Sitting squarely at the top of my 2015 resolutions is the edict that I will read at least 12 books this year. That may not seem like very many, but for a person who is as distracted by puppies, dresses, and coffee as I am, this is no small feat. Oftentimes, I’ll pick up an amazing book–maybe it’s a Stuart Dybeck short story collection–and make a pot of tea. Well, the kettle will start whistling as I’m into the second vignette, I’ll rush to the kitchen, and once there, I’ll want to play with Moxie. And then I’ll remember that I need to set out my clothes for the next day. And that will remind me that I need to clean out my coffee mug so I have something to keep me awake at work in the morning.
It’s vicious, really.
So, it is with great pride that I can say that I’m already ahead of schedule. Two books, and it’s only February 2! The latest of my conquests was Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women, which was released nary a month ago. It has all the ingredients of something I would love: female author, feminist subjects, historical inspiration, and, most importantly, short stories. Bergman’s sheer imaginative impulse allured me; her writing held me.
With one exception, these are stories about the strong women who exist only in the periphery of history. At one time, perhaps they were stars, or maybe they were only related to big personalities, ones like Oscar Wilde or Lord Byron. Each of these women are brave or creative or talented in some fashion, but time has not been kind to them. The Hilton sisters, for example, were conjoined twins who ran the vaudeville circuit in its heyday, but were reduced to grocery baggers when they aged–eventually dying alone, not to be found for days. Their story is told from Daisy’s perspective, a brash, unapologetic voice that unflinchingly covers every topic from their violent early years to their sex lives to their bitter ends.
Not every story is told from the subject’s point of view, though. In “The Siege at Whale Cay,” we are treated to an intimate look at Standard Oil heiress Joe Carstairs’ life on her rambling island through the eyes of a dime-a-dozen girlfriend. We catch glimpses of how she copes with postwar life and her sexuality in the arms of the rich and famous. “Saving Butterfly McQueen” explores the Gone With the Wind actress’ outspoken atheism through a naive proselyte. Hauntingly, “Romaine Remains” is a vignette borne of a houseboy’s frenzied obsession, jealousy, and hatred of the painter Romaine Brooks.
Some of the stories stuck with me days after I read them. They are complicated and sad, and these women are not necessarily heroes. But they are nothing if not brave or skilled, even if they have little to show for themselves.
Bergman crafted these tales from careful research and gave us her own synthesis of the truth. At first, I didn’t even realize that these were fictionalized accounts–I was so curious about each character that I looked up their biographies online and was a little shocked to see that they deviated from AFW. That only made these stories better; the personalities could be bigger, the stakes higher this way.