2021 has been a difficult year, and most of us will be glad to see it gone. We started the year with the happy news that vaccines against Covid 19 had become available, but after a tumultuous twelve months, we are still struggling to overcome hostile variants of the virus.
One of the few good things that could be said about the year is that for those of us who spent much of our time at home, it offered an opportunity to catch up on our reading. As I recall the books I have read this year, I am especially grateful for the ones that introduced me to women who have lived through some of the most fascinating periods in history.
Here are brief introductions to three women whose stories have most captivated me during 2021.
Briseis, a Trojan woman who lived during the tumultuous years of the Trojan War, tells her story in Pat Barker’s book, The Silence of the Girls. Briseis was a Trojan woman who was captured by the Greeks and given as a slave to Achilles. Briseis narrates the story and describes the difficult adjustment she makes to her suddenly diminished status. She paints a convincing picture of life in a camp of soldiers during a nine-year war that has stalled. The soldiers are tormented not only by the fighting, but also by a plague, which kills many of them. Briseis is an unforgettable woman and her story continues in the second book of Barker’s trilogy, The Trojan Women. We will have to wait a little longer for the final volume of the trilogy, which is promised, but not yet scheduled.
Moving forward in time, I found an unexpected woman—a woman I had never heard of—who played an important part in world literature by marrying the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky. In his biography, The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky, Andrew D. Kaufman tells the story of Anna Grigoryevna Dostoevskaya. Born in 1846 to a middle-class family she became a stenographer and was hired by Dostoyevsky during a period when he was struggling to complete his novel The Gambler. The two fell in love and married. Despite his many gifts, Dostoyevsky’s ability to write was threatened by his gambling habit. As his business manager, editor and sometime publisher, Anna was able to guide his career and help him to become a major literary figure in Russia and in much of the world. After Dostoyevsky’s death Anna continued to publish and publicize his books. She worked tirelessly to keep his books in print and available to readers in Russia and all of Europe. I wonder whether his fame would have been as great and his genius so well-remembered if he had not had Anna to keep his name alive for the almost half century she lived after his death.
Another woman who made a lasting impact on me during this year was Fiona Hill author of There is Nothing for You Here. Hill grew up in the North of England, an area caught in economic depression because of the closure of the coal mines. Mining had been the major employment option for most people in the community, including Fiona Hill’s parents. With the disappearance of mining, Hill’s parents encouraged their children to get an education and move away from the North. Even with the encouragement of her family, it was not easy for Fiona Hill to take advantage of the educational opportunities available. Eventually, however, she attended university, moved to the United States, and became a public figure when she testified at the Congressional hearings on Trump’s impeachment.
Hill’s wide-ranging experience gives her insight into the educational systems not only in England but in the United States and in Russia. Her book is not so much a personal story, but a more general account of the barriers that keep working-class children from developing their skills and using their talents to become important participants in their communities. While leaders sign proclamations and declare goals, Fiona Hill reminds us that it is individuals who will have to learn to live in the new world that is coming. There Is Nothing for You Here points the way to changes our governments could make to prepare young people for that world.
Happy Reading for a Happy 2022!