male and female. And so goes another one of the Civil War’s many ironies.
As the author states in the beginning, most academics do not like to research the history of the oppressors, but as a woman of the South, the subject interested her. She neither demonizes nor idealizes the women; she just presents them as they are, usually in direct quotes from their letters and diaries. Sometimes there seemed to be too many examples to make a single point, but mostly it was remarkably thorough research presented in a fairly readable way. Besides, even if I was bored in spots, who am I to give the president of Harvard less than 5 stars? It wasn’t a fun book, but I learned a lot. Recommended....more
Just as there are impulse purchases, there are also impulse reads. Usually a book will spend months on my “to-read” shelf before I get to it, but someJust as there are impulse purchases, there are also impulse reads. Usually a book will spend months on my “to-read” shelf before I get to it, but sometimes, something prompts me to get hold of a book the very same day I first hear of it. In this case, it was the movie ad now prominently displayed here, but the deciding factor was the consistent appearance of one word on other people’s reviews: funny.
The book is about travel writer Bill Bryson, who, in his mid-forties, decides to hike the Appalachian Trail with his even more out-of-shape friend Stephen Katz. (In the movie, they will be portrayed by Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, who are several decades older than that.) The book was just as funny as everyone said, and I laughed out loud more than once. But it also makes clear some of the many things that can go wrong on a major hike, like hypothermia and bear attacks. Those parts weren’t funny at all. Since I have a son who dreams of a back-to-nature lifestyle, I now know that he’d better go out into those woods well-equipped, well-informed, and ideally, with an experienced friend or two. Either that or, like Bungalow Bill, in case of accidents, he’ll have to take his Mom.
Of all books I’ve previously read, I found this most similar to The Big Year by Mark Obmascik in that it alternates from the adventures of the two guys to more informational sections, explaining things like the history of the Trail and forest ecology. Mark Obmascik wrote another book about his own hiking adventure, but that didn’t grab me the way this one did. The humor made the difference. Bill Bryson’s self-deprecating jokes begin on the very first page.
Stephen Katz by far is the funniest personage in the book, but some of the other quirky hikers they meet on the way come close. The parts when Bryson hikes alone are boring by comparison. But all in all, it was the perfect light fare between heavy books, and with a little history and science thrown in, it’s just meaty enough that’s it’s not all fluff. So I’m looking forward to more from Bryson. He may just end up my go-to for light reading for a while. ...more