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Thursday
Jun302011

Book Reviews: A Girl Grows Up in New York City by Joan Heron and books by E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf

A Girl Grows Up in New York City

By Joan Heron

Baltimore: Publish America, 2011

 

This is a book I can recommend to anyone, but particularly to those of you, who like me, grew up in another era, who have endured the ups and downs of family life, and who have dedicated yourselves to a career which is both academic and concerned with helping others.  Joan Heron has done all of these on a wider scope than most of us, and produced a lively, honest and captivating account of her experiences.

Beginning in New York City, the daughter of a German-American family who grew up during WWII when many of her neighbors were suspicious and hostile toward anyone with German ancestry, the tales of her childhood riding the subways, visiting the zoo, shoplifting from department stores and trying to hide her family’s poverty from her more affluent classmates provide all of the flavor of 1940’s big city America.

Joan provides anecdotes of those moments in her young life when she could have gone astray. Her father was harsh and sometimes cruel, she flirted with dishonesty and had to resist the sexual adventurousness of her girlfriends, and she was in constant danger of becoming the prey to men who tried to take advantage of her youth in a time when sexual abuse and women’s rights were concepts that were still on the distant horizon.

Despite the hazards of her early life, Joan survived and became a nurse. She married an Italian man and began juggling work and family life. As her children grew, she returned to school and obtained a Ph.D. in nursing and then embarked upon a distinguished academic career putting all of the concepts she had learned into practice. Having worked in pediatrics and psychology during many of those same years, the story of her drive to introduce interdisciplinary practice and collaboration brings back many memories of similar battles in places where I worked.

Her two girls were rousing successes, but Victor, her son, was troubled and in difficulty with the law and finally overdosed. She also lost a precious grandson. Despite these setbacks and a divorce from her husband of 37 years, Joan persisted in pushing the barriers of both her profession and her personal life. She became a Vista and a Peace Corps volunteer, she volunteered at a mountain retreat as a cook and nurse, and she took her grandson to Ecuador.

The story is not just about a girl growing up in New York City, it is about a life lived to the fullest. The individual incidents and personalities she describes are presented in enough detail and with sufficient skill to make the reader forget that he or she is not reading a novel. It is a book that I found inspiring and a reminder that there are ordinary people who manage to do extraordinary things with their lives and who never seem to tire of seeking adventure and challenges.

Reviewed by Casey Dorman

A Girl Grows Up in New York City is available in paperback from the publisher at www.publishamerica.com and at Amazon at www.amazon.com

 

A Room with a View and A Room of One’s Own

A Room with a View

E.M. Forster

New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 1993 (Originally published by Edward Arnold, 1908)

 

A Room of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf

London: Harcourt, 1929

 

It might seem odd to some to simultaneously review two books, one fiction and one non-fiction, both published in the early years of the last century. The two books are not even on the same subject, one, the novel, by E.M. Forster, published in 1908, is the story of a sheltered, privileged English young lady, having her first taste of the world at large, during a chaperoned vacation to Italy. The other, an essay, originally written to be a lecture in 1928 by the renowned novelist Virginia Woolf, is about the struggle women have had to endure in order to be able to write. However, the portrait of Lucy Honeychurch, and indeed all of the females in A Room with a View (and to be truthful, many of the males, also) illustrates both the 19th and early  20th century society’s view of women as well the view of one of that society’s most important male authors and literary critics. These views are a large part of what Woolf is talking about in her essay.

Woolf’s message is straightforward, although written in such an elegant style as to make A Room of One’s Own as pleasurable to read as a novel. Up until the time at which she writes, and perhaps also including such time, she declares that it is almost miraculous that any woman would have been able to produce significant literature, either poetry or prose. Arrayed against such a possibility were the lack of education of young ladies, the failure to take their education or their opinions seriously, the many menial tasks that they were expected to accomplish and which left them no time, and their inability to sustain themselves economically so that they might free themselves from tending children, teaching classes, cleaning houses or whatever they were required to do in order to write.

Woolf cites Jane Austen having to hide her writing under a piece of blotting paper when she wrote in the common sitting room so that no one would suspect what she was doing. Still, Austen, according to Woolf, managed to write wholeheartedly from the point of view of a woman and did not, as did Charlotte Bronte, for instance, struggle with her characters to overcome the always present prejudices of men. Some women, George Eliot, George Sand, hid behind men’s names. Others hid their work or, as Aphra Behn did the playwright, novelist, and poet, who is credited as the first woman to earn her living by writing, became notorious. Woolf even imagines a sister of Shakespeare, equally talented, but frustrated from allowing her talents to flourish as her brother’s had and ultimately dying by her own hand.

Writing as the lecturer to a group of women in 1928, Woolf credits an inheritance of 500 pounds a year to freeing her to be able to write. Whether this is fictional or factual, I am not sure, but her point is clearly that without economic freedom, women have no resources to support their creativity.

In A Room with a View, Forster in Lucy Honeychurch, creates perhaps the woman whom Woolf was describing. But it is not Lucy’s economic straits that squelch her creativity, although she is not rich, so much as it is her own and everyone around her’s view of the character of a woman’s intellect. Lucy is young and her mind is considered frivolous. She comes from a genteel country life and is aware of a world of arts and letters and, because the story begins on a trip to Italy, of antiquities, but has no faith in her own judgment about any of these things. She quotes guidebooks and experts and seeks the opinions of her elders before making up her mind on nearly anything.

While Forster is sarcastic in his treatment of Lucy’s self-doubt, he is sympathetic to its source, which is the 19th century view of the value of women’s opinions. He illustrates such influences in the attitudes of some of the men in the novel, most notably her fiancé, Cecil Vyse, but also in that of her aunt Charlotte and her mother. It is only when Lucy falls in love with the lonely and depressed George Emerson, that she becomes aware of both the superficiality of those around her and the constraints their attitudes place upon her. She makes her bid for freedom by ending her engagement to Cecil, telling him that, “I won’t be protected. I will choose for myself what is ladylike and right. To shield me is an insult.”

 Lucy must voice her plea for freedom with everyone, even her mother. And here, we have a hint of Woolf’s point about financial independence. After telling her mother that she will, “…come into my money next year,” she goes on to try to explain herself.

Driven by nameless bewilderment, by what is in older people termed “eccentricity,” Lucy determined to make this point clear. “I’ve seen the world so little – I felt so out of things in Italy. I have seen so little of life; one ought to come up to London more – not a cheap ticket like today, but to stop. I might even share a flat for a little with some other girl.”

“And mess with typewriters and latch-keys,” exploded Mrs. Honeychurch. “And agitate and scream and be carried off kicking by the police. And call it a Mission – when no one wants you……”

“I want my independence,” said Lucy lamely; she knew that she wanted something, and independence is a useful cry; we can always say that we have not got it.

Lucy is not sure what she wants, but Forster makes it clear that it is to take herself and to be taken by others, seriously.  Like Virginia Woolf, she is aware that for such a thing to happen, she must first, “come into my own money…” Forster is a man, but he knows also that for Lucy to gain independence she must change her sense of herself. And like Woolf, he is quite explicit in revealing the forces in society that have prevented such self-consciousness from emerging.

Reviewed by Casey Dorman

 

 

References (3)

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    Lost Coast Review - Book Reviews - Book Reviews: A Girl Grows Up in New York City by Joan Heron and books by E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf
  • Response
    Lost Coast Review - Book Reviews - Book Reviews: A Girl Grows Up in New York City by Joan Heron and books by E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf
  • Response
    Lost Coast Review - Book Reviews - Book Reviews: A Girl Grows Up in New York City by Joan Heron and books by E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf

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