Reviews 2011

A Narrative Compass: Stories that Guide Women’s Lives

A Narrative Compass: Stories that Guide Women’s Lives. Betsy Hearne and Roberta Seelinger Trites (eds.). Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009. 237 pages. $65/$26 (hardback/paperback).

In this volume of stories about stories, Betsy Hearne and Roberta Seelinger Trites offer an analysis of narratives of personal and scholarly value to readers, particularly female readers. Taking their starting point from feminist theory and autobiographical writing, the editors argue that stories are essential to women’s lives. The narratives that women deem important and internalise—many of them classics of children’s literature--become “narrative compasses” that guide women’s decision making and careers

In nineteen essays, contributors from a range of ethnic backgrounds and disciplines describe their relationship to language, authority, and storytelling. They explore not only the importance of stories by men and women to their scholarly research and writing, but also the emotional impact of stories on their lives, thereby challenging cultural proscriptions that equate women with emotions or relegate them to maternal roles that exclude them from “the grand analytical tradition of male-dominated scholarship” (xii). The authors both tell their stories and claim epistemic authority; their identities are enhanced rather than compromised by their storytelling. In dialogue with studies such as DuPlessis and Snitow’s The Feminist Memoir Project, Leigh Gilmore’s Autobiographics, Jeanne Martha Perreault’s Writing Selves, and Singley and Sweeney’s Anxious Power, the book also develops from the heightened role of narrative in academic discourse over the past decades and from the blurred boundaries between the personal and public, especially as theorised and practiced by second-wave feminists and women of colour. The result is a courageous and engaging array of styles, patterns, and content not normally found in academic writing.

The essays are arranged in three groups and meet the editors’ stated criteria: that authors be good storytellers and that they identify their particular narrative compass. Many pieces are stunning in their evocation of the personal and academic. The opening essay by Rania Huntington is an evocative account of a Chinese American scholar’s odyssey through pregnancy, miscarriage, tenure, and breast cancer, the challenges of which she found reflected in the nineteenth-century writings of a prominent scholar and teacher of Confucianism, Yu Yue. Huntingdon explains how her encounter with Jottings from the Transcendent’s Abode—and the eventual restoration of the book’s cover--paralleled her own journey through loss, mourning, and, finally, recovery. Roberta Seelinger Trites writes that Little Women, in particular its Emersonian message of nonconformity represented by Jo March and of conventionality represented by Amy, helped her realise an academic career and cope with the disappointment often associated in patriarchal cultures with being both intelligent and female. Feminist folklorist and ethnographer Kimberly Lau locates the origins of feminist scholarship in family stories, whereas the folklorist Maria Tatar finds transformative power in fairy tales, a genre historically banished from the academy yet essential to helping women make their way in the world. Linguist Ofelia Zepeda describes how the written and oral forms of her Native American language and the process of learning English attest to the importance not only of narrative but of language, out of which stories are formed and meanings created, remembered, and passed on. Religion historian Wendy Doniger eloquently describes how E. M. Forster’s novel, A Passage to India and Heinrich Zimmer’s retelling of Martin Buber’s story of the Rabbi of Cracow released the “submerged identities” related to her Jewish identity and love of India (52). All the contributors to the first section demonstrate the power of story and myth to shape women’s personal lives and career choices.

In the second, most literary, section of the three, authors describe the theoretical orientations that developed from literary influences. They draw inspiration from a mix of expected and unexpected texts. Anthropologist Bonnie Glass-Coffin finds in the writings of Carlos Castaneda a profound understanding of the spirit world and awareness that “all life is co-created” (65); this insight blurs the distinction between observer and participant and allows her to replace anthropological detachment with engagement. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas writes that Anne of Green Gables offered “a roadmap” (94) for conditions facing African Americans in 1990s Detroit. Anne’s example supported Thomas’s desire for success and demonstrated that “to dream is to heal” (90). Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House’ books were “an instruction manual” that helped Pamela Riney-Kehrberg meet challenges, derive comfort during losses, and keep alive the American spirit of reinvention (101). And for Deyonne Bryant, Dorothy Sterling’s historical novel about school integration in the South, Mary Jane, taught tolerance and the sad reality that ambassadorial good will may not override hate, bigotry, and racism born of ignorance. Although many authors draw inspiration from children’s literature, others turn to adult classics. Ann Hendricks credits the Bible, which she first read from cover to cover at age fifteen, not with “absolutes” but with the power to raise questions (116). Karen Coats poignantly recounts how unforeseen events—the birth of a daughter with Down’s syndrome--led her to explore intersections of linguistics, Lacanian theory, children’s literature, and corporeality. Tensions between body and intellect frequently surface in this collection, with authors intimately aware of gender biases. They probe with acumen and sensitivity the problems “many women writers and female scholars face when trying to recover subjectivity in language”(111).

The broad theme of home informs essays in the third section, with authors describing situations, some painful, that guided their paths as writers and scholars. Beverly Lyon Clark writes that Alice in Wonderful offered a model of escape for her move from a lower-middle-class background into the world of academe. Christine Jenkins relied on The Secret Garden and Mary Lennox’s courage, “strength and honest anger” (136) to develop her feminism and come out as a lesbian. Cindy Christiansen read Nancy Drew novels to solve family mysteries surrounding her father’s death. Oral literature and fairy tales figure prominently in this section. Claudia Quintero Ulloa powerfully links the Cinderella story with her experiences of sexual abuse by men and betrayal by women. Minjie Chen explains how a collection of Chinese folktales edited by a German folklorist reacquainted her with her hometown in China and instilled pride in her birthplace. Betsy Hearne connects the different versions of Beauty and the Beast to stories of herself and her family, noting that scholarship itself “is a kind of storytelling”, and is ultimately more subjective than objective. And Joanna Hearne explains how stories collected about her grandmother “orient me in the landscape of scholarship and family” and “shed light on the way women represent figuratively and retrospectively their career and childbearing choices to other women”(189).Readers will find much to savour in these candid, probing essays and will come away with a deeper understanding of how and why stories matter in the rites of passage that define modern womanhood.

Works Cited

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau, and Ann Snitow, eds. The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women's Liberation. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2007.

Gilmore, Leigh. Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Women's Self-Representation. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994.

Perreault, Jeanne Martha. Writing Selves: Contemporary Feminist Autography. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1995.

Singley, Carol J., and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, eds. Anxious Power: Reading, Writing, and Ambivalence in Narrative by Women. Albany: State U of New York P, 1993.

Carol J. Singley
Rutgers University-Camden, USA