Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Review of UNREMARRIED WIDOW: A MEMOIR by Artis Henderson

by Meganne Fabrega, special to the Minneapolis Star Tribune

There are many wonderful memoirs lining the shelves of bookstores today, but how many of these true stories can be deemed so powerful as to move a reader to tears? Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” is one that comes to mind, and, more recently, “Wave,” Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir of immense loss in the 2004 tsunami. Artis Henderson’s stunning debut memoir, “Unremarried Widow,” is guaranteed to join the ranks of memoirs that will be talked about for years to come.

Henderson first attracted attention with her 2010 New York Times “Modern Love” essay, “In Grief, a Mother and Wife Bond.” She had been married less than a year to her husband, Miles, when he was killed in a helicopter crash while serving in Iraq in 2006. The first part of the memoir details their courtship and the challenges of Army base living, especially in Henderson’s position as girlfriend, not wife, which relegated her to a lesser status.
Henderson paints an honest portrait of her life with Miles without falling into the trap of glorifying the dead. She is painfully honest about her misgivings about Army life, her reservations about her compatibility with Miles, and the stark fact that she would be sacrificing many of her own dreams in order to play a supporting role in Miles’ career. Nevertheless, she follows her heart, as her mother did years ago with Henderson’s father, and she married Miles before he deployed to Iraq.
The second half of the memoir is about the “right of the boom,” a military term for what immediately follows a traumatic incident. Far too young, Henderson is thrown into a world of grief, and she feels herself become “porous and malleable, easily breached.” She is reclassified by the military as “URW” for “Unremarried Widow.” Along with the shock of her sudden loss she is expected to follow military protocol, which involves a detailed “death presentation” that outlined the findings about the crash, and her fellow widow’s continued challenge to the official report.
“There is no greater hurt than knowing you have been loved and the source of that love disappearing,” Henderson writes, in a sentence so plain and so true that it is impossible to continue reading without feeling your heart break just a little. It is this kind of lucid writing, intertwined with her story of love and loss, that makes this memoir truly unforgettable.

Saturday, January 18, 2014


As I dig deeper into the lives of Amy E. Blanchard and Ida Waugh I find myself increasingly interested in the subject of women's friendships. One book usually leads to another, and there are so many that I want to read that I have to be very careful which rabbit hole I choose to slip down and for how long.

I bought a book at the thrift store a very long time ago, but just recently unearthed it from the bulging shelf of my reference books. Carolyn G. Heilbrun (a.k.a. Amanda Cross) wrote Writing a Woman's Life in 1988; it is a veritable wealth of inspiration and information, especially where my own research is concerned. Not only did it provide me with many new points of reference, it reinforced the importance of sharing Amy and Ida's friendship with the world.

As she discusses the importance of uncovering friendships between women, particularly those of the past, she writes "If one sets out to survey the annals of friendship...one ends by reading...of male friendships. If the friendships of women are considered at all, and that is rare enough, they intrude into the male account the way a token woman is reluctantly included in a male community."

What struck me to the core, to the very heart of my passion for uncovering the story of Amy and Ida was this particular excerpt: "The sign of female friendship is not whether friends are homosexual or heterosexual, lovers or not, but whether they share the wonderful energy of work in the public sphere. These, some of them hidden, are the friends whom biographers must seek out."

Amy and Ida worked in the public sphere as they lived, with a drive and passion that to not work would be unthinkable, just as to not share their life with each other would be equally unbearable. BFFs as they say nowadays...Best Friends Forever.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

It's the "Best of..." book list time of year! The time when all of us book nerds get together to list, to debate, to champion, or to put down which books made the multitude of lists out there.

You can find me over at The Minneapolis Star Tribune, weighing in on biography and memoir titles for 2013. Don't miss the Critic's Choice roundup either, where I tell you why you absolutely can't miss Susanna Daniel's SEA CREATURES.

As always, nobody does it like David Gutowski over at Largehearted Boy who aggregates all of the "best of..." lists in one glorious place.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Author All Girls Love

Even back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries an author had to be at the top of her game. Up-to-date authorly photos and marketing materials were a must. Amy Ella Blanchard was often photographed with a serious expression and book in hand, even as a child. As an adult she was most likely wearing a dress that she sewed, or at the very least, a hat that she had trimmed herself.

I have not unearthed any author interviews with her, and frankly I’m not sure if that was even a “thing” back then, but each of the author biographies that she penned reveals a new fact about her that I had not yet uncovered. Reading this “Biographical Sketch” helped me connect the dots between Amy and a tiny obituary of her paternal grandmother that I found tucked between the pages of yet another scrapbook.

Every author needs a good blurb or two, I like the one at the bottom of this pamphlet advertising her series of historical novels for girls. “The best historical stories for girls ever written.” It’s not attributed to anyone, but who cares? It’s said with such authority that it must be true.

I’ll be speaking to a class at (my alma mater) Hampshire College next week about Amy and Ida, so I’ve been lying awake at night trying to gather my thoughts. Every time I peek into the archive something new leaps out at me, I could easily speak for hours.  

As I sifted through the papers yesterday I came across this newspaper from North Andover, MA circa 1894. This little news column reminds me of the Portsmouth (NH) Police Log of today.

Monday, September 2, 2013

What's new?


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Love Letters

As I noted in my recent essay for The Paris Review Daily, Amy Ella Blanchard had at least one serious love interest before she committed to Ida Waugh. His name was George Bartlett and he was her cousin. Among the papers I have from Amy there was one large bundle tied with a scrap of twine. I figured that these letters were from an assortment of her many correspondents, but they weren't. They were long, detailed, passionate letters from cousin George. I have been transcribing them and every day I find a new line that pulls me in. Here are a few excerpts:

"You say as you are a woman , you cannot have the right to speak as a man. This is a mistake, as leap year is an exception. Speak as a man “My Girl”. 

"Is every month to be more weary, in 1875, still I will remember for encouragement when you seemed a little weary and when your surroundings were hardly all you could wish. And they changed for the better + brighter did they not little singer. And so as usual I must look to you for encouragement."

"This is a perfect day outwardly, but inwardly to some it must be dark. Like Alice Cary in her poem, “My Window Just Over The Street,” I can think of only horrible things to-day; the fire last night, families of the dead firemen, Fanny Davenport’s great loss. Life seems rather of a knotty tangle, such a razzle-dazzle, such an enigma. I am weary trying to explain it to myself."

"Your simple and bewitching Quaker letter was duly received, and very much appreciated.  You seem to be quite happy in your old age. I trust such a state of mind will soon come to me, and we will happily toddle along down hill, if not together, at least in sympathy."

And this letter I just had to publish in full, underlining, misspellings and all:

My Darling Cousin,

I am tired and weary in mind and body-- it is a beautiful Sunday morning though one of the last of the year -- have been on the Cars all night, I have written you ten thousand pages since I received your “inspiration” and now I seem unable to work even a page or two. I know not how to commence -- my heart over flows to you --
Your letter came like a messenger from the Angels bringing to a hungry soul.  Comfort love and the sweet sympathy that I so much needed -- needed more than you will probably ever know --

Amy my dearest be happy in your (quiet) home -- you are nearer to God these. And in the heavenly world you will shine a beautiful spirit and grand -- Silk dresses and (Carmages) go not there -- but your noble nature that through poverty and suffering is growing so much more beautiful day by day will in the end bring you a home that is rich and great--(here) will envy -- I would willingly go with you this moment over them. My “jamboree” in Lexington was a sick bed -- but away with melancholy -- This is my first visit to St. Louis - it must be a very bad place as the Theaters are open at night. (Sunday night- I mean)

Yours “sick adrift + afloat- a barren wafe of a heart” My Darling Ella you are growing nearer - and I am growing nearer + nearer to you-  George

Monday, July 8, 2013

Take my inheritance...please?

Recently I read two different stories about the joys of personal downsizing. In the Opinion section of The New York Times Graham Hill, the founder of Treehugger.com and LifeEdited.com, extolled the joys of his 420-square-foot studio and his lack of material goods. In the April issue of Martha Stewart Living there was a profile titled “A Want for Nothing” which featured the home of Bea Johnson, author of the new book Zero Waste Home. Ms. Johnson totes her own spice jars to the store and each family member has “just two towels.”
It makes me want to cry with jealousy.
I want to tote my own reusable spice jars! I want to live in a studio with only ten multipurpose dishes! And damn it, I want my family to make do with only two towels each! But more than anything, I want someone to tell me exactly how to convince the rest of my family to hop on board baggage free.
My husband also wants to move to a smaller house, reduce our overhead, get rid of our daughter’s 619 Webkinz and, more than anything, wants to stop hearing me complain about all of the useless junk that surrounds us. At least until it’s time to get rid of his Cocteau Twins CD from college: Now that’s just crazy talk.
But what I really want to know is this: How did Mr. Hill and Ms. Johnson actually unload all of their stuff? I know how to turn our smelly sneakers into a brand-new basketball court, but how do I dispose of the emotional baggage disguised as material goods that the rest of us have been passing between family members for years? Did they give Great-Aunt Julia’s soup tureen to a sister or sneak it into the trash? This is what I really need to know.
I can’t step foot in my parents’ house without being handed an item that is, oh how I loathe this word now, “special.” When we first moved back to New Hampshire my family gleefully helped us furnish our first house with their castoffs and now I know why:  In my family once you take something “special” you’re stuck with it. You can’t give it back and you can’t just give it away. 
A Yankee would rather pay her tax bill early than thrown a perfectly good toaster into the trash. Okay maybe the toaster burns every piece of bread that goes in it, and maybe, just maybe, that toaster electrocuted Uncle Duncan a couple of times. But it still works! (And by "works," I mean it burns toast and electrocutes people.)
In the past few months alone I’ve been offered a full set of china, one “valuable” bud vase, and a broken pitchfork.  Recently my parents tried to give me a wallet-sized photo of myself from fourth grade. Believe me, no one needs to see that photo.
“I have a copy, just throw it out,” I said.
They stared blankly at me. My father finally recovered his voice. “Don’t you want to give it to Maxine?” (My poor only child who now stands to inherit three families’worth of unwanted hodgepodge that they couldn’t bring themselves to get rid of.)
“No. Just throw it away.” They just sat there.  “If you want to you can give it to me and I can throw it away.” I said, loudly, just in case they weren’t getting the message to throw it away.
I’m not sure what became of that photo but I’m pretty sure it never made it to the trash can.
After reading about others who have embraced the “Less is More” aesthetic, the temptation of having less to clean and more time to read is just too hard to resist. So maybe I will put my aunt’s mink stole on eBay, I don’t have to tell anyone.  What’s the worst that can happen, I get disinherited?
Wait a minute…I think I’m on to something.