Whenever my husband and I play the game Trivial Pursuit, it’s inevitable that he will win. By a landslide. And it’s also inevitable that I’ll respond to his victory with the same sarcastic defense, each and every time. “Some of us memorize history,” I’ll say. “And some of us make history.” He rolls his eyes, I snicker, and we move on.
Forever, I have blamed my poor retention of trivia-worthy facts and figures on being cursed with a bad memory and a dull-as-a-rock history teacher in elementary school. And in junior high school. And in high school.
That is, these were my excuses until I read “Maine’s Remarkable Women: Daughters, Wives, Sisters and Mothers Who Shaped History” by Kate Kennedy, and I started thinking otherwise.
Kennedy’s book is a thought-provoking collection of elegant profiles on the lives of 15 Maine women who performed remarkable acts of independence and bravery. Kennedy, who was director of the Southern Maine Writing Project at the University of Southern Maine from 2006 to 2012, lays out these biographies in great detail, her whip-smart and lyrical prose making the stories come alive on the page.
Each profile is delivered with impeccable rhythmic pacing and sharp sensory details; you actually feel as if you’re side by side with each woman in each chapter, rather than sitting back and watching as a reader. This is a hard thing for a writer to do when retelling an event she wasn’t even a part of, with information based purely on collected and researched facts. She has precision.
Another challenge that Kennedy must’ve confronted when composing this book is that many of the women in her collection might appear to have performed mild acts of bravery, when juxtaposed to triumphant men in battle, leading armies into victory. These women were quiet.
One profile is about Toy Len Goon, an illiterate peasant from southern China who raised eight children. Another was a fly fisherwoman; another a botanist. Upon first glance, the women in the book didn’t fight wars or slay back branches in uncharted terrain and claim a new country. But in fact they did.
They pushed the boundaries that were given to the women of their time. They broke new ground. (And one of the subjects, Margaret Chase Smith, was the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for the U.S. presidency.)
Although these women weren’t blatantly leaders, after reading this book, I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Like how exhilarated yet terrified Josephine Diebitsch Peary felt to be the first woman to take part in an Arctic expedition. Or the confidence it must have taken for Marguerite Thomson Zorach to pursue avant-garde painting (when women artists already weren’t taken as seriously as their male counterparts).
After devouring Kennedy’s book, I came to realize I often don’t remember the things that I can’t relate to, or be inspired by. If I understand the connections between the past and my present, my mind opens.
With “Maine’s Remarkable Women,” I wanted to know more. I began to see myself in the shoes of the characters, began to empathize with these women, rather than watch them from afar. I was sucked in.
So I read the book again. After passing the climactic point in each profile, especially in the stories that were seemingly uneventful (a working woman, a basket weaver, a lighthouse keeper), I stopped to think about the social and political context of the days of these women, how absolutely different it was for women in the 1800s, let alone the 1950s.
How perhaps today, a woman keeping a lighthouse might not seem like much, but in 1856, with little communication to the mainland and few boats able to deliver necessities to an island, with a great lack of technology and a tremendous amount of vulnerability, keeping a lighthouse as Abbie Burgess Grant did on Matinicus Rock, was a courageous act, nearly unheard of for a young woman, given the cultural and social expectations of her.
I’d think about the women in these pages when I was out running errands, or getting my kids fed and dressed for school, or walking my dogs, or cleaning the bathtub. (“She couldn’t just stand by and watch their dreams – and her own – expire.”) I thought about my own context and what kind of opportunities I had, and if I was actually witnessing history being made, passively, or if I was making history.
Kennedy’s stories – the true stories – in this collection, both the ostensibly milder ones of humble dignity, as well as the sensational tales (like that of Tante Blanche, strapping on snowshoes, bracing a killer snowstorm and saving her starving community by delivering life-sustaining supplies) forced me to see how these weren’t just women acting out, trying something new or pushing boundaries for the hell of it.
These were women saving lives, carving new paths, opening new doors … they were revolutionaries. And it’s not too often we read about these women in history books.
Kennedy’s book did something most history books don’t do for me. It made me think past the page. Her profiles stuck, and they didn’t just stick in my head. Her book inspired me to get out and move. To do something. To make change, be a part of a movement. To make history, not just be able to recall it. To do rather than to observe.
This book inspired me to look at the legacy I might be leaving behind and ask myself, am I an armchair observer? Or are my actions making me the person I was meant to be? Am I making the lives of others better? Am I giving it all I’ve got?
These profiles reminded me to be something bigger than just a reader. And only the best kind of stories can do that.
Mira Ptacin is author of the memoir “Poor Your Soul” (Soho Press, 2016). She lives on Peaks Island. She can be contacted through her website: