Borrowed Names/Jeannine Atkins: Reflections

Saturday, May 1, 2010

In 2001, as readers of this blog know, I had the privilege of chairing the National Book Awards Young People's Literature Jury.  Nothing prepares one for a job like that except, perhaps, a lifetime of disciplined reading.  I brought discipline, at the very least, to the table.

One of the most interesting books I found along the way was Marilyn Nelson's Carver:  A Life in Poems—a book loved onto the finalist list.  Here was a man's life and an era's history rendered by the kind of poet who studies her history and applies her craft and gives the reader more than prose could actually bear.  I thought for awhile about trying to write a book like that; I don't think many of us are up to it.  Instead I wrote the autobiography of a river (Flow) and continued wishing for more books of Carver's sort—steeped in history, generous with story, graced with the touchstone lines that leave one halted in one's tracks.

I read such a book today.  It's called Borrowed Names, and it's written by Jeannine Atkins, who teaches children's literature at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.  I've known of Jeannine through her blog.  I wanted her book to be as good as this one assuredly is. 

With Borrowed Names, Jeannine tells the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C.J. Walker, and Marie Curie—the writer, the entrepreneur/philanthropist, and the scientist—and their daughters.  All three mothers were born in 1867.  All three daughters grew up fierce and widely seeing.  In a series of vignettes, we learn the arc of those lives, those loves, those relationships—a format that yields so much more than traditional biography.  I'd wager to say that you don't know these historic women until you've read this book.  History needs Atkins' brand of poetry to render it this persuasively alive.


Sherry said...

Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer's Life is such an excellent book. This one looks enticing, too. Interesting how the author approaches these three women. Thank you for this post.

Liviania said...

That sounds like an incredible book of poesy. (And I never knew of the connections between those women before.)

Author Amok said...

I just finished the Laura Ingalls Wilder/Rose Wilder portion of the book. It's wonderful -- illuminating and heart-breaking. Even though it's about historical mother/daughter relationships, Atkins' poems speak to all mother/daughter pairs.

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