History of Me, Part 4: The Lives of Medieval Women

In this episode of History of Me, I get a detailed front-row-seat look at what life was like for Scandinavian women in early- and late-medieval Europe. Intrigued? Let’s dive in!

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

A Brief History of the Holy Roman Empire

Last time we focused specifically on the religious side of the coin, learning how Christianity grew and spread on the “trellis” of Roman infrastructure and trickled down from nobles to commoners. This is apparent in both of the books I read (more about those shortly); but first, I want to point out a couple other common themes that cropped up in this month’s Mighty Fortress reading:

  • Roman / Christian fusion led to Roman-Catholic ascendancy. This chapter looked at Charlemagne and the Carolingian dynasty of Franks (more on their terrible conversion practices in the last post). As Germanic tribes, especially the Franks, stepped into the vacuum left by the fall of the Roman Empire, the Christian bureaucracy growing on the trellis of Roman administration became fused with the Frankish kingdom. When Frankish power passed into Saxon hands in 919, the seat of power was retitled as the new “Roman Empire,” which by the 1200s had become the Holy Roman Empire. As the title suggests, this role became deeply entangled with the Church and with the office of the Pope… but suffice to say that this formalized the hand-in-glove relationship that had already been going on for some time. (We can also see, however, how incorporating the church, and thus the Pope, into regional politics lays the groundwork for later corruption and the Protestant Reformation.)
  • Partible inheritance (sharing between multiple children) was more equitable, but also led to greater political instability. The practice of partible inheritance (as opposed to primogeniture, in which inheritance is passed only to the firstborn son) sounds really great — and in fact, it was “based in the moral and religious belief that parents should treat their children even-handedly” (Ozment p.44). The problem occurred when monarchs tried to do it with their kingdoms, as Charlemagne attempted. This led to the Frankish kingdom being divided in two, and eventually fragmenting into ruin, from which arose “five loosely organized duchies (Franconia, Saxony, Thuringia, Swabia, and Bavaria)” which were “thenceforth the foundation stones of a fragmented and competitive medieval German realm” (Ozment p.49). This fragmented regionalism is partially why when we get to the Renaissance/Reformation era (which we will next time), Germany is still a collection of smaller princely states whereas England and France are highly centralized monarchies.

These are the broad strokes of this era of transition from the ancient world of the Romans to the medieval world of kings, princes, and popes. Keep them in mind as we turn to our two books…

Gunnar’s Daughter: A Rape Survivor’s Epic

[As noted above, rape is a major plot point in this book, so proceed with caution, and also, major spoilers.]

The first book I read, Gunnar’s Daughter (by Sigrid Undset), is set in the 11th century and follows a pretty awesome maiden named Vigdis. She is courted by Ljot (pronounced Yot, but I keep saying Lee-ott in my head), a foreigner who visits her father’s hall. She likes him and is thinking about accepting his proposal… but then he rapes her and flees in shame. (He’s written as a reckless, hyper-sensitive man with a million red flags for toxic masculinity.) Vigdis, however, is left alone and pregnant with her family, and the rest of the book follows her life as she deals with her trauma and raising a child alone, as well as cultural expectations in an honor-based society.

This book, I’ve got to say, was AMAZING. It’s written in the style of a Norse epic — very action-packed — but with a rape-survivor single mom as the protagonist. (RIGHT???) I HIGHLY recommend it, so if you’re planning to read it go do that first before you read all my points below, because I will be discussing the ending. Here are some of the major themes from this incredible book:

  • The setting is a world in between paganism and Christianity. In the story, Vigdis has a “runic knife” and references some long-ago priestess kinswomen “at the high place in the grove here”, but tells Ljot during one of their talks that her father “believes in nothing but his own power and strength” (Undset p.7). Paganism is fading, but it’s clear that the common folk have not yet embraced Christianity; in fact, later in the book Vigdis and her people are baptized essentially for political expediency when they journey to the court of King Olav, the first Christian king of Norway.
  • Vigdis embodies many of the idylls of Norse epic heroes, and her being a woman does not interfere with that (and makes it even more badass!). Okay — imagine a book written about a rape-survivor single mom who escapes attackers via skis with her newborn on her back, then assassinates the man who murdered her father, overcomes her PTSD to raise her child as a single parent, protects herself and her child from outlaws in the forest by convincing them to go on a quest to the king’s court with her, resists the king’s proposal by instead agreeing that she and her people will be baptized, and rather than decide between her two rival suitors instead brokers other marriages for them that make them allies to each other and herself and secure their protection and tutelage for her young son. NOW imagine that book was set in 11th century Norway, and was written in 1909. (1909!) That book is this book, and it’s AMAZING. I’m also incredibly impressed that, although the story does check back in with Ljot, the suitor-turned-rapist, periodically, it never (in my opinion) drifts into rape apologism or excuses what he does in any way.
  • Vigdis’s character is also incredibly emotionally present in this book, working through trauma and emotional healing to learn to love her son. Undset does an amazing job of depicting the emotional realities of surviving trauma, healing, and learning resilience. At first, Vigdis ignores her pregnancy, and initially when she gives birth to her son (alone, in the wilderness) she abandons the infant to die. However a few months later, she learns that her step-mother (who noticed her pregnancy and helped her hide it from her father) found the boy and had given him to the care of a neighbor, and she decides she wants to raise the child. What follows is a really beautiful tale of Vigdis’s emotional healing and growth into a wise and capable leader and mother. Seriously one of my favorite book characters. There is, however, a tragic element to this story… [LAST CHANCE TO STOP BEFORE MAJOR ENDING SPOILERS]
  • The downside of Norse tradition is blood vengeance, which leaves families — and Vigdis — grieving and empty. The sad ending is that Vigdis’s son, Ulvar, grows up and meets his father on a ship — but Vigdis, in accordance with the “unrelenting social code” of the time, insists that her son avenge her by killing his father or she’ll never speak to him again. (Again, in no way does the book excuse Ljot’s actions, but it does paint Ulvar’s desire to know his father in a sympathetic light.) In the end, Ljot actually falls on his sword so Ulvar won’t have to do it, but Ulvar is so heartbroken and traumatized at his mother’s willingness to banish him that after delivering his father’s head to Vigdis he rides away and never returns, and Vigdis dies alone. Sigrid Undset wrote Gunnar’s Daughter during a revival of national obsession with their Nordic heritage as a critique of the “nationalist tendency toward isolationist race mythology” that perpetuated a “glorified image of the Vikings” but “obscured the fact that they had not been peaceful, diplomatic cultural ambassadors but brutal marauders, raiding, destroying, killing, and abducting innocent people” (Undset p.xiii). It serves as a reminder that cultural heritage includes things both beautiful and destructive, and as we deal with our own pain and issues we need to be conscious of how our reaction(s) to our trauma affect(s) our children.

Another reason this book was important to me is that I actually have a single mother in my family tree. According to family stories and my research, one of my immigrant ancestors, Bertha, arrived here with her parents and siblings in the summer of 1891, pregnant and unwed at 25, and gave birth to a son in December. No one knows who the father was, or whether Bertha was a willing or unwilling participant. Either way, she did not marry the father and in fact never married. So I picked this book specifically to spend some emotional time with Bertha, my single-mom foremother.

In thinking about Bertha in the context of Vigdis, I’m really glad that Bertha had lots of family around her to help her raise her son, unlike Vigdis. Both Bertha and Vigdis, though, raised their sons in a new land away from where they grew up, which is scary but also provides a way to leave old painful memories behind. I wonder if, like Vigdis, Bertha ever struggled with uncertainty about whether she wanted her child, or with PTSD, or with having to hide her pregnancy from her family. I visited her gravestone last summer, and spent a moment standing there, thinking of her. I hope her life improved. I hope she was able to love her son and enjoy him, and live life without too much bitterness or loneliness.

Kristin Lavransdatter: 14th-century Norwegian Immersion

The second book (really a trilogy of 3 books) I read was also written by Sigrid Undset and is a massive masterwork, and the primary reason why Undset won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. It follows the entire life of Kristin Lavransdatter (daughter of Lavrans, as traditional Norwegian naming customs go) as she is betrothed to a respectable, reliable man; falls in love instead with a dashing rogue (Erlend); sleeps with him (which was a huge deal for a betrothed girl of noble lineage); persuades her betrothed to back out and her father to consent to her marriage to Erlend; manages Erlend’s rundown estate back to relative prosperity; gives birth to seven sons; loses her husband’s lands when he plots against the crown; becomes estranged from Erlend, who then dies; sees her sons grow up and scatter; and then enters a convent where she dies of the Black Plague.

Whew, that’s a lot! Honestly I’m impressed I could summarize it that short, since altogether it comprises over 1100 pages printed.

Reading Kristin Lavransdatter is definitely a commitment, but the beauty of it is that when you turn that last page you feel as if you’ve just lived a whole life. There is so much detail, and Undset does such a good job of letting you into Kristin’s infatuation with Erlend, struggle to manage motherhood and marriage, and wrestling with herself over the guilt she feels from what she sees as a massive sin and betrayal of God and her father, Lavrans. It’s truly an experience.

A couple themes that stuck out to me:

  • Christianity is much more omnipresent, but paganism still lurks here and there. Much of the language and fabric of Kristin’s world is shaped by the church — cathedrals and convents and priests and Hail Marys — but sprinkled here and there are things like the ancient practice of leaving offerings at the burial stone of the first owner of the estate, or describing odd babies as changelings. There is even one scene where Kristin, who is a healing woman, practices “sorcery” by laying grave dirt on a dying child to try to save his life. (She views this as a serious sin, but does it anyway out of debt to the child’s parent.) It is clear, however, that Christianity is ascendant and paganism is fast fading.
  • Conflict between feminism/self-determination and family honor. Kristin fights to marry the man she wants, and wins. And her own self-determination is a strong theme throughout the entire book, not just at the start. However, Kristin also wrestles with how to uphold or regain her family’s honor, when she’s clearly transgressed it with her defiance of her father. (In addition to getting pregnant before marriage, which was a huge no-no, Kristin also spends much of the book trying to offset the rash and unwise actions of her roguish husband, Erlend.) At times her self-admonishment comes off as extremely harsh on herself and there is a lot of self-denial for the good of her family and sons later, but at other times it’s amazing to see what kind of autonomy she has even as a woman in 14th-century Norway. One of my favorite things about this book was getting to see Kristin change her mind and vacillate between conflicting ideas, because that’s how life really is — it made her very human. (Side note: we again got to see the symbolism of keys as the markers of women’s ownership and management of the estate. When Kristin is married, her husband places the keys to his manor on her belt, and when Kristin’s son marries, she gives the estate keys to her new daughter-in-law to signify the transition to the next generation.)
  • Pervasive sense of fatalism, but with a strongly stubborn individualistic streak. If you remember back to the first post about Norse mythology, one of the big themes I highlighted was the belief that a person’s fate is already decided, but how people live their lives is up to them. The incredible detail and specificity with which Undset tells Kristin’s story reinforces both the sense of personal choice AND the sense of “your fate is your fate,” and in fact Kristin herself remarks toward the end of her life that “All that had happened and would happen was meant to be. Everything happens as it is meant to be” (Undset p.989).

Conclusion

I think this might be my favorite reading group so far, possibly because I love that I got to immerse myself in the lives of medieval women. The history in Ozment’s Mighty Fortress is a good overview of the religious and political upheaval that provides the backdrop for these stories, but to me the most realistic account of what life is like at any given time and place is getting to experience the everyday lives of women at that time and place. 

I feel like I so resonate with both the survival and emotional resilience of Vigdis (as well as her getting caught between healing and what society demands of her) and the daily grind of Kristin trying to balance her own happiness with caring for all her various family members as a daughter, wife, and mother. Although I read these books to gain more understanding of life as a medieval European woman — and I did — I also think these themes are still incredibly relevant to life today.

It’s still important to be connected to our families and our cultural roots; and those connections still bring us both joy and pain. I’m thankful for the ways these books have helped me to connect more deeply with both the joys and the pains of my ancestors, especially the women.

Tune in next time as we dive into the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation — just in time for the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses. 

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History of Me, Part 3: Beliefs and Betrayal

In this episode of History of Me, a look at how Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe. (Hint: It’s super complicated.) Intrigued? Let’s dive in!

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

The Barbarian Conversion

Two looooong books this time. The first was non-fiction: The Barbarian Conversion by Richard Fletcher. If you are interested in an in-depth look into this topic, I recommend reading this because there is LOADS of detail. Here are some of the big ideas that stuck out to me:

  • When Constantine converted, Christianity became the religion of Roman favor. As Fletcher takes pains to clarify, “Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire, though this is often said of him. What he did was to make the Christian church the most-favored recipient of the near-limitless resources of imperial favor.” This caused a conflation of “Christianness” with “Romanness” in the eyes of many in the empire, and set the stage for…
  • When Rome collapsed, Christianity stepped into the void as a kind of Roman surrogate. Because Christianity had become entangled with Romanness,  bishops and dioceses were set up in the same regional manner as Roman governmental officials and provinces. Thus, when the empire collapsed, it was an easy step for the religious structure to take over and grow on the “trellis” of what had been the imperial apparatus.
  • From there, conversion usually proceeded from the top. Once Christianity took hold among Roman elites, leaders of other cultural groups began to opt in. Since bishops were also often seats of power, church officials often came from noble families and were thus well-placed to convert their relatives and former peers. Thus, “Christianity became an inseparable component of the aristocratic identity” (Fletcher p. 192). Conversion also happened first at the city centers, and took much longer to spread to rural areas. (As Fletcher puts it, “fuzziness is an essential and important part of the process of barbarian conversion” [p.132].)
  • Early Christianity was not monolithic, but became so over time. Despite how clear theological matters may seem today, early Christianity was rife with disagreements that were later labeled as “heresies” by the winners. For example, check out Arianism or Donatism. This is interesting because  by the time “Christian” missionaries arrived some places, some people had already embraced “heretical” strains of Christianity — which was cause not for celebration, but for re-conversion! I can see this laying the groundwork for later intra-religious conflict…

This gives you the basic big-picture outline of how Christianity was spread. Constantine, to bishops, to nobles, to their vassals and (eventually) to rural country folk.

However, another huge piece that first occurred in Europe was forcible conversion, and for this we turn to Charlemagne. By the 700s AD, the Frankish kingdom in northwest Germany / northeast France was established and Christian, and ruled by the Carolingians. (I’ll read more about this kingdom / time period next time, but for this post we’re jumping a little ahead.) Charlemagne’s predecessor launched a campaign against their Saxon neighbors to the east, but it wasn’t just about a land grab:

By the end of the campaign, the Saxons were cowed and ‘sought peace and the sacraments.’ The stage was set for the bloody Saxon wars and forcible conversions of the reign of Charlemagne. (p.210) … [In 30 years] not much headway had been made with the conversion of the Saxons. Were these stubborn people never going to submit? In the [end] they did. The harsher measures… bore fruit, in the short term. In 782 [Charlemagne] massacred 4,500 prisoners. More fortunate ones were enslaved or deported. In 784 he led his army to the banks of the River Elbe: no Frankish ruler had ever before campaigned and laid waste as far to the east as this. In 785 [the eastern ruler] submitted and was baptized. (p. 215) … The Saxon Capitulary [when they finally surrendered] stands as a blueprint for the comprehensive and ruthless Christianization of a conquered society. (p.216, emphasis added)

So basically, Charlemagne and the Franks were the first to forcibly require conversion to Christianity of their defeated foes, on pain of death. Not only that, but like many who experience trauma the Saxons then turned around and when they had the power they reenacted that trauma on others: the Saxons conquered and forcibly converted the Slavic Wends (aka future Slovakians) and Pomerania, a late pagan holdout (where my dad’s German side is from), was subjugated by Poland in 1120.

I’m guessing you can see some parallels to some other colonial forcible conversion and assimilation; I could. Here’s what Fletcher has to say about it:

Christianization in these lands of the northern Slavs meant ‘Germanization’: a colonial church, a church of the German ascendancy, was imposed upon them. Cherished patterns of cultural identity were broken up: immemorial ways of doing things… Little that was positive was proffered in exchange. No native Wendish clergy was encouraged; no Christian literature in Old Pomeranian was developed. The converts were cowed and resentful. (p.450, emphasis added)

Basically Charlemagne took the imperialist impulses that had been first propagated by the Romans, mixed in the Christianity that had become the new elite religion, and began a chain reaction of violent colonial conversion that has continued for centuries. As Fletcher notes, “The spiritual conquest of [eastern Europe] points ahead to that of Mexico and Peru” (p.491).

So when we white folks look at the trauma that Europeans have done to others in the name of God, we can also look at ourselves and know, we were “better” at colonialism and violence by the time we got to other continents, but we practiced on our neighbors first. To me, this is significant not as a way to equalize everyone’s trauma and make it all go away, but as a way to understand that long ago, some of my ancestors chose to prioritize power over neighbor, at the cost of their humanity and many people’s lives. And that choice kept being remade and remade. And it’s still being remade today.

Mists of Avalon

It was interesting to re-read this book. (Also, fair warning, I will discuss major spoilers for this book as well as mentions of abuse, so proceed with caution.)

The first time I read it, I mostly noticed the subtextual and at times very overt theological conflict, because those concepts were really new to me. And those pieces are still there — I noticed lots of themes and plot points that reaffirmed the history I read in Barbarian Conversion including some nobles that were Romanized, the slow “fuzzy” permeation of Christianity into the elite, the even slower trickle-down of Christianity to the peasants, and the gradual radicalization of the Christian missionaries. All line up with what Fletcher describes based on the historical evidence we have.

HOWEVER. That was not what stood out most to me on this read-through. What was painfully, in-your-face obvious to me in this book was the incredible amount of relational brokenness, pain, and loss.

Part of this comes from the structure of the story — it’s a retelling of King Arthur, which requires infidelity, incest, and mass death just to fulfill its core plot points.

Another big part is due to the fact that this go-round, I read as one aware of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s history of abuse, as told by her daughter. (There were parts of the book that, knowing this information, read wayyyy too creepily. NOT okay.)

Those things aside (and I recognize that for some, those things are too big to put aside, but I’m going to discuss the book anyway) — to me, this book is about the story of patriarchal/imperial Christianity and how matriarchal beliefs struggled to survive. It’s a really complex story with a lot of characters, but I’ll pull out a few points:

  • Women vs. the patriarchy. From page one, this is a book primarily about women, and our protagonist, Morgaine, introduces herself as “sister, lover, priestess, wise-woman, queen.” Throughout the book we see how the constricting roles allowed to women by patriarchal Romanized Christianity harm all the women. We see this in how many of the Romanized/Christianized men treat women, and especially how men’s treatment of women finds a focused voice in the internalized oppression evident in King Arthur’s shrinking bride, Gwenhwyfar, who is constantly saying things like “It is unseemly for a woman to raise her voice before the Lord…” (p.288).
  • Women can be part of the patriarchy, too. Although the main theme of this book is about patriarchal/Western/Christian oppression, a lot of the pain in this story also comes from the damage that women in this book inflict on each other in a quest for Avalon to survive. For example, Morgaine’s aunt, who is the high priestess, basically tricks Morgaine into sleeping with her little brother (Arthur), and Morgaine feels so betrayed that she flees Avalon and almost never returns. So painful. Although I understood that the priestess (and eventually Morgaine as well) use people horribly to try to secure the survival of Avalon, that noble goal doesn’t make me feel any better when it ends with everyone Morgaine loves dead and her alone among the ruins of Avalon. They weren’t the cause — they were pushed out by patriarchal Christianity — but I found myself wishing they could at least have loved each other and enjoyed what time they had rather than betraying each other and dehumanizing each other in the face of violence.
  • Earth/Goddess vs. imperial Christianity. In this book, we can see played out in the Arthurian legend the elements of conversion. At first both the druids and the first Christian missionaries to Britain coexist, but as the priests become more closed, rigid, and exacting and begin to call the Goddess rites satanic and evil, the priestesses of Avalon have to fight to keep their way of life alive. The priests demand orthodoxy, and the people are forced to give up the stories and rituals of their land to what (especially for women) is a restrictive, negative system of harsh rules that literally teaches them they are the gateway of sin. (It’s said by a character in the book, but it’s a real teaching of the church at that time.) Even though the priestesses of Avalon have their own issues, it’s sad to watch as the juggernaut of Roman Christianity squelches the old ways and comes down hard on women.

Interestingly, though, the book ends on a somewhat hopeful note amidst all the death and destruction. Despite the demise of Avalon and the cult of the Goddess as Morgaine knows it, she finds a similar group of young women venerating the Virgin Mary and Saint Brigid at a convent on the island of Avalon.

But Brigid is not a Christian saint, she thought, even if [the priest] thinks so. That is the Goddess as she is worshiped in Ireland. And I know it, and even if they think otherwise, these women know the power of the Immortal. Exile her as they may, she will prevail. The Goddess will never withdraw herself from mankind. (p.875)

For Morgaine, the fact that the Goddess has found her way into the canon of Christianity means she will live on in some form. For me, I’m not sure I find this ending satisfactory. It took a lot of pain, loss, death, and betrayal to get there. But I do appreciate the idea that the deep spiritual ideas of the land and our ancestors stay with us in some form, in our bodies even, even if they take different forms.

Conclusion

To me, this reading section — like the last section — really helps me to understand how far back some of the toxic strands of empire go. As I said above, some of my ancestors have been choosing power over people for a looooong time. And I understand that some of those times may have felt like survival choices — just like the priestesses of Avalon did horrible things to try to survive — but just because something helps you survive doesn’t mean it’s good for you in the long run.

I’m reminded of the book The Body Keeps the Score (which I HIGHLY recommend), which talks about the impact of trauma in our lives and over generations. When we experience trauma, our brains enact coping mechanisms to help us survive — but we can get stuck with those mechanisms “on” and that’s when we start to have PTSD.

We’re all walking around traumatized to varying degrees, and grasping onto what power we have in order to try to ensure our survival. The sad part of this trend is that people in power (in our country, mainly white people) keep choosing to maintain and consolidate their power. The hopeful part is, that if all this structural inequality and pain is the result of my ancestors choosing power over people, then perhaps if I make a different choice I can begin to unravel what they wove over centuries.

May it be so!

Tune in next time as we jump forward into the early Middle Ages with Ch. 2 of Mighty Fortress and several books by Nobel-winning author Sigrid Undset!

Why I View ‘Sailor Moon’ as a (Mostly) Feminist Show

WARNING: APPROXIMATELY ONE MILLION SPOILERS AHEAD! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

sailor guardians teamI never watched Sailor Moon when I was growing up. I really didn’t even hear about it until I was older and got into nerd culture through some manga-loving high school friends of mine. My knowledge was pretty peripheral, but enough that when I heard the original TV series was going to be slowly re-released on Hulu I decided to give it a try.

I’ll be honest — at first I was a little flabbergasted. I thought Usagi (the main protagonist, aka Sailor Moon) was childish and annoying and not very heroic. I couldn’t see why on earth this was supposed to be some girl-power hero show.

And, honestly, even as I kept watching, there are a bunch of reasons to view Sailor Moon as not very feminist and reinforcing harmful gender stereotypes. For example, many of the worries and problems the girls are portrayed as caring about seem rather petty and gendered, like boys, becoming a ballerina, having a crush on a famous fashion designer, entering a beauty contest, etc. And there’s the fact that sometimes it seems like the only consistent male protagonist (Tuxedo Mask) is the one who actually defeats the monsters, arriving just in the nick of time to rescue Sailor Moon and co. Plus, all the Sailor Guardians (and all the girls in general) have pretty much the same idealized body type.

sailor venus
I mean really. Fifteen.

(And don’t even get me started on the sexualization of the title sequences and the sailor transformation sequences for these girls who are supposed to be fifteen.)

However.

Despite these (very real and legitimate) flaws, ultimately after watching much of the show’s run I still read this series as empowering to women. Here are three reasons why:

1. Sailor Moon is the real hero.

usagi the klutzDespite the fact that Tuxedo Mask does show up to help quite often, at the end of the day the only one who can save the day is Sailor Moon.

This is significant not only because she’s female, but especially because out of all the Sailor Guardians, Usagi (Sailor Moon’s real life “alter ego”) is the one who is consistently portrayed as the biggest simpleton: bad grades, immature, a huge klutz, irrational, infatuated with romance, and having a love for food that sometimes even distracts her from the important business of defeating villains.

usagi faith 2 smSailor Moon is the one who always keeps the faith in the face of evil even when it seems stupid or irrational to do so. And her simple faith, which is sometimes written off by others as the foolish naivete of a young girl, is actually the very thing that gives her the ability to save the whole world — including the teammates who are more “put together” than her and the boyfriend she seems so infatuated with.

2. It doesn’t belittle girls, it validates them.

sailor moon - trampling hearts rebukeWhile the antics especially of Usagi are sometimes the source of the show’s comic relief, it’s significant that in each episode, the onus of the blame is put on the villains.

Whenever the Sailors or Tuxedo Mask confront the villains, they always make it clear that the villains are wrong for taking advantage of the hopes and dreams of young girls. In other words, the problem is not that young girls have silly dreams or are so naïve that they have allowed someone to take advantage of them. The problem is that the villains have taken advantage of or exploited something pure and innocent and good. This directly combats the rape culture narrative of “she asked for it” or “she should know better” or “how could she be so naive”, which blames the victim for what others have done to her. In Sailor Moon episodes, not only is it not the girls’ fault, but they are praised for having “beautiful dreams” while the villains are directly rebuked and then “punished” for infringing upon those dreams.

3. Girls are friends and it’s GREAT!

Often when girls appear in movies or shows, they’re set against each other as catty rivals for popularity (Mean Girls) or the affection of a man or boy (every movie ever; ask the Bechdel test). While that does happen sometimes in Sailor Moon, rivalry is never the PRIMARY function of the girls’ relationships.

Small squabbles about boys or hurtful words are usually resolved by the end of the episode, and even more long-standing issues (like the frequent antagonism between Usagi and Rei) are put aside in the face of defeating real evildoers.

sailor power finaleIn fact, one of the most moving moments of the series so far for me was the season finale where (I REPEAT, SPOILERS GALORE!) all the other Sailor Guardians have died, but when Sailor Moon’s power alone is not enough to defeat the villain she calls on the love and friendship of her team and their ghostly hands support her from beyond the grave. (I may have cried.)

THIS is the kind of big-picture love and support that we want to teach our girls — that when you’re carrying more than you can bear alone, your loved ones (including other girls and women!) will help you.

4. It’s about girls/women.

sailor friendsAt the end of the day, even just the fact that a popular show has a recurring case of 6 (8 if you count cats) and only one is a man is a huge deal. Seeing five different girls navigate the transition into adulthood in their different ways is HUGE, and something we don’t often see as the main focus of a long-running show.

I really appreciate that the writers actually let us see the characters doing normal life things like fighting with each other, resolving their conflicts, struggling in school, wrestling with and pursuing their vocational dreams, and working through their feelings about romance. …all while doing their best to protect Tokyo and the planet. Whether you’re a studious nerd girl, a strong giant girl, a fiery career girl, an effusively social girl, or an emotional screw-up girl — or even, thanks to Sailors Neptune and Uranus, a mysteriously feminine girl or a standoffish masculine/trans/lesbian girl — you will find yourself in this show.

And that, to me, is what makes this show feminist: feminism is about empowering women, and this show depicts all kinds of women who are all worthy of life and respect and empowered to pursue their beautiful dreams, no matter how silly or naive the world might think them.

On Reading Women & the Power of Community

This year, 2014, has been dubbed by many in the Twitterverse as the Year of Reading Women.

As an avid bookworm since childhood, I have pretty much always just read whatever grabbed me. In terms of my taste in books at any given time, the scope of what I might pick up is wide. But when I saw the #readwomen2014 hashtag show up on Twitter, it brought to my attention a trend that had been slowly materializing for several months: a lot of the books I’ve been gravitating towards have focused on women.

From fictional biographies of real women (like Memoirs of Cleopatra), to realistic stories about fictional women (like the Dear America books I recently read), to historical research about generations of women (like The History of the Wife or America’s Women), those are just the books I’ve found myself wanting to read.

sotomayor - beloved world coverThis week I finally read a book I’ve been wanting to read for a while, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography, My Beloved World.

I wasn’t really sure what to think of it — I try to avoid reading books published by well-known politicians close to major changes in office, because I feel like many of them are just cheesy publicity-fodder to boost their name recognition — but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed and connected with Justice Sotomayor’s story.

First, I found her sense of measured practicality, compassion, and justice really refreshing, and very non-politicized. She mentions several times in the book that her purpose in writing is not to give people insight into her case history, but to tell about her journey to the Supreme Court to serve as an example for the children.

Secondly — and related to the first point, I think — I was really impacted by the clear and almost unspoken sense of community and strong relationship in this book. While Sotomayor doesn’t tout the support of her family in a cheesy way (“My family was always there for me…”), it’s clear that she feels a strong sense of interconnectedness with her fellow humans, both relatives and not. This feeling of common humanity bleeds through into the sections where she explains her vocation to public service. In fact, throughout the book, she illustrates how various people in her life — mentors and otherwise — affected her as a person and as a thinker and lawyer.

When a young person, even a gifted one, grows up without proximate living examples of what she may aspire to become – whether lawyer, scientist, artist, or leader in any realm – her goal remains abstract. Such models as appear in books or on the news, however inspiring or revered, are ultimately too remote to be real, let alone influential. But a role model in the flesh provides more than an inspiration; his or her very existence is confirmation of possibilities one may have every reason to doubt, saying, “Yes, someone like me can do this.” (p. 178, emphasis added)

This idea of physical, embodied mentoring and modeling really struck me. I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on the importance of relationships, and I think this is a big part of their richness and power. Through relationship, we see possibility embodied.

Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 11, Spunky Girls & Self-Determination

In the eleventh week of Little House / Wounded Knee, Laura’s life is turned upside down and we meet another spunky (Ojibwa) heroine. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

By the Shores of Silver Lake

de smet sd mapIn this the fifth book in the Little House series, we follow the Ingalls as they leave their failing farm on Plum Creek and settle in what would become the final Ingalls home at De Smet, South Dakota.

This installment really started off with a shocker, as in the first two pages we learn that the entire family has been stricken with scarlet fever and, as a result of her illness, Laura’s  older sister Mary is now blind. BOOM! As the book progresses, we see how appropriate this sudden beginning is, though, because Mary’s blindness changes everything.

With Mary blind — and thus, in this relatively poor and isolated prairie family, rendered significantly less helpful to the family’s survival — Laura becomes the de facto eldest child. The shift is subtle, but even twelve-year-old Laura understands it very clearly. First, she must now be responsible to help Mary, as Pa says that “she must be eyes for Mary” (p.2). Second, when Pa leaves to begin a job elsewhere, Laura realizes that she now has primary responsibility for helping Ma take care of things: “Laura knew then that she was not a little girl anymore” (p.14). Mary’s illness and blindness force Laura to grow up all at once. It’s a lot for a little girl to bear, but in the midst of it I was struck by Laura’s “seeing out loud” for Mary on their very first train ride out to South Dakota:

“The sunshine comes slanting in the south windows, in wide stripes over the red velvet seats and the people. Corners of sunshine fall on the floor, and keep reaching out and going back. … Now I will see the people,” Laura went on murmuring. “In front of us is a head with a bald spot on top and side whiskers. He is reading a newspaper. He doesn’t look out the windows at all. Farther ahead are two young men with their hats on. They are holding a big white map and looking at it and talking about it. I guess they’re going to look for a homestead too. Their hands are rough and calloused so they’re good workers. And farther ahead there’s a women with bright yellow hair and, oh, Mary! the brightest red velvet hat with pink roses –” (p.23-24)

Laura’s descriptions really are lovely and vivid, and I wonder if “seeing out loud” for Mary is what helped her to develop a writer’s view of the world.

Finally, and more significantly, as a result of Mary’s blindness Laura discovers that she will be saddled with fulfilling Ma’s dreams of having another teacher in the family:

“Another thing, Laura,” said Pa. “You know Ma was a teacher, and her mother before her. Ma’s heart is set on one of you girls teaching school, and I guess it will have to be you. So you see you must have your schooling.”
Laura’s heart jerked, and then she seemed to feel it falling, far, far down. She did not say anything. She knew that Pa and Ma, and Mary too, had thought that Mary would be a teacher. Now Mary couldn’t teach, and — “Oh, I won’t! I won’t!” Laura thought. “I don’t want to! I can’t!” Then she said to herself, “You must.”
She could not disappoint Ma. She must do as Pa said. So she had to be a school teacher when she grew up. Besides, there was nothing else she could do to earn money. (p.127)

This whole development made me SO ANGRY!! First of all, I detest and protest that Laura’s entire profession should be decided for her because her Ma wants a teacher in the family — ESPECIALLY when we consider how much Laura has hated school and being cooped up indoors. This level of vicarious control — not to mention direct contradiction of Laura’s personality and natural outdoorsiness — makes me grind my teeth. This is NOT how children should be raised! Secondly, it’s an extra kick to my frustration with these circumstances to hear Laura say, almost forlornly, “Besides, there was nothing else she could do to earn money.” Laura, the energetic child who wants to “fly like the birds” with her Pa and explore the outdoors, the girl who is clever and resourceful and brave, has NO OTHER OPTIONS to earn money. Because she’s a girl. The feeling we get from this passage is one of instant restriction. Laura goes from having access to the entire wide open prairie to having the entire course of her young life narrowed and chosen for her. It’s like she goes from Freebird to corset in 2.3 seconds. I feel so sad and frustrated reading this.

In addition to the official beginnings of Laura’s forced grown-up-ification, we also see the return of some pretty strong anti-Indian racism, especially from Ma. Author-Laura throws in a few “yelling like Indians” narration bits, but then she gives a couple pretty damning quotes to Ma:

“I’ve always heard you can’t trust a half-breed,” Ma said. Ma did not like Indians; she did not even like half-Indians.
“We’d all have been scalped down on the Verdigris River, if it hadn’t been for a full-blood,” said Pa.
“We wouldn’t have been in any danger of scalping if it hadn’t been for those howling savages,” said Ma, “with fresh skunk skins around their middles.” And she made a sound that came from remembering how those skunk skins smelled. (p.82)

Gee, Ma, tell us how you really feel! For me, I can glean two main nuggets from this exchange: (1) Some settlers reeeeeally hated Indians (like Ma); and some “only” stereotyped and stole land from them (like Pa). Also, note that Author-Laura lets Ma have the last word, thus “winning” the argument. (2) Between this unusually negative portrayal of Ma and the situation with the teaching, I’m getting a strong vibe that Laura didn’t have a very good relationship with her Ma. (In fact, after Pa passed away, Laura never saw her Ma again and didn’t attend her funeral.) And I, as a reader, am starting to really dislike Ma as a character.

Silver Lake continues the trend of the series focusing more and more on Laura personally and less and less on wider trends about migration and settlement. I really feel for Laura having to be scrunched into the narrow roles she’s expected to fill as she grows up.

The Birchbark House

birchbark houseAs I wrote about last week, this book (and its sequels) is a last-minute addition to my lineup, but I’m SO GLAD I found it. The Birchbark House follows Omakayas, a young Anishinabe (Ojibwa) girl who lives on an island in Lake Superior with her family and community. Simply put, this book is beautiful. Reading it felt refreshing and rich and intimate. Not to mention, I loved getting an alternate perspective on white settlement, but in the same genre as LHotP. Louise Erdrich is a genius. Go read this book right now.

omakayas lake superior islands

Now, if you are bound and determined that you are not going to read this book (or you’re the kind of person who loves spoilers), here are some things I loved about this book:

1) It’s based on real events in the lives of the author’s ancestors. The fact that Erdrich uncovered this while researching her family and decided to write about it makes the whole book feel so much richer and more real to me. So that’s pretty cool. Also, Erdrich makes a point of including as many Ojibwa words as possible, which I liked and which I thought brought an extra layer of thoughtfulness and heritage to the novel.

2) The story is intimate and relational. After reading Dee Brown’s historical writing and Author Laura’s somewhat didactic, reporter-style writing, this book was a surprising and refreshing look into Omakayas’s feelings and relationships as she grows up. From the Most Heartbreaking Opening Line Ever (“The only person left alive on the island was a baby girl.”) to Omakayas’s real and (mostly) loving relationships with her adoptive family members and her home, I loved how connected I felt to this book and the characters, especially Omakayas and Grandma/Nokomis. In LHotP, I feel like Laura feels sort of real, and everyone else is sort of real only in relation to her. But in this book, I felt like the whole community was actually real.

3) I like the parenting/family model presented here WAYYYYYYYY more than Ma’s! First of all, I loved the strong communal emphasis in Omakayas’s family. Not only does her Grandma live with them, but they are also very close with the rest of the community. It felt much more supportive and less transactional than Pa’s feelings about good neighbors being valuable but not wanting to “owe” anybody. Second, there’s a really beautiful scene where Grandma/Nokomis, a medicine woman, simply asks Omakayas questions about the plants and animals talking to her:

‘Listen to them,’ was all Nokomis said, touching Omakayas’s face. She spoke so earnestly, with such emotion in her voice, that Omakayas was always to remember that moment, the bend in the path where they stood with the medicines, her grandmother’s kind face and the words she spoke (p.104).

This is such an honoring, empowering way to treat children — guiding them and supporting them, but not overriding them. I was really taken by it — especially just having gotten mad at how Ma was forcing Laura to teach!

4) I love the solemnity with which Omakayas is taught to interact with the natural world. There are too many examples to share them all here, but one that stood out was a scene where Omakayas meets and plays with some bear cubs in the woods and then is surprised by the mama bear. This is how she responds:

Nokomis,’ she said to the bear, calling her grandmother. ‘I didn’t mean any harm. I was only playing with your children. Gaween onjidah. Please forgive me. … I fed them some berries. I wanted to bring them home, to adopt them, have them live with me at my house as my little brothers. But now that you’re here, Grandmother, I will leave quietly. These scissors in my hands are not for killing, just for sewing. They are nothing compared to your teeth and claws'” (p.31, emphasis added).

From this passage and others, it is abundantly clear that (a) Omakayas treats other creatures — especially bears — as respected equals, and (b) someone has strongly modeled for her the importance of this, because she reverts to it even when she’s afraid. Overall, I was struck by how respectful this feels.

I really strongly recommend that anyone looking for a Little-House-esque book (or just a great children’s book) check this out. So good.

Also, there are several ways that this book is actually really similar to Little House. First, Omakayas is a strong female character — spunky and very human, much like Laura. She even has a perfect older sister, too (named Angeline). Second, like Laura in Silver Lake, Omakayas is forced to grow up quickly when a serious illness strikes her community, and a significant portion of the latter half of the book deals with her grief at the loss of loved ones. Third, there is, in a way, a similar dichotomy between the outdoorsy life and the “civilized” town life — but in this book “civilization” — represented by the literacy and Christianity taught at a white church in town — isn’t portrayed as inherently better or worthy of substantial sacrifice. Some people in Omakayas’s community decide to attend church and learn to read “chimookoman tracks” (white people writing), but that choice is left up to individuals. Nokomis sums it up: “Take their ways if you need them… but don’t forget your own. You are Anishinabe. Your mother and your grandmother are wolf clan people. Don’t forget” (p.110). The dichotomy is similar, but unlike Laura Omakayas is given a choice about her own destiny. Of course, it remains to be seen how long she’ll have the freedom to make that choice, since the threat of white settlement pushing the Anishinabe further west is murmured about in this book already. (Guess we’ll have to wait till book 2!)

(The “where are they now” for the Anishinabe/Ojibwa will come at the conclusion of the series.)

Conclusion

I’m not sure how much of the differences here can be chalked up to the authors’ different writing styles versus actual differences between white culture and Anishinabe culture… although I know those overlap some, too… but there are definitely some marked differences. Most notable for me are the treatment of children (as mentioned above) and the tone of each author. Author-Laura’s writing is significantly more factual and didactic (lots of little “lessons” built in) and less emotional, while Erdrich’s writing gives us a very personal look inside Omakayas’s thoughts and feelings and personal growth.  I look forward to seeing how these different themes and the spunky characters of Laura and Omakayas progress throughout the books.

Tune in next week for Wounded Knee Ch. 15 & 16 and The Long Winter (LH #6).

Books of the Year: 2013 in Review

As some of you *may* know, I am a *bit* of a bookworm. Just a smidge. =)

One of the ways I challenge myself to keep reading (even though now I’m a busy bookworm) is to participate in the yearly book challenge on Goodreads.com. In 2013, my goal was to read 52 books, or about one a week. I exceeded my goal (56 total, woo!) and today I just set my new goal for 2014. But before I get too far into my new book adventures, I wanted to take a look back at some of the books I read in 2013. So without further ado, here are some of my book highlights from 2013.

The Mighty & The Almighty5. The Mighty and the Almighty by Madeleine Albright

I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for a while (bought it while I was teaching and just never had time to start it), but this year I finally took the time to dive in, and I was pleasantly surprised at  how much I loved the experience. Not only is Madeleine Albright a seasoned and sensible veteran of politics and world affairs, but she also has a thoughtful and nuanced way of looking at the ways that religion enters into the mix. I found this to be an extremely thought-provoking (and quotable!) read, and I’d highly recommend it to everyone, but especially folks who are interested in the intersection between politics and religion.

Ender's Shadow4. Ender’s Shadow (and its sequels) by Orson Scott Card

Although I’d read both Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow before, I had never read the rest of the Shadow series. Not only did they sink their delightful, action-packed hooks into my brain and propel me straight through, but I found myself contemplating geopolitics in a whole new way afterwards. (Without giving too much away, the sequels show what happens on Earth after the Battle School students return home, and it is messy, let me tell you!) HIGHLY recommended for anyone who loves a good sci-fi.

3. One Church Many Tribes: Following Jesus the Way God Made You by Richard Twiss

Richard Twiss passed away this year suddenly. This is a devastating loss  not only for his family and friends, but also for the Church family around the world, as we have lost a man of strong faith, a faithful advocate for First Nations peoples, and a lover and devotee of biblical reconciliation. This most recent work of his sets forth the case for why Native Christianity is a vital and missing piece of the Body of Christ. If you have ever wondered whether Native beliefs can be compatible with Christianity, or whether Natives can be Christians without being “whitewashed”, then read this book.

2. America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines by Gail Collins

The reason I loved this book is that it uses loads of primary source documents (like journals from real women during each era) to vividly depict what life was like for women throughout American history. Gail Collins does a good job of looking at women from as many different arenas — social, racial, and otherwise — as possible. For anyone who loves reading about everyday life in other times and places, or for anyone wondering how women have lived and survived in America, this one’s for you!

1. Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary

Okay, this book exploded my brain. The subtitle sums up the premise of the book — the history of the world through Islamic eyes — but it’s so much more than just the “Islamic side of the story.” I felt like I literally got a glimpse of how the Eastern/Islamic historical-cultural mindset has evolved and grown from its geographical roots (aka the Ummah/”Islam-dom” as opposed to “Christendom”) and how the development of Islam in various regions has influenced world history and vice versa. If you have a pulse, go read this book right now. It will change how you view the world and history. Seriously.

Well, that’s my top five reads from 2013. I have quite a list for 2014 — some of which are already sitting on my bookshelf! — but I’m always looking for suggestions. Anything that strikes you as a Rebekah-read? Or do you want to share a great book you read this year? Let me know in the comments!