Women Warriors: An Unexpected History by Pamela D. Toler

This entertaining and informative history of women warriors briskly covers huge swathes of time and place, arguing for the significance of a phenomenon as old as warfare itself.

With Women Warriors: An Unexpected History, Pamela Toler (The Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War) reveals a history many readers will meet with surprise as well as fascination. By the end of this brisk accounting of just some of the many women warriors Toler found in her research, she makes it clear that while little known, this phenomenon is neither new nor unusual.

Women Warriors is a broad examination that spans history from the second millennium BCE through the present, and across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Toler details dozens of examples, from the better-known (Matilda of Tuscany, Njinga, Begum Sahib and, of course, Joan of Arc) to the obscure (Ani Pachen, Mawiyya, Bouboulina), in two- or three-page summaries. She notes primary sources in each case and questions “facts” where appropriate (for example, numbers of troops are notoriously dubious), often presenting a fact in the main body and then questioning it in a footnote. Chapters organize women warriors into mothers, daughters, queens, widows; besieged defenders and leaders of attacks; women disguised as men and women undisguised.

Plentiful footnotes serve an important role, especially evidencing a certain wry humor, as when Toler repeatedly and impatiently points out the tendency to compliment women as behaving like men and to denigrate men as behaving like women (a habit consistent throughout history and common to women as well as men). Double standards are likewise emphasized, as in the way historians and archeologists have examined evidence. For example, the grave known as the “Birka man,” from 834 CE, had long been considered that of a male because of the martial burial items found with him. In 2014, a bioarcheologist determined that the bones were actually that of a female. Despite follow-up DNA testing, scholars, archeologists and historians continue to argue about the identification of the Birka woman. As Toler points out, the scholarly contortions now employed to deny her status as warrior were never mentioned while her skeleton was assumed to be that of a male.

With such copious content, Toler has been careful to keep her book a manageable length: at just over 200 pages, Women Warriors is an easy entry to an expansive topic. Toler found thousands of examples of women warriors in her research–many more than are contained in these pages–and argues that this proliferation deserves to be treated as more than a series of freak anomalies. In conclusion, answering an earlier historian’s claim that women in warfare are “the most insignificant exceptions,” Toler sums up: “Exceptions within the context of their time and place? Yes. Exceptions over the scope of human history? Not so much. Insignificant? Hell, no!”


This review originally ran in the January 17, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 naginata.

Scott Russell Sanders in recent Orion, Brian Doyle, and considering death

A synchronicity: my father sent me a recently published essay by Scott Russell Sanders that coincides with some reading and thinking I’ve been doing lately.

The essay occurred in the Autumn 2018 issue of Orion, which you can purchase here, but cannot read without purchasing – sorry. It’s called “At the Gates of Deep Darkness,” and it is about the dire cancer diagnosis of Sanders’s son, Jesse, who is 40 and has young children. In it, Sanders tries to navigate grief, and the intersection of his religious upbringing with his devotion to science, his love for this world and his sadness & anger at Jesse’s coming end.

It’s an essay I appreciate in many ways: for its language, its attention to detail, its careful plotting of divergent beliefs and feelings, and its place within Sanders’s body of work. I enjoyed his listing of “great pioneers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, and Carson, as well as accomplished contemporaries such as Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Chet Raymo, John Elder, Kathleen Dean Moore, Pattiann Rogers, and David James Duncan” – what a list! – with whom he has some things in common. I really do recommend it.

But, separately, what is interesting about this as synchronicity is my recent reading of Brian Doyle’s short essay “Joyous Voladoras,” which you can read here. It was assigned by Matt Ferrence* for his seminar, and when Matt and I got a chance to talk more later, he told me it’s an excerpt (?) or vastly shortened version (?) of Doyle’s book The Wet Engine, which I have not read but of course want to. It’s about the heart – the hummingbird heart, and Doyle’s own. The book makes it clear, though, that this interest in the heart was inspired by his very young son’s need for open heart surgery.

His son survived, and is now an adult, and Doyle has since died (in 2017). When my father sent me the Sanders essay, he said it “presents us, like Doyle does, with a thoughtful writer wrestling with faith in real time in public.” Pops means Doyle wrestling with his own mortality, as he did while dying very quickly of brain cancer. But fresh off “Joyous Voladoras,” I thought of the even closer parallel, of worrying for one’s child.

Grief, obviously, is one of those universal topics. Sanders acknowledges, “In sharing this personal story, I do not mean to impose my grief on readers, for we all have more than enough griefs to bear, both public and private.” Even grief for a child is common enough. But for artists such as Sanders or Doyle, there is still something to offer. Sanders continues, “I tell of Jesse’s cancer because it has made clear to me the persistence of those questions, intuitions, fears, and longings that inspired my early devotion to church-going and Bible-reading. I still puzzle over the sources of suffering; I still experience wonder and terror and awe; I still yearn for a sense of meaning; I still seek to understand the all-encompassing wholeness to which I belong.” And onward. This is why we read, and this is why we write.

Among the lines that I marked in Sanders’s essay:

My calling of Jesse’s name is timed to the rhythm of my footsteps, my breath, my heartbeat. A mother’s heartbeat is the first sound we hear. Once outside the womb, we respond to that rhythm in the beating of drums, in the bass notes of music, in the iambic pentameter of poetry.

The heartbeat, again, took me back to Doyle and the hummingbird heart, which comes to be everyone’s heart. The unique and the universal.

Do go read Doyle – it will take only minutes, and you’ll feel so much. And consider that issue of Orion, which I imagine contains other gems than this one. Consider too the full-length Doyle book, which I’ve added to my to-do list (Dog help me). Thanks for following me on this winding path today and always.



*Matt Ferrence was a guest faculty member at this most recent residency at my MFA program, at West Virginia Wesleyan College. We really hit it off and had several good conversations; I’m glad to know him and although I haven’t read it yet, I’m confident that I can recommend his book Appalachia North, forthcoming on February 1! (There will be a review here, eventually.)

A Life Above Water by Doug Van Gundy

Full disclosure: Doug is a buddy of mine (and a professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where I have just finished my MFA).


And how to separate the poems from the poet, when you know him so well? I heard these poems in my head read in Doug’s voice; they made me miss him. No, I am not an objective reviewer. But I did love this book.

It’s organized in three sections. “All These Indigestible Parts” includes poems set in the natural world, with little human interference. Doug considers bat, brown trout, black birch, jewel weed, barred owl, crow, sycamore, white oak, and so many more; these are lovely jewels of poems that I can see. Where poetry challenges me is where it grows less concrete; these poems are wonderfully close to the world that I know, and I’m comfortable with them.

“Fellowship and Baked Goods” handles human communities. Here are “crow-eyed bachlor men / who lived on the hillside and always smelled / of friend potatoes and machine oil,” “vegetables packed into a cellarful / of identical blue jars,” and a man in “three plaids and no teeth.” But it’s about how they relate to each other and to the natural world, too. Doug’s poems are full of place, the West Virginia that he’s from as well as Portland, Michigan and the Sonoran Desert… but mostly, Appalachia.

Finally, “The Great Slowing” is about the ends of things, like life. This is where we find the penultimate poem “Martins Ferry,” for James Wright and after his “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” a poem I’ve now studied a few times in the last few years and that I love. Actually Doug’s poetry is often ekphrastic, or written after or about other art: poems, books, films, paintings. I think he has an excellent feel for a last line. Every one of these poems left me ringing, like a gong.

This book came out in 2007 and I know Doug has a few manuscripts ready to come in the next few years. I cannot wait. This is the kind of poetry that works for me: concrete, heartfelt, not without metaphor and music but rooted in or related to a world I know and can appreciate. Good job, friend. Thanks for sharing this with us.


Rating: 8 fingered feathers.

Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis

A disenchanted teenager in 1980s Mexico City runs away from home hoping to find Ukrainian dwarfs on a Oaxacan beach in this lovely, surreal novel.

Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis (Books of Clouds, Asunder) is a dreamy, wandering tale of teenage ennui and searching, and the pull of the sea.

Luisa is 17 and bored with school, her parents and her classmates (nearly all of whom have bodyguards waiting outside their elite Mexico City international school, which Luisa attends on scholarship). Her interests include her best friend Julián, who lives above a restaurant, and his stereo, as well as her French teacher’s encouragements and the books he lends her. And thanks to her professor father’s storytelling, Luisa is fascinated by shipwrecks. Perhaps this is partly why she is so taken in by the newspaper headline: “Ukrainian Dwarfs on the Run.” It is suggested that these escapees from the circus have headed to the beaches of Oaxaca, and for Luisa, they become crossed in her mind with a sort of hidden treasure: something to seek.

There is a boy, too. “I didn’t even particularly like him at first; intrigued would be a better word. He was a sliver of black slicing through the so-called calm of the morning.” Tomás Román: even the syllables of his name have power. “He had been a snag in the composition, somehow inserting himself in the picture in a way the others had not.” Luisa has trouble understanding his pull on her, but as it resembles the pull of the Ukrainian dwarfs at the beach, she follows the impulse, and boards a bus with Tomás for the coast.

Because it is 1988, a soundtrack of Depeche Mode, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure and Joy Division back up Luisa’s surreal travels. Her attention drifts between the immediate present–where she observes dogs and waves with as close an eye as she does people–and an interior world populated by French poetry, ancient shipwrecks and imagined worlds. She makes up lives for the people she encounters, daydreams about the magic powers of a city billboard and a man she meets on the beach. She styles him a merman. “But that was the problem with mysterious people,” she tells him, “once you spend time with them they’re not so mysterious after all, and as [she] said this the merman smiled as if promising, no matter what, to remain a mystery.”

As Luisa dreams away her days in a little village called Zipolite, a community of hippies, nudists and beachcombers, her father searches for her. And he will have some of the best stories to tell by the end of this weird, captivating novel. Aridjis’s prose is well suited to this kind of story: her sentences are luminescent and imagistic, expressing Luisa’s tendency to fancy: a great marble horse “[chooses] the sea, and was there to this day, the horse that gave them the slip, galloping along endless banks of seabed, kicking up whole paragraphs of sand.” The plot of Sea Monsters is somewhat quiet, Luisa spending much of her time inside her own head, but Aridjis’s style makes this an absolute pleasure even when nothing is happening.


This review originally ran in the January 3, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 hammocks.

Galley Love of the Week: The Way Home: Tales From a Life Without Technology by Mark Boyle

First Mark Boyle was The Moneyless Man in his memoir about a year living without money. That impulse has expanded–Boyle now lives on a smallholding in County Galway, Ireland, forgoing electricity, running water, phones and the Internet, and other myriad conveniences the modern world relies upon. Editor Alex Christofi writes, “I think [this lifestyle] takes great courage–he is lighting the way for the rest of us by showing that life begins when you put down your smartphone.” The Way Home is an introspective, heartfelt, practical and often funny chronicle of Boyle’s inaugural year in this new, yet old, lifestyle. Organized as a diary of four seasons, this book will excite the like-minded and jumpstart the unconverted. It is a singular, invigorating read.

Galley Love of the Week or GLOW is a new feature from Shelf Awareness. This edition ran here.

Leaping Poetry by Robert Bly

Note: I’m out of pocket during my final residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond.


I read this little collection of poems and essays for Diane Gilliam’s seminar, “As If the Top of My Head Were Taken Off: Getting More Energy Into Our Poems.” Robert Bly offers his own essays on what he believes poetry should be: that poems should leap, not plod, that they should make wild associations, that they should answer to our animal instincts. He argues that in the Christian world and particularly in “America” (by which I surmise he really means the United States), we have gotten too safe, gotten away from the leap. Alongside his own essays, Bly collects poems he admires (including one of his own), to illustrate his points.

I enjoyed many of the poems, and I found Bly’s commentary interesting, but often problematic. (Here’s where I acknowledge that this book was originally published in 1972, so we can choose to make certain allowances, if we’re so inclined.) For one thing, his assessment of contemporary poetry (more than a generation ago now) is very much defined by national borders. French poets are good; Spanish poets are “much greater”; American poets have “faltered” (in the 1940s and 50s), and are now turning to the South Americans (parse that). I can allow that there is such a thing as a national “school” of poetry or of thought, although I suspect that’s less and less true in the age of swift international communication – which is quite a bit different from 1972, of course, and is still limited by language – one of Bly’s great concerns is that not enough fine Spanish-language poetry has been translated into English (when he says “Spanish,” does he mean coming from Spain? or merely Spanish-language? how concerning). But I think to say that Spanish poets are better than French poets are better than American poets is disturbingly close to racism, or nationalism. It caused me to stumble several times. Was this okay in 1972?

Also, I find myself exasperated that Bly has collected 32 poems (and 2 epigraphs) here, and 31 of those poems (and both epigraphs) were written by men. (Thank you, Marguerite Young, for representing half the world.) I assume that I’m to conclude from this that women just about cannot write good poetry at all… I know, 1970s, but still I’m disgruntled.

As a much smaller point, I wondered at the assertion that “the desert contains almost no mammal images.” This is in the course of a very interesting essay about the “three brains” (reptile, mammal, and ‘new’), and meditation, and accessing different parts of ourselves. This essay was the part of the whole book that I most engaged with. He sets up a desired move from reptile brain to new brain, through the mammal brain, necessitating a journey to “the forest” (he uses quotation marks) and finally to the desert, where an absence of “mammal images” lets us then move to the new brain. Well, I’m intrigued, if not sold. With those quotation marks, “the forest” becomes more archetypal than literal, perhaps, and I can permit that a similarly archetypal desert has fewer mammals than an archetypal forest. But as a lover of a very real desert in particular (that has mammals in it), I stumbled, again.

Leaping Poetry is, at least, an interesting book to engage (and possibly argue) with. I haven’t even touched on his theories of poetry, since I always feel underqualified. As I say every semester about the challenging readings I’m assigned for seminars, I’m looking forward to what Diane Gilliam does with this in her class. I’m sure it will be wonderful.


Rating: 5 stains on a handkerchief.

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga, trans. by Jordan Stump

A shadow of tragedy hangs over this lovely, lyric memoir of Tutsi childhood in Rwanda, but the author’s love for her strong mother remains central.

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga (Our Lady of the Nile; Cockroaches) is a loving tribute to a strong mother and a striking work of memoir.

Mukasonga and her family lived as exiles in Rwanda in the years leading up to the genocide of the Tutsi. This time in her life, when they were all together and alive, was short, but Mukasonga has vivid memories, especially of her mother, Stefania, a leader in the makeshift village where they were regularly terrorized by Hutu soldiers. In an earlier memoir, Cockroaches, Mukasonga depicted the horrific end of her family. Here, she focuses on her mother: Stefania is a hard worker, always with her hoe in hand; a healer with a medicinal garden of grasses, tubers, roots and tree leaves; a “highly respected matchmaker”; and a dedicated, ever-vigilant protector of her children. Saving them was her “one single project day in and day out, one sole reason to go on surviving.” She is not a hero with a single dimension, though. In Mukasonga’s warm telling, Stefania has personality, a sense of humor and a deep love for her family.

The book opens and closes with dreamlike sequences. At the beginning, in the narrator’s memory, Stefania reminds her children of their duty to their mother upon her death. At the end, Mukasonga describes a dream about her mother’s uncared-for dead body and those of so many Tutsi. This sets the tone for the rest of the memoir, which often feels dreamy as it turns to childhood memories. Extraordinarily, this story is at times horrifying in its content and at other times playful; lyric in its style and tender in its handling of the central character. While the reader’s knowledge of the genocide to come hangs over the narrative, the everyday events often retain a quotidian feeling; Stefania and her neighbors worry over their children but also laugh and celebrate and arrange marriages. As a literary work, this establishes a rare balance. Jordan Stump’s translation from the French beautifully conveys this sense of both tragedy and day-to-day joy.

The Barefoot Woman is also an essential record of traditions and a way of life that are in danger of disappearing. It describes the inzu Stefania builds, with great effort, in exile: a traditional straw-dome house “that was as vital to her as water to a fish.” The importance of keeping a fire going, and why a mother would borrow fire from a neighbor rather than use a match. The significance of sorghum, “a true Rwandan” crop, and why Stefania insisted on a cow, the traditional gift for her son’s marriage pact, even in the inhospitable new place where cows were no longer a part of their everyday lives.

This is an adoring, gorgeously rendered memorial to a mother and testimony to a people.


This review originally ran in the November 19, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 little loaves of bread.
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