Thursday, April 1, 2010

Borrowed Names

Borrowed Names: Poems about Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madame C.J. Walker, Marie Curie and their Daughters
by Jeannine Atkins
Published by Henry Holt and Co.
224 pages

Publisher's Description:

As a child, Laura Ingalls Wilder traveled across the prairie in a covered wagon. Her daughter, Rose, thought those stories might make a good book, and the two created the beloved Little House series. Sara Breedlove, the daughter of former slaves, wanted everything to be different for her own daughter, A’Lelia. Together they built a million-dollar beauty empire for women of color. Marie Curie became the first person in history to win two Nobel prizes in science. Inspired by her mother, Irène too became a scientist and Nobel prize winner. Borrowed Names is the story of these extraordinary mothers and daughters.

My Comments:

Who knew that Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C.J. Walker and Marie Curie were all born in the same year (1867) and all had daughters who helped them gain a place in history? I wasn't aware of this connection before picking up the book, and so I thought the premise behind it (free verse biographies of all six women) a little odd until reading about the common birth year in the introduction. Then, as I got into the book and discovered how closely the three daughters worked with their mothers I thought, "A-ha!" and the book made perfect sense to me.

The stories of all three mother-daughter pairs were fascinating in their own right, and their lives also overlapped in interesting ways. For instance, Ingalls and her daughter Rose may have walked right past Walker and her daughter A'Lelia at the International Exhibition in San Francisco, and Rose and the Walkers later lived in New York during the Great War. (I love that it is referred to as The Great War and not World War I; it's easy to forget, now, that there was a time between the world wars). A'Lelia and Irene both attend to wounded soldiers during the war. Rose and Irene Curie may have also walked on common ground in Europe after the war. I also love how feminist each of the women are in their own ways. Laura Ingalls insisted on finding a preacher who would remove the word "obey" from her wedding vows, Madam C.J. Walker used her savings to build her own company from the ground up, and Marie Curie won a nobel prize for physics before women were even allowed to speak at the awards ceremony.

I learned a lot about each of the women, and also think that the poems work well as poetry. Although written in free verse (which doesn't conform to conventional rhyme or meter) the poems didn't read like regular sentences that have just been broken up by an editor. The verses gave me just enough detail to leave me with an impression of what was going on; leaving me room to interpret what was happening with the women's lives. This, to me, is how poetry should read.

The design is charmingly old-fashioned. I wasn't enamored with the cover when I first saw pictures of it online, but it looks more appealing in-person. Black and white photographs of each of the women appear at the beginning of their section. Atkins doesn't refer to exact years in her verse, but instead speaks in generalities like the beginning of the Great War, second summer of the war, etc. I liked this, because I could focus on the stories without feeling that I would need to remember any dates for later. "Legacies" sections at the end of each mother-daughter biography and a time line at the very end are helpful in tying everything together. Atkins also includes a selected bibliography at the end. Some of the selected titles have been written for younger readers, and are marked as such. I was disappointed to see only three books listed for the Walkers.

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