Engraved by G. E. Perine & Co., NY, approx. 1855, plus or minus ten years
“I keep walking by Susan B.’s grave, as if her bones might bolster me–or maybe not so much her bones anymore as her dust–or maybe that too is a stretch. More like her spirit. Here I am on the day before the day, letting Miss Anthony’s indomitable spirit soak into my every cell. It’s a glorious morning. Even the trees are conspiring. Oaks and ashes have gone bronze and gold, the last of the maples are flaming. You were right, Miss Susan, failure is impossible.” Sonja Livingston
“…she listens to reports of war in Europe…people lean in to discuss FDR, the Lindbergh baby, Amelia Earhart’s final flight…Audrey stands in line, overhearing news of the McCarthy hearings, Eisenhower, and Nixon…she watches anchormen speak of Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War, start to finish…Satellites, astronauts, and the moon landing. Martin Luther King and Kennedy, their eventual assassinations, until talk is replaced by Three Mile Island. Love Canal, the Exxon Valdez…She’s there for all of it: Iran-Contra and Monica Lewinsky. The invention of the automatic coffeemaker, the atomic bomb, personal computers. The years fall like spent leaves…Audrey remains at the Saint Lawrence State Hospital from 1931 to 1996.” — Ladies Night at the Dreamland,by Sonja Livingston
Now she has a new collection just published, a strange and haunting meditation on the lives of women and girls from the past. Some of these women were accomplished and briefly famous, some were trail-blazers and rule-breakers, others were unremarkable on the surface but heroic in their strength and endurance, and some were outright victims.
Sonja is from Rochester, and several of the women she writes about have connections with upstate New York where I live.
It’s difficult to describe these essays, they’re so clever, beautiful, and unusual. Ladies Night at the Dreamland is a great read if you want something very different. Using detailed, thorough research and brilliant conjecture, Sonja sheds light on women who were largely ignored and gives them a dignity they never had in life. Often, Sonja inserts herself in the stories she tells in moving and provocative ways.
The collection of essays is framed by two imaginary scenes in 1920 that take place at the Charlotte Beach carousel on Lake Ontario in Rochester, New York, and at the dance hall that once stood there, known as the Dreamland. (It burned to the ground in 1923.) My husband and I visit the carousel on hot summer nights when we want to walk by the lake and cool off. Charlotte Beach was once known as the Coney Island of the West.
In the last of the two scenes, Susan B. Anthony,who is buried in Rochester’s Mount Hope Cemetery, which is across the street from the medical center where I used to work, makes an appearance and speaks with Sonja. The author dresses Susan in the flapper get-up of the day, and tells her that the Nineteenth Amendment has passed. Thanks to Susan’s hard work, finally women have the right to vote.
One after the other, the women Sonja has written about gather around Susan B. Anthony to speak with her and thank her.
Sonja Livingston wrote these essays with love. Here are a few of them:
“Some Names and What They Mean” Carmen, Wanda, and Michelle were young girls strangled, raped, and killed in the early 1970s in Rochester by a serial killer known as the Alphabet Murderer.
Carmen managed to escape from the killer, and was seen by drivers running along 490 West, but no one stopped to help, and her abductor caught up with her. Sonja imagines herself back in 1971, driving on 490; she sees Carmen and rescues her. They drive on and encounter Wanda and Michelle, and rescue them, too. Together in the car, Sonja asks them who they’d like to become and helps them choose new names.
“Mad Love: The Ballad of Fred and Allie” In 1892, a society girl from Memphis, Alice Mitchell, murdered her female lover, Freda Ward. Sonja tells their story, imagining what Alice thought and felt.
“Human Curiosity: A Circular Concordance” Krao Farini, known as “The Human Monkey,” was a carnival attraction loved by no one who eventually became the bearded lady at Coney Island.
“The Goddess of Ogdensburg: A Rise and Fall in Seventeen Poses” – Audrey Munson was an artist’s model for the greatest sculptors in the early 1900s. Her naked body is on the Pulitzer Fountain in Central Park and the Manhattan Bridge; in Penn Station; and atop the Municipal Building in Manhattan and other municipal buildings across the country. She died in a state mental institution in Point Airy, New York.
“The Opposite of Fear” Maria Spelterini crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope in 1876.
“Freeze-Frame”Valaida Snow was an African American jazz trumpet player of enormous talent known as “Queen of the Horn” from east Tennessee. She played in Harlem, then Paris, then Germany, where she was imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II.
It’s especially gratifying to read these essays about women as Hillary Clinton runs for president. I imagine Sonja telling Susan B. Anthony all about it.
Do you read creative nonfiction? Any recommendations? Are there books that you love that are extra meaningful because they take place in the region where you live?
Colum McCannloves to spend his days inside the skin of his characters, getting to know them and spinning out their incredible stories. The more unlike McCann they are, the better, he says. He’s a virtuoso, with all the confidence of an Irish storyteller. A stereotype, maybe, but I think there is something to it.
In TransAtlantic,McCann is adept at taking on the voices of historical figures like Frederick Douglass, founder of the civil rights movement in America, Arthur Brown, ace flyer and navigator, and Senator George Mitchell, who negotiated the peace talks in Northern Ireland. When he was writing the novel, McCann worked closely with Senator Mitchell’s wife to get the details right, but waited until the manuscript was finished before he actually met Mitchell.
My favorite character, though, is the fictitious Irish housemaid, Lily Duggan. In fact, I think Lily is the heart of the novel. She scrapes together enough money to emigrate from desperate famine and British oppression to America – only to find herself tending to endless numbers of soldiers dying because of another brand of oppression in the bloodbath of the Civil War. As my husband, a lover of history, said to me when we were talking about the book, history comes alive through the stories of individual people. (We’re both reading TransAtlanticfor an upcoming family reunion – his extended family is of Irish descent.)
McCann writes each chapter from the viewpoint of a different character. He doesn’t writechronologically, but jumps back and forth in time. You have to be willing to go with the flow and accept that you won’t be with any character or confined to a particular time in history for long.
After I got used to that, I began to see what a powerful way this is to tell a story.
I became immersed in each character’s moment in TransAtlantic, thanks to the vivid, sensual writing. For me, McCann’s sweeping view across time and space casts his characters in a generous, compassionate light. Frederick Douglass and Lily Duggan may feel their lives don’t add up to much, but we see what their sacrifices mean to their descendants. Individuals may be forgotten, but their lives can, indeed, have great meaning, and the consequences of one’s actions can reach around the world and through time. We are all connected.
At the same time, I thought about justice and oppression as I read TransAtlantic, and how various groups – Irish Catholics, blacks, women, and others – fight for the same thing. Sometimes they work together, sometimes they are in competition.
Frederick Douglass is buried in Rochester’s Mt. Hope Cemetery, across from the medical center where I work. In the 1800s, upstate New York was a hotbed of radical abolitionist and women’s suffrage fervor. The civil rights leader Susan B. Anthony lived in Rochester, too, and is buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery. She was friends with Douglass and worked with him on abolitionist and women’s suffrage causes. Yet Anthony and women’s rights activists felt betrayed when black men finally won the right to vote and women did not. Ultimately, Douglass couldn’t hold out for women’s rights. He had to seize the moment when black men in American were given their freedom.
In TransAtlantic, McCann writes of Douglass’s trip to Ireland, where he was surprised to discover the Irish suffered under more deplorable conditions than many American slaves. Douglass could fight only one fight at a time, and chose not to speak out against Irish Catholic oppression as he associated with British and privileged Irish dignitaries.
I’m looking forward to hearing what others think of TransAtlantic at our family reunion and which of the inseparable stories embedded in the novel they found most affecting: Senator Mitchell, at age 64 changing his infant son’s diaper before he flies to Belfast. Frederick Douglass deciding whether to take the starving Irish baby. Alcock and Brown praying their Vickers Vimy will make it out of the cloud before they crash into the ground. Lily Duggan washing the bodies of the dead young men.
If you’ve read TransAtlantic, please tell us what you think in the comments.
BY COLUM MCCANN:
Let the Great World Spin – National Book Award, 2009
Everything in This Country Must – short film, nominated for Academy Award, 2005