In preparation for Iceland Writers Retreat, I am reading a book by each of the featured authors. Although it feels weird to review a book by a pending teacher, I read best when I know I have to report on it later, so here we are. While I was immersed in A Year of Wonders, all of my library holds came in. I picked the next book at random: O My America! Six Women and Their Second Acts in a New World, by Sara Wheeler.
Sara Wheeler is an English nonfiction travel writer. When she was facing the age of female invisibility (50, for the males who may be reading) she stumbled upon the story of Fanny Trollope who boldly adventured in the American West with her three youngest children when Cincinnati was a frontier town. Her trip was a disaster, but resulted in a memoir that secured her fortune. Hoping, perhaps, for a similar self-reinvention, Wheeler followed the trails of five more Englishwomen whose literary leveraging of their American travels led to “second acts” in an era when any woman besides the queen was considered used up by thirty.
Wheeler’s blend of extensive historical research with personal experience reminded me of Bill Bryson, although her research seems to go deep where his is broad. Where his narrative meandered, her transitions between history and memoir could be disconcertingly abrupt.
She follows Trollope with Fanny Kemble, her obvious favorite. An actress and abolitionist, Kemble’s unlikely marriage to a slaveholding American was as disastrous as one would expect. After a miserable decade as a plantation wife, she lost her children in a messy public divorce that foreshadowed today’s celebrity culture. But her memoir of plantation life helped turn the tide of British public opinion against the Confederacy during the Civil War.
These first two stories, which make up about half the book, forced me to revise my view of our nation through a new lens in a way that has only happened once before (when I read The Tale of Octavian Nothing). I was surprised and strangely comforted by the two Fanny’s characterization of Americans as a nation obsessed with money; intensely myopic and self-centered; and wasting our political freedoms in a social culture of conformity. I face these opinions every time I travel abroad. I never considered that they are not recent phenomena, but have been lobbed at us almost since the beginning (probably fairly).
I identified with the humorless, driven, spinster crusader Harriet Martineau as much as Wheeler identified with the passionate Kemble. Unfortunately, Wheeler seems to have had no more fondness for Martineau than most of her contemporaries. Hearing her moralizing criticized so lyrically was a little like being Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve. It was some consolation that everyone respected her, even if they did not enjoy her company, and her overt feminism, which was at least a century ahead of her time, had a genuine impact in the world.
Alone of Wheeler’s girls, Rebecca Burlend did not travel for adventure, read for pleasure, or write a book. In her old age, she told her son of her life homesteading in Illinois. He wrote her memoir. The book was not her primary contribution to the world; she was one of the many women who build America with one hand while cradling infants in the other. The writing in this chapter fairly sings.
Isabella Bird belongs in fiction. An invalid spinster at home, she galloped solo over Rocky Mountain passes and hiked Mauna Loa. One of the great lady explorers of the Victorian age, Bird was another of Wheeler’s girls with whom I could identify – she seemed most herself when she was far from home.
Catherine Hubback, supported herself and her three sons by writing novels. When her boys were grown she followed them to America. Keeping house for her son in San Francisco, her American adventures were a bit of a letdown after Bird’s Rocky Mountain escapades, just as the settlement of the West Coast calmed some of America’s exuberant optimism of the pioneer years.
In the introduction, Wheeler explains that her interest in these women stems from her own unease at the prospect of “the barren years” and a desire to reunite with herself at the end of the intensive parenting years. From a personal perspective, I can’t understand the concern about 50; it’s the renaissance age of freedom from maternal responsibility. Wheeler’s generation must have faced a different paradigm. From a literary perspective, O My America! is a coming of age meditation. I just finished reading Heliopolis, which was a coming of age story that resolved arrested development. Wheeler makes a very strong point that coming of age is not a one-time rite of passage. Indeed, women who have children come of age at least three times.
Wheeler herself is one of the women of this book, traveling the U.S. in search of her own second act. But she uses great restraint in sharing her personal story, giving herself only a few pages of introduction and the epilogue, falling short of making herself the seventh woman. On the one hand, I like that she lets us know why she finds these six women intriguing without getting confessional; on the other, I miss the character development that she gave the other six. Her modern story could be a fulfilling counterpoint to their Victorian experiences. I’m still not sure if I would like to have seen more or less of Wheeler herself in the narrative, but I’m glad to have met the six and a half women presented in O My America!.