Five Generations Of Female Longing, Frustration

Cover: 'A Short History of Women'
A Short History of Women
By Kate Walbert
Hardcover, 224 pages
Scribner
List price: $24

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Kate Walbert i i

Kate Walbert was nominated for a National Book Award for her 2004 novel Our Kind. Gasper Tringale hide caption

itoggle caption Gasper Tringale
Kate Walbert

Kate Walbert was nominated for a National Book Award for her 2004 novel Our Kind.

Gasper Tringale

Kate Walbert's melancholy novel A Short History of Women may be short, but it's not sweet. The book documents the inner lives of five generations of women, beginning in the 1880s and ending in the present.

If families can be said to genetically pass on emotional colorings, the way hair and eye colorings are passed on, then the Townsend clan carries forward a dominant tendency toward passionate renunciation. The British matriarch of the family, Dorothy Trevor Townsend, was a suffragist who went on a hunger strike in 1914. She starves herself on principle, "to make something happen." She was buried, her daughter tells us, "in [a] simple box, a lavender Votes for Women sash across her small, unquivering bosom."

That daughter, Evelyn, sternly closes the lid on the memory of her mother's martyrdom. She eventually immigrates to America and becomes a professor of chemistry at Barnard College, devoting herself to science and resolutely tamping down her desire for intimate relations with other humans. But at the end of her life, Evelyn hollowly muses, "It only goes so far, your work ..."

The message of the Townsend family lies in repetition, so on we go. In the next generation, Evelyn's niece, also named Dorothy, is a wife and mother of three who divorces her husband after 50 years of a rather listless marriage, takes to wearing only black and white clothes, and becomes politicized in her old age: She's arrested in 2003 for taking clandestine photos of soldiers' coffins at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. This Dorothy is regarded as a kind of annoying kook by her own two adult daughters, who themselves live in a state of post-Sept. 11 repressed dread.

Given its jaundiced attitude toward women's activism and the transformative possibilities of social change, A Short History of Women might be subtitled, "Damned if you do; damned if you don't" — a risky message for any novel that wants to be widely read to embrace.

But to give Walbert her due, she's no spinner of feminist fairy tales. Indeed, she is ruthless in dramatizing the limited, mostly disappointing solutions each successive generation of Townsend women arrives at in answer to what used to be called "The Woman Question" — or, as one of the Dorothys puts it, "The Problem of Us."

Walbert is also ambitious in the way she tells her story: The narrative bops around chronologically in a style that might be thought of as "Virginia Woolf Taking Shorthand." The lives of the Townsend women intersect with larger events in 20th century history — VJ Day; 1970s consciousness-raising sessions; the aforementioned Sept. 11 — and Walbert beautifully evokes the moods of those various times with a few spare sentences.

But — and you must have known there was a "but" coming here — A Short History of Women ultimately slips into the category of novels that I admire, but don't like. Maybe it's the overall sense of suffocation, the way Walbert's story elegantly loops around, repeating scenes and conveying the implicit political message that the more things change, the more they stay the same. One after another, her women succumb to quiet deaths of body or spirit through starvation, drinking and emotional denial.

It's all so measured, so beautifully wrought. The most affirming finale here belongs to the second Dorothy, who goes ungently into that good night, blogging her feminist anger out into the ether. Blogging. It's a realistic and restrained ending, of course, but, by the end of Walbert's novel, I was ready for good old midcult catharsis. Instead of blogging, I wanted somebody to throw a brick.

Excerpt: 'A Short History of Women'

A Short History of Women
By Kate Walbert
Hardcover, 224 pages
Scribner
List price: $24

Dover, Delaware, 2003

The soldiers keep Dorothy in view. She carries the tripod, unsteadily, and an extra poncho for a bib. That they have let her come this far might be due to weather, or possibly the kinds of amusements of which she remains unaware. Still, she assumes that they watch, tracking her as she stomps along the fence and positions herself by the sign that clearly states: No Trespassing, Government Property, Photography Forbidden.

It has turned a wet September, everywhere raining so the leaves, black and slick, paste to the soles of her boots. Really, they are Caroline's, Wellingtons borrowed from the back of the hallway closet where earlier Dorothy rummaged as Charles watched, wondering where she could possibly be going in such weather.

She turned, boot in hand.

"It's raining," he repeated.

Deaf at most decibels, Charles refused to wear aids (vanity? fear?), preferring to cast his voice into silence, hoping for an echo or a nod.

"Nowhere," she had said, because this is nowhere, or anywhere, or somewhere not particularly known: an hour's drive north if you took the busy roads, and then country, mostly, the drizzle graying the already gray landscape. Ye olde etcetera — cornfields, silos, a ravaged billboard for Daniel's peas, fresh from California, though this is technically Delaware and the land of soybeans. Ducks, too, the fall season in full swing; the drizzle split by the crack crack crack of the hunters' guns.

She parks near the drainage ditch that edges the fence, chain link, as if for dogs, though there are no dogs here, only a guard tower, a landing field, and the soldiers who wait for the planes. But that isn't right, exactly. The place is vast, a city of a place, with barracks — are those called barracks? — and trucks and cul-de-sacs and no doubt children sleeping, army brats — or is this marines? — in the two-story housing labyrinth not so distant from where she gets out, near the drainage ditch, near the landing field, near the place where the plane will descend. This she knows. The rest — the presence of children, the numbers involved, the ranking, the hierarchy — she truthfully has no idea.

Dorothy skewers the tripod in the mud and adjusts the poncho to cover her. Today, she plans to fight back. She can almost taste it; see herself in her resistance: Dorothy Barrett, granddaughter to the suffragette, mother to three: Caroline, Liz, and the dead one, James; wife to Charles. She mounts the camera on the track and angles the lens toward where the plane will descend — they come from the East, she has learned, out of Mecca, the bodies mostly coffined, then wrapped in flags, but sometimes carried in a tiny box.

"Christ, Mother," Caroline said after the first arrest, the fine. "Get a life."

"Your great-grandmother starved to death on principle; she literally ate nothing."

"I know, I know. I've seen the postage stamp," Caroline said.

"I think it changed things then," Dorothy said. "To do something. She made up her mind; she took a stand — "

"And look what happened to your dad? Anyway, you said she might have been unbalanced. A bit insane, wasn't she? You've said that before. She might have been suffering from — "

"Hysteria?" Dorothy said, hearing her own tone of voice — hysterical. "The point is, she did something."

"It's illegal to take pictures there."

"This is a free country."

"Please," Caroline said.

The two sat at Caroline's kitchen table, Caroline in one of her suits meant for business, her cigarette burning in the ashtray a tenyear-old James had spun out of clay. Caroline's daughter, little Dorothy, is elsewhere, having reached the age of the disappeared — her voice shouting orders from behind the locked door of her bedroom or even standing present, her body a studded cast of her former self; if she is somewhere within it she is very, very deep.

"I should never have told you I voted for him," Caroline said.

"I would have guessed."

"Consider my client base," Caroline said.

"Please," Dorothy said.

"Anyway, the law has to do with respect," Caroline said. "Or something. They make the rules for a reason, I'm sure. It's none of our business. None of your business."

"Says who?" Dorothy said, to which Caroline had some sort of reply.

Dorothy listened for a while, and then she did not; she thought of other things, how she would like to have believed that not so long ago Caroline would have stood beside her at the fence, that she, former president of the student council and Future Leaders for Justice, might have carried a sign or at least shouted an obscenity. But this was before Caroline divorced and took that new job in the Financial District. The Dead Zone, she called it, but the money's good, she said. It's serious money.

"Mother?"

"I was listening," Dorothy said.

"Forget it," Caroline said. She tapped her nails, those nails, on the table, then the doorbell rang — pizza delivery — and the conversation ended.

"Dinnertime," she yelled in the direction of the door.

Crack. Crack. Crack.

The soldiers have had enough. They climb down from their tower to slog through duck country, technically Delaware, the first state, though most have trouble with the history; one can hear their boots, or is that frogs? The sucking. Soon enough they'll reach her. Dorothy records their magnified approach; records them unlocking the gate and stepping to the other side, records their blank expressions. The trouble is she can only pretend to hate them.

"Good morning, Mrs. Barrett." This from the one Dorothy calls Tweedledee.

She straightens up, adjusts the poncho.

"We'll remind you that you're trespassing. That taking photographs is forbidden."

"Today," she says, hand on tripod. "I plan to resist."

Their arms remain folded. Four pair, as usual; a pack; a team; a unit, perhaps, or would they be a regiment? No, a regiment is bigger, a regiment is many. She tries to remember from mornings James explained the exact order of things — sergeant to lieutenant to captain to king — his miniature warriors arranged throughout the house in oddly purposeful groupings. She would find them everywhere, assaulting a sock, scaling the Ping-Pong table, plastic, molded men with clearly defined weaponry and indistinct faces. When she banished them to his room, fearing someone would trip and break a bone, James had cried and cried.

"That would be more than your usual fine, Mrs. Barrett."

He is a horse's ass, but then again, a boy once James's age, who should be pitied.

"I plan to resist," she repeats. One of the Mute Ones has his hand out as if to help her across the muddy plain. They are waiting, she knows, for Dorothy to do something. Collapse, she thinks, then does, more a buckle than a collapse, knowing full well the ridiculousness of it, how small she'll become. The big one bends down to help her. Now, she thinks, though it is not until it is done that she understands she has found the courage to do it, biting the soft part of that hand, the hammock of skin between thumb and forefinger.

Caroline sits next to Charles in the detention waiting room, no question who's the boss. That girl could split atoms, Charles had once said. We ought to lease her to GE.

Sorry, darling, Dorothy mouths to him. He looks at her with his doggy yellow eyes not hearing a thing; then Caroline leads them both out.

In the fresh sunshine they blink; "Look how the weather's changed!" Dorothy says, reflexively. "What a treat!"

Caroline has opened the car door.

"Get in," she says.

They sit in silence all the way home, the radio punched to static and static and static then punched off, again, then the familiar drive, the front door, the hallway, the kitchen. Caroline makes tea and calls a what-there-is-of-the-Family Meeting, Liz trapped in the city, attempting another pregnancy (busy, busy, busy!), and the hole in the place where James would have been. Dorothy steps into it and wanders around while Caroline speaks of Responsibility and Reputation and Appropriate Behavior, and yes, Patriotism, but mostly, mostly, mostly, Mother, Embarrassment.

"And what of history?" Dorothy says. "Lineage?"

"Mother," Caroline says. "I'm at wit's end."

Dorothy would like to cradle Caroline in her arms, Caroline sleepy and hatted and a bit jaundice yellow, but she cannot. Caroline has grown; she's taller than Dorothy and now divorced and a multimillionaire, she has confessed. Mill-ions, she said.

"Where are your friends, Mother?" Caroline asks.

Dorothy shrugs. She hasn't thought of friends recently, nor her standing Wednesday at Sheer Perfection; her hair's gone shaggy and her cuticles have grown over their moons.

"I'm sorry, darling," she says. "I'll stop."

From A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert. Copyright © 2009 by Kate Walbert. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster Inc., N.Y.

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