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Analyzing Kate Walbert’s A Short History of Women

July 13, 2010

My main question, when I wonder about how to make a novel with two protagonists work, is how to create, while telling what are essentially two stories, the wonderfully enveloping yet forward moving experience that is, for me, what reading a novel is all about. John Gardiner, in On Becoming a Novelist, describes the experience of the reader in this way: “We slip into a dream, forgetting the room we’re sitting in, forgetting it’s lunchtime or time to work. We recreate, with minor and for the most part unimportant changes, the vivid and continuous dream…” (5).  Creating a vivid and continuous dream seems especially tricky with multiple protagonists and stories so I’ve turned to Kate Walbert’s 2009 novel, A Short History of Women, as a model because it tells the stories of six different protagonists and does keep one turning the pages to the end.

Envelopment first. There are several cohesive factors right on the surface of the novel. The protagonists are all from the same family, spanning five generations. Walbert provides a table of contents, where each chapter is labeled by character name and dates spanned, and a family tree to show relationships.  The novel has a theme–women’s history–announced in the title, and the protagonists are all women.

There are productive ramifications for these cohesive choices at deeper levels as well. As the reader moves forward with each protagonist in her own story, because the women are part of the same family,  previous events and characters can be referred to naturally, creating, in effect, one story out of the many. So, for example, Evelyn Charlotte Townsend, daughter of Dorothy Trevor Townsend, can, while she tells her own story, refer in passing to her mother’s act of starving herself for the cause of women’s suffrage when she was a young girl. Dorothy Townsend Barrett, on a ship of the coast of Patagonia, can also refer to her grandmother the suffragette, and mention the fact that she has searched for her aunt, the daughter of the suffragette. “She had written to someone named Evelyn Townsend, a chemistry professor at Barnard College in New York… She never got a reply…” (129-130). The reader knows this is indeed the narrator’s aunt. This weaving in of family references give the novel its novelistic quality, that characters are deeply related to one another rather than glancingly, as they might be in a linked short story collection.

In fact, Walbert has said (in an interview I can’t currently locate) that the story of Dorothy Trevor Townsend, the suffragette who starves herself, could be seen as inciting or creating the stories of her descendants.  If one takes this view, then one can argue that the reason Evelyn chooses not to write back to her niece is because she has spent much of her life distancing herself from her mother’s story, from her own younger brother who preceded her in moving to the United States, and thus, from her niece, his daughter, who is searching her out.

Are the characters still protagonists, each telling her own story?

The novel ends in such a way that makes one think (and feel) otherwise. The last chapter belongs to Evelyn and is told in the first person. In this chapter, Evelyn is 84, has recently suffered a stroke and is perhaps close to death. She receives another letter from her niece but again does not open it. “I cannot read this letter,” she says to Susan, her young caregiver. “It’s against my principles” (232). Just two pages later, she changes her mind. The letter is read out loud and the reader discovers that Dorothy, the letter writer, only learned recently that her father had a sister. “[My father] was not a happy man, nor was he ever given to discuss our family history. .. I apologize for writing as if you are, indeed, my aunt Evelyn, daughter of my namesake, the suffragette Dorothy Trevor Townsend. I now know something about her, her death by starvation, [and] the boy and girl she left behind…” (235). Directly after hearing the letter, Evelyn goes into a doze of memory. One and a half pages from the end of the book, Kate Walbert  brings the reader, for the first time, to witness the death scene of the first Dorothy, told from the emotional perspective of Evelyn the child. The novel ends this way: “I turn to watch her breathe. I am watching her breathe and then I cannot stand it. I climb into bed with her, into that place where she is and if I get caught, if I am found here, I am sorry, I will tell them: There is nowhere else to be.” I felt deeply sad when I finished reading.

But I also felt fully satisfied, like I’d eaten a meal, served in multiple courses but put together, it becomes clear with the final course, according to a fully imagined and constructed understanding of the whole.

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