Women on My Bookshelf

Next week it is my turn to present the choices for the next Relief Society book club. It’s rather delicious to peruse the bookshelf, looking for appealing options. I searched for a theme, aware that – as a quasi church-sponsored club — the books need to feel safe and accessible to a wide swath of participants. Perhaps because it is summer — the one time of year I miss the West and her dry heat, cool summer nights, and mountain wildflowers – I returned to the land. More specifically: women’s relationships with the land.

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and PlaceTerry Tempest Williams’ Refuge came to mind immediately. Williams chronicles the flooding of the Great Salt Lake and her mother’s battle with breast cancer. Each struggle becomes a metaphor for the other, allowing William’s to probe her connection to Mother Earth, her mother, and her effervescent grandmother. It is also a story of Williams’ Mormon faith, the limits of her faith, and the expansion of her faith. A great book, but I’ve already discussed it in a Boston book club.

Here, then, are the three choices I’ve settled on:

Dakota: A Spiritual GeographyDakota: A Spiritual Biography, Kathleen Norris
Kathleen Norris left New York City to return to her childhood land: the Dakotas. Not for a month or a year, but for a lifetime. Norris is a poet first, and she lovingly examines the people who inhabit this landscape. In doing so, she explores the thin line between the inward and outward geography. It’s not a long book, but it’s a lingering read – I find myself taking in an essay or two, stopping to think, slipping the book on the bedside table, and drifting into a reflective sleep. (In a couple of weeks, I’ll be posting about her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.)

Chasing RedbirdChasing Redbird, Sharon Creech
If this is book is picked, I’ll ask participants to also read Walk Two Moons by the same children’s author. The former novel is set on Kentucky farmland. Zinnia is an overlooked middle child who is effectively raised by her Aunt and Uncle who “adopt” her after the death of their own daughter. One summer, she uncovers a neglected trail, and when her aunt dies suddenly, clearing this trail becomes a pressing, almost spiritual compulsion. In the latter novel, thirteen-year-old Sal goes with her grandparents on a cross-country journey to visit her mother, whose departure has uprooted her sense of self. Every couple of years, I pick one of these for a class read-aloud. I always pre-read the last chapters of Walk Two Moons, hoping to keep my composure in front of my class. Never works.

O Pioneers! (Dover Thrift Editions)O Pioneers! Willa Cather
My husband has been pestering me for years to read this book. “You’re from pioneer stock!” he says. “You pride yourself in your strong Mormon feminist heritage! You still love Little House on the Prairie, for goodness sake!” He finally admitted that he long had a crush on the heroine, Alexandra. After finishing the book last night, I’m nurturing my own crush – for the language, the landscape, the author, and of course the spirited, resolute heroine. I’m not sure I’ve encountered another woman quite like her in American literature. In short, Alexandra’s Swedish father settles his family on the unforgiving high plains of Nebraska in the late 1800s. On his deathbed, he charges his only daughter with stewardship over the house and three younger brothers. He knows that she has a sense, intellect, and character the brothers lack. Alexandra loves the land and feels circumscribed by it; she is fiercely devoted to her family but also to her own convictions. I’m not sure how Cather has escaped me all these years. Alcott and Montgomery intrigued me as a teen, but I now find myself a little impatient with their occasionally over-wrought sentimentalism. It’s been a while since I read a novel where the language itself seduced me, where the images came from such a lovely voice – like this passage when Alexandra returns from visiting a graveyard in the pouring rain.

Ever since he died, I’ve suffered so when it rained. Now that I’ve been out in it with him, I shan’t dread it. After you once get cold clear through, the feeling of the rain on you is sweet. It seems to bring back feelings you had when you are a baby. It carries you back into the dark, before you were born; you can’t see things, but they come to you, somehow, and you know them and aren’t afraid of them. Maybe it’s like that with the dead. If they feel anything at all, it’s the old things, before they were born, that comfort people like the feeling of their own bed does when they are little.

Just after I finished reading this book, I listened to John and Jana Remy’s pod-cast. I hope she someday posts the essay she reads at the end (is it published elsewhere, Jana?). In it, she describes a journey to an old family cemetery. Of course, all of this has me thinking about my own relationship with the land — and visits to family graves nestled in a remote Idaho valley — but this is long enough for today.

Do you have favorite books about women and nature? Do you have places that you could subtitle “A Spiritual Biography”?


Deborah is K-12 educator who nurtures a healthy interest in reading, writing, running, ethics, mystics, and interfaith dialogue.

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17 Responses

  1. Susan M says:

    Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver.

    And The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, although I don’t remember if the lead character is a woman (I don’t think it is).

  2. Eve says:

    Hooray, hooray! We can never have too many book threads around the Bloggernacle.

    I haven’t read _O Pioneers_, but I’m in the middle of _Song of the Lark_, which I picked up with some reservations–I was forced to read Cather in high school and didn’t like her then–but I’m enjoying this one immensely. I’m looking forward to reading more by her.

    I’ll second the recommendations on Kathleen Norris’s _Dakota_ and Kingsover’s _Prodigal Summer_. My sisters gave me Prodigal Summer for Christmas one year, and I read it during the deepest, darkest, most bitter winter I spent in South Dakota, through what seemed like an eternal round of blizzards, white-outs, and sub-zero temperatures. I can’t describe how soul-nourishing it was to read about summer and the proliferation of green things during that winter I thought would never end.

    I know _Refuge_ is the Mormon woman landscape classic, but I confess to having mixed feelings about it.

  3. Deborah says:

    You’ve lived in South Dakota, Eve? Do you find Norris’ descriptions resonant with your experiences of the locale?

    I haven’t read _Song of the Lark_ — I figured I’d tackled _My Antonia_ next. Clearly, I’ll have to pick up Prodigal Summer, too.

    I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about Refuge, if you’re interested in sharing them. Have you read _Leap_? I thought it was fascinating, but have no idea what a non-LDS audience would make of it.

  4. Eve says:

    I did find Norris’s descriptions accurate, although I should add that South Dakota is divided (geographically and culturally) by the Missouri into East River and West River. I lived extreme East River, almost in Iowa, where I worked, and she writes more about West River, which is evidently much closer to the Western U.S., both in terms of landscape and of outlook. So I’m not the best person to evaluate the accuracy of her West River descriptions. Still, I loved the book. Just thinking about it makes me desperately homesick for the plains and that enormous sky. The landscape so exceeds vision in every direction that it’s dizzying; it’s like falling into eternity.
    (And like you, Deborah, I’m also homesick for the mountains and the wildflowers, the aspens and pines and the way the canyons fall into early twilight on summer evenings. So many homes to miss!)

    Hmmm…Refuge. First, I’ll admit I haven’t read the book in a very long time, so what I’m about is based on only my lingering, biased impressions. There was a lot I liked. I loved the way she interwove her mother’s death and the fluctuations of the Great Salt Lake and her keen observations of the birds. (And isn’t it fun to read abook that describes places you’ve actually been? I always get a thrill out of that. I love it when she describes her drive through SLC and out to the lake at the beginning.)

    But…I had a harder time with the theo-eco-feminist overtones. I can understand having problems with patriarchy–really, I can!–but I don’t see how praying to the birds and worshiping the Mother Body (??) is any improvement. Maybe I’ve been too inculcated in Western rationalism, but I found the pantheistic fortune-teller Day-of-the-Dead one-with-nature relativism poorly thought out–sloppy and sentimental.

    As I said, it’s been a long time since I’ve read the book, so I welcome refutation from those who’ve dipped into it more recently. I will say that I didn’t like Leap at all. It seemed really rehashed and simplistic: breaking news! Deviant Mormons and Earth oppressed! Solution found in Hieronymous Bosch!
    The topics were more than worthy, but I wanted to see them treated with a lot more nuance.

    I always enjoy hearing from people who disagree with me about books, so I’d love your or anyone else’s thoughts, Deborah. Thanks again for such a great post!

  5. AmyB says:

    I was just thinking about what books I could pick up for the summer. After reading Cloister Walk, I put all of Norris’s other books on my Amazon wishlist. I hope to be well stocked when my birthday comes around.

    Another book I absolutely loved is “Ahab’s Wife: Or, The Stargazer” by Sena Jeter Naslund.
    She picked up a one-line reference to Ahab’s wife in Moby Dick, and centers the book around that character. It is beautifully tied to both land and sea, and she was an incredibly compelling character to me. This is a heavy read, but well worth it.

  6. Seraphine says:

    “Door into Ocean” is an interesting woman/nature book. It’s science fiction, but it’s about gender and environmentalism, and it’s got some great messages. It might not be to everyone’s taste, though.

  7. Deborah says:

    Eve: I read _Refuge_ shortly after leaving Utah for an Eastern college (12 years ago?). I had left home without looking back, but reading this book (along with Stegner’s _The Bluebird Sings at the Lemonade Springs_) helped me rethink my relationship with the West.

    _Leap_ was startling the first time I read it and underwhelming the second time — again, due to personal timing. My favorite passage was one describing Joseph’s magical world-view, a religion birthed by a question.

    Amy: Glad you liked _Cloister Walk_ — excited to discuss it with you in person someday soon! I had heard good things about Ahab’s wife . . .

  8. Heather O. says:

    I tried, tried, tried to love _My Antonia_. I could appreciate the language and the imagery, but boy could I have cared less about the characters. Blasphemous words to some, I know, but I didn’t even finish that book, which to me is the ultimate reader sin.

    I haven’t read _O Pioneers!_, though, so maybe some day I’ll pick that up.

    Anything by Wallace Stegnar always thrills me, mostly because a lot of his stuff is set between New England and Utah/Idaho, which are both places I love and have been a part of. Also, he describes some of the innate tensions between the two regions, especially in _Angle of Repose_ which resonated strongly with me, too. His women are almost always strong, and if not strong at the very least remarkably complex and well-written. _Big Rock Candy Mountain_ especially has some heartwrenching women moments, when you want to both strangle his mother as well as weep with her. Great stuff.

  9. Heather O. says:

    Oh, and don’t forget _Mama Day_, by Gloria Naylor. Talk about a woman who is close to the land. She’s close in a more herbal, medical, use the land for your own good sort of way, but it certainly makes you want to have an herb garden! After reading it for FMH’s online book group, I recommended it for my own book group. We’ll see how it goes over.

  10. mkauffman says:

    Anything by Pam Houston. I know I’m biased, but “Waltzing the Cat” and almost all of her essays in “A Little More About Me” are just amazing. I know everyone recommends her first book but her writing matures so much.

  11. Idahospud says:

    I just finished _Winter Wheat_ by Mildred Walker–what a beautiful little book! It is set in the ’40s on a wheat dryfarm in central Montana, and is full of landscape metaphor and the connection that women in particular feel for the cycle of sowing and harvest: “The fields have a tired, peaceful look, the way I imagine a mother feels when she’s had her baby and is just lying there thinking about it and feeling pleased.”

    It’s not a hard read, but it helped me realize that my own dry-farm upbringing still has an immediacy that affects how I look at things and make decisions.

    Great thread!

  12. Mel says:

    A book club I belong to recently read a book called Orchard by Adele Crockett Robertson about a woman who sort of rashly decides to take over her family’s New England orchard (I think it’s set mid 20th century) without realizing what she was getting into. It’s a gentle, insightful read with some humor as she figures out what it takes to make the orchard work and defines her connection to the land.

  13. Deborah says:

    Thanks for all the suggestions. I just might make this my theme for summer reading!

    I’ve also been meaning to pick up “Under the Tuscan Sun.” I saw the movie — while it wasn’t fabulous, I enjoyed the premise that submitting to the land itself, even one foreign to us, can have a healing power. Makes me think of the hours I spent walking among the community garden plots in Boston, marveling at the little rectangular kingdoms people had cultivated. I get hungry for dirt, somedays!

  14. Caroline says:

    One of my very favorite recent novels is “The Secret Life of Bees” by Sue Monk Kidd. I loved this coming of age story of a white girl trying to learn about her dead mother and finding a new family of three older black women in the process.

    Kingsolver’s already been mentioned, but I sure enjoyed The Poisonwood Bible.

  15. Angie says:

    I love Willa Cather. I haven’t read the others–I’ll add them to my list. The women and nature book I read most recently was Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. I think it would be a great book club read.

  16. Carolee says:

    I’ve read and enjoyed all the books mentioned. If you enjoy Terry Tempest Williams’ essays, you’ll probably enjoy Holdfast: At home in the Natural World by Kathleen Dean Moore. It has beautifully written essays on nature, though not from a Mormon background. It may be hard to find — I was thoroughly absorbed in it when I was browsing in a used book store clearance section and I bought the several copies they had so I could share. Those that I gave it to loved it as well.

  1. March 7, 2016

    […] — Emergency Preparedness Edition as well as posts about entertainment, such as Deborah’s Women on My Bookshelf and East River Lady’s reviews of “Selma” & “She’s Beautiful When She’s […]

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