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9781250247636

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Don't just take my word for how great this book is, check out what Kirkus, Publisher's Weekly, and BookPage have to say.

And if those sources didn't tell you enough, how about this review from the New York Times (!), this story from The Lily, or this tweet from Secretary Clinton: 

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Given that we are currently #SaferAtHome, I've been making the podcast rounds. Give a listen to Zestful Aging, where we talked about just doing it,  Mama Bear Dares, where we talked about the importance of local government, and/or The Upstate Regular, where I talk about our county's COVID-19 Challenges. 

NEW: I did an online reading for the Princeton Public Library and talked a little bit about what local government is facing right now. If you've wondered what I look like at a reading, give it a gander.


Izzy Bird, truckee

Isabella is in Truckee, which she has heard spoken of as a “rough lumbering town.” I will let those who know this town either confirm or deny.*

Truckee-history-slider

She arrives “much dazed” and “very stupid with sleep” and presents herself to a “rough Western hotel.” The public rooms are full of groups men drinking and gossiping around the fire. The “unholy sound of tom-toms was not far off. Mountains seemed to wall in the town, and great pines stood out, sharp and clear cut, against a sky in which moon and stars were shining frostily.”

And, now, another word that 100 percent proves that Isabella was a woman of her time, which is only a few years after the Civil War. Brace for impact.

I‘m not kidding.

“It was a sharp frost at that great height, and when an ‘irrepressible n——-,’ who seemed to represent the hotel establishment, deposited me and my carpetbag in a room which answered for ‘the parlour.’”

It’s less surprising if you’ve seen the HBO series Deadwood, which is set at about the same time.** I can not picture Isabella using some of the other, more anatomically evocative words in the series, mind.

I have nothing profound to add here.

Anyway.

Another man comes in to let Isabella know that he will try to get her a room but, because they are nearly full up, it will be a poor one. It is 11:30 p.m. and she hasn’t eaten since 6 a.m. She asked hopefully for a hot supper but no luck. He did return a half hour later with “a small cup of cold, weak tea, and a small slice of bread, which looked as if it had been much handled.”

While she waits, she learns that most rooms in the town are rented out to many men simultaneously. They then sleep in shifts, because mining and timber are 24-hour operations. “Consequently, I found the bed and room allotted to me quite tumbled looking. There was no window to the outer air, but I slept soundly, being only once awoke by an increase of the same din in which I had fallen asleep, varied by three pistol shots fired in rapid succession.”

* In my brain, Truckee is one of those mountain towns full of ultra runners and libertarians who manage to get along quite well. Am I close?

** Ian McShane is magnificent, as is most of the rest of the cast. The writing is a wonder, too.


Izzy Bird, indigenous people

Isabella is on a train to Lake Tahoe. She’s walking the length of the train and enumerating her fellow passengers.
One car is full of “Digger Indians.”*
I know.
It’s not an excuse but let’s remember it is 1873. And, for what it’s worth, her language will get worse — but will remain about par for the course for the time.
“They are perfect savages, without any aptitude for even aboriginal civilization, and are altogether the most degraded of the ill-fated tribes which are dying out before the white races…The squaws wore their hair thickly plastered with pitch, and a broad band of the same across their noses and cheeks. They carried their infants on their backs, strapped to boards. The clothing of both sexes was a ragged, dirty combination of coarse woolen cloth and hide, the moccasins being unornamented.
“They were hideous and filthy, and swarming with vermin…A few had fishing tackle, but the bystanders said that they lived almost entirely upon grasshoppers. They were a most impressive incongruity in the midst of tokens of an omnipresent civilization.”
Now, of course, we know that the indigenous people she saw on the train had had their entire social/political/economic structures systematically upended over a century so that white people could take that land and its resources. It’s zero surprise that the Indians she saw were in rough shape. That’s what was supposed to happen after the course of westward expansion wended its way. Still. It sucks.
The train is winding its way through the Sierras, on a single track, “sometimes carried on a narrow ledge excavated from the mountain side by med lowered from the top in baskets, overhanging ravines from 2,000 to 3,000 feet deep.”
There is one moment where the train crossed a trestle bridge over a deep chasm. The view from the car’s window made it look like it was floating in mid-air. Which Isabella** found unnerving.
Then they entered the snow sheds, which block all of the view, including that of Donner Lake. Isabella is disappointed — but thrilled by the temperature. In just a few hours, it had dropped from 103 in Sacramento to 29 as they pulled into Truckee.
 
* The slur came about because these tribes dug up roots for food.
** and, like, all of us,

Izzy Bird, into the West

The Adventure Continues ...

Let’s jump back a few years to the autumn of 1873. Isabella is 42.

She has just visited the Sandwich Islands (a.k.a. Hawaii) and decides to see the American west on her way back to England. That collection of letters home is called “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains” and was first published in 1879.

The first entry is from Lake Tahoe - but her trip starts in San Francisco.

Rocky mountain leg 1

“I left in the cold morning fog early yesterday, driving to the Oakland ferry through streets with sidewalks heaped with thousands of cantaloupe and water-melons, tomatoes, cucumbers, squashes, pears, grapes, peaches, apricots* — all of a startling size compared with any I ever saw before…California is a ‘land flowing with milk and honey.’”

As much as she rhapsodizes about the state of the produce and the “at cattle, gorged almost to repletion,” she is decidedly not in love with Sacramento,** which she sees from the train west.

Soon enough, they are in the Sierras. “The dusty fertility was all left behind, the country became rocky and gravelly, and deeply scored by streams bearing the muddy wash of the mountain gold mines down to the muddier Sacramento.”

At the Colfax stop, she walks the length of the train to stretch her legs. Two engines with their “respective tenders loaded with logs of wood,” then a baggage car loaded with bullion and valuable parcels and guarded by two “express agents.” Then cars loaded with preached and grapes, then two “silver palace” cars***, a smoking car “full of Chinamen;” the five plain old passenger cars.

As for the rest of the passengers…

 

 

* and a partridge in a pear tree

** “very repulsive”

*** These are luxury and/or private train cars that were extra swank. Allegedly, Amtrak will still let the well-heeled attach their own cars to a train, should they so choose. Which seems like a great way to travel, frankly.****

**** Scott and I once took the train from Austin to Chicago to Pittsburgh. I don’t recommend going South to North in July if you like a view that changes. It went from brown to green but remained more or less the same. *****

***** This would be a great trip, tho.


Izzy Bird, Top Girl

Caryl Churchill is one of my favorite playwrights - but I didn’t make the connection between her groundbreaking 1982 play Top Girls and Isabella Bird until my agent mentioned it. And, well, there it is, right in the first act.
Marlene, a career focused British woman,* hosts a dinner party with five notable historic women: Lady Nijo, a Japanese courtesan turned nun from the 13th century; Dull Gret, the subject of a Brueghel paining (below); Pope Joan, a female pope in 854-856**; Patient Griselda, the obedient wife in The Canterbury Tales; and Our Isabella.

Dulle_Griet _by_Pieter_Brueghel_(I)

In the Metheun Drama edition of the play, there’s a wonderful, many-paged introduction that puts the work in context for students who may not know and/or remember what the early 1980s were like. I am one of those, mind. I was all of 9 and was only vaguely aware of Margaret Thatcher, much less all of the politics around feminism and work.
The bit that I find most interesting:
“[Marlene] rejects the ties of blood relationships and situates herself against a backdrop of significant and notable women, many of whom have nonetheless received little historical or critical attention. Crucially, Churchill does not choose the more famous women from history, legend, or literature to people this scene: No Queen Elizabeth I or Victoria, Boudica, Lady Macbeth, or Cleopatra. She chooses women who have been all but forgotten to those without a specialist interest in their stories.In doing so, she participates in a feminist practice known as “herstory:” the reclamation of important but largely forgotten women and assertion that their stories are as important as the figures that fill the pages of traditional, male-authored history books.”***
The National Theatre did a revival of Top Girls in 2019. Sadly, it’s not one that they are releasing online this summer. That would have “slapped,” as my eldest child says. Instead, here’s the poster art, which is lovely.

Top-girls-v2-poster-2578x1128

* Remember: this was the early 1980s and feels like more than 40 years ago.
** She gave the game away when she gave birth.
*** for nerds of a similar bent: this pieces very good, too.


Izzy Bird, interlude 4

Interlude #4

The wildest* story about Isabella I’ve yet found:**

“[Isabella] had taken a cab from the railway station, and while driving out of the gate received on her lap a small parcel of advertisements, which, as was usual then, were thrown in at the open window. Putting it on the seat in front of her, she noticed another parcel lying, evidently left by the former ‘fare.’ She opened it, and found papers inside giving details of a plot to assassinate a member of the Cabinet at the approaching funeral of the Duke of Wellington.*** She had scarcely put them into her pocket, when she heard a voice stopping the cab and a dark-couloured foreign-looking man addressed her at the window. He asked if a parcel had been found in the carriage. At once she handed him the little bundle of advertisements, and after a minute’s progress bade the driver hasten to the Home Office where she insisted upon seeing the Minister, in whose hands she placed the papers. So serious did the matter appear to the Home Office that, while she remained in London a detective was posted there to guard her against the vengeance of those whose plans she had frustrated.”

 

I KNOW.

* Cannot possibly be true, imo, for a variety of reasons that will become clear.

** This is told by Anna Stoddart, Isabella’s first biographer, as found in Palser Havely’s book.

*** like one does.


Izzy Bird, interlude 3

Interlude #3

Let’s all accept that the next adventure will start on Monday. Isabella will be off to a place that we might think we know — but due to the passage of time, we likely don’t.

In many ways, Palser Havely* points out, Isabella likely didn’t fabricate stories out of whole cloth but might have enhanced reality a tad.** It’s not so much that what happened didn’t happen, it’s more that she left out all of the boring stuff and stressed the exciting stuff. As Palser Havely points out, Bird would be the equivalent of a maker of spectacular tv travel shows today. “A television documentary about a remote corner of the world follows similar conventions. It makes the most of both the pleasures and the dangers of the experience and excludes the tedious and the routine. It creates an illusion of great intimacy with the land and the local people which for the most part depends on an elaborate pretense that there is no intervening technology and no intervening foreign sensibility. It was only later that Bird took a camera on her journeys, but she inevitably took with her the mental attitudes of a Victorian gentlewoman… she remained a traveler, a passer-through, and her naive delight at the spectacle of herself in outlandish places and among exotic characters is very charming.”

“To some extent,” Palser Havely notes, “she was living out a fantasy when she traveled… she never positively lied about what she did, though sometimes her stories are a little tall.”

And, tomorrow, I’ll share one of the tallest tales about Bird I’ve found….

 

* this is actually her name. Add this to the long list of simple things I’ve messed up because it’s 2020.

** My husband will be laughing his arse off when he reads this.


Izzy Bird, Interlude 2

Interlude #2

According to Falser Havely,* at the age of 18, Bird had a “fibrous tumor” removed from her spine.

I know. I’m making that face, too. It sounds like a horrible surgery now — but imagine what it was like in 1849. Was anesthesia even a thing?** What about germ theory?*** It’s a wonder she survived, even though she would have severe back pain for the rest of her remarkably long life.

Only traveling seemed to bring relief. “She felt less pain on a mud floor or in a wet tent, riding on a horse, a mule, and elephant, a yak, or even a cow than she did on any padded Victorian sofa.”

In some ways, traveling became an addiction for Bird and she always needed to increase the dose. Her first trip was to the American East Coast. A few years later, she went to New York and the Mediterranean but didn’t get the same thrill. So in her early 40s, she went to the Sandwich Islands in the Pacific and onward to the American West, which was still a mostly undeveloped**** frontier. And then off to Asia, including Hokkaido, Tibet, China, Persia, Kurdistan, Korea, and Marrakech. She wrote about each trip in the form of letters back to her sister; then edited the letters when she returned to Britain. John Murray published the result.

Since she had family money, the extra income from her work was put to work. When she first visited Western Scotland, which had been hit by the potato blight in the 1840s, she was shocked by the conditions there. Bird contributed money to buy “deep-sea fishing boats, equipment for tweed manufacture, and for kitting out emigrant families (who were all to often dumped on the shores of the New World with no more than the clothes on their backs).” Once she spent some time in Asia, her extra cash went to charity hospitals there.

As we know from her trip to Japan, her journeys were not without danger, almost always from the wilderness rather than humans. Her trip to Korea, however, was cut shot when the Japanese invaded the peninsula, shot the King and Queen (among many others), and a very small war ensued. Isabella “had to leave with no more than the clothes she stood up in for Chefoo (Yantai) in China. She did not even have enough money for a rickshaw, and presented herself hot, disheveled, and somewhat nervously at the British Consulate.”

For what it’s worth, it sounds like she had a lovely time in Korea before it all went pear-shaped.

 

* or Halser Favely, as I keep typing

** chloroform was just starting to be used and, maybe, ether. Mostly, it was just a whole lot of morphine and hope for the best.

*** Ignatz Semmelweis was just starting his work and the cholera epidemic in London was still a few years off.

**** by white people


Izzy Bird, interlude 1

IMG_4595

I promised the start of a new adventure — this one will involve the man who was likely the one true love of Isabella’s life* — but I want to take a quick detour first. This will a) give me a little more time to read further ahead and b) helps round out Our Isabella a little more.

One of the books that rekindled interest in Bird briefly was Cicely Falser Havely’s** This Grand Beyond. It’s a compilation of the best bits of Bird’s books, which is interesting enough. What I found more compelling was Falser Havely’s introduction. It does a great job of putting Bird in context.

“No one ever seems to have told Miss Bird that what she wanted to do was too dangerous for a woman. Nor, of course, was she the sole example of her kind. We think of middle-class Victorian women as living in some kind of purdah, but some of those who managed to escape were able to enjoy an enviable degree of freedom which may in part have been due to the very notions of sexual propriety that tended to keep the majority respectably at home.”

And that's one of the parts of Isabella's story I find most interesting. We think of women’s lives as incredibly constrained in all of the years before we get to, like, 1968. But that's not true.*** Women’s autonomy waxes and wanes throughout the centuries, just like everything else. In Jane Austen's times, certain classes women were free to wander the countryside (even with men) with little social scandal. By Victorian times, this would never have been done. Like any progress, it looks like a series of stair steps rather than a smooth, upward arc.

“Rare though it then was, Isabella Bird's freedom to share with men companionably the pursuits traditionally reserved for men alone became for decades after her time not less but far more difficult for a woman to achieve,” Falser Havely writes.

The standards for acceptance changed during Bird’s time, too, just in the span of a few years. In 1890, she the first women awarded a Fellowship in the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. In 1892, she was one of the first women elected a Fellow in the Royal Geographic Society. Then, by 1893, the Society decided it had too many women and met to remove them all. Her acceptance was always conditional, which is familiar to those who aren't white and male no matter when they lived.

* It wasn’t her husband, btw.

** also British but a modern scholar.

*** It’s also not true after 1968 but that's another argument