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.)

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.

Truth Serum by Bernard Cooper

Among the central concerns of Truth Serum lie questions of truth and memory. This is a memoir-in-essays of Cooper’s coming-of-age in Hollywood from the 1950s onward, including his identity as a gay man in the early days of the AIDS virus. I found several elements I appreciated from Maps to Anywhere: lyric language and a profound attention paid to the world. I was reminded of Mark Doty in the moments that Cooper leans in, seeming to slow down time, to examine what’s around him, that the rest of us might have called the everyday. Maps to Anywhere, as I remember it*, had some longer essays but more short ones, several of which qualified as prose poems; by comparison, the essays in this collection are on balance longer, and while the language is undeniably lovely, few of these shapeshift toward poetic form. These essays more frequently offer clear narrative structure.

One shorter one I’d seen before was “The Fine Art of Sighing,” about the sighs of three family members. I’m pretty sure* this one reappears in Short Takes (ed. Judith Kitchen), and/or I’ve read it for class. I also really appreciated the opening piece, “Where to Begin,” which is very much about that problem of creating art: that the biggest question is not what to put in, but what to leave out. Else we’ll end up trying to paint, or write, the whole world, and be defeated before we begin. I loved “Burl’s” for its epiphany of gender fluidity. “Against Gravity,” about weightlifters and men and mortality, was a lovely longer meditation… I really enjoyed how it ranged and returned. “If and When” is a beautiful, tearing-open essay about discovering the narrator’s HIV status, and his partner’s. (I am reminded of an essay Cooper contributed to… some essay collection, about handling the public’s response to his revealing private information, this information in particular.) It’s a simply gorgeous and wrenching portrayal, and I think it’s a generosity. “Tone Poem” answers my statement above, about there being less poetry in this collection than in Maps. It’s not so much a poem itself, though, I argue, as it is about poetry, about finding something beautiful in the mundane. “Train of Thought” was the essay I thought might be a poem: it explores the etymology of that phrase, ‘train of thought,’ and the music and language of trains.

In one seminal dream from my childhood I was on a train with a woman who was dressed in an enormous satin skirt. I was sitting on her lap and we ladled cupfuls of cool water into each other’s mouths. Her petticoats crackled whenever I lifted the cup to her lips. “Where are we going?” I asked her. “To the city,” she said, “where the rustling of a woman’s skirt sounds the same as the rain.”

Which I misread, initially, as ‘the same as a train.’ This attention to language and sound, and a final memory about a boy who memorizes numbers, made me feel a little floated above the world. Lovely.

Finally, I was reminded of Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now. Most obviously, both essay collections handle the narrators’ coming-of-age and coming to terms with being gay men. But that’s not all, and I hope I’m not guilty of that kind of simplification. I’m thinking more about the ordering of essays in both collections, where they proceed more or less chronologically, and with an overarching opening up from the immediately personal (and confusion about the subject at hand) to the outward-facing, the public issues involved with being a gay man (for example) in the 1980s as an unknown virus blooms.

Another lovely one from Cooper, although I missed the poetry in Maps and hope to get back into that book one day, too.


Rating: 8 plums.

*I owe y’all an update on this at some future date, but I’m about to be undertaking some travel and have been packing all my books to go into storage… so the other books I’ve mentioned here are not at hand as they’d usually be. I already miss my library!

Violation: Collected Essays by Sallie Tisdale

This was a real treat, and an interesting balance between the experience of Many Circles – mind-bending, challenging, slow work – and If You Knew Then What I Know Now, which I read with pleasure in one big gulp. Violation was different from each of those, but fell just between them in its pacing. I was engaged and felt a sense of momentum throughout, but also had to stop and sit with what I was learning, or to react.

These essays span thirty years of Sallie Tisdale’s writing career, and are presented in the order in which they were published, with the final essay previously unpublished. Some of them were in progress for years before publication, but still a chronological order of a sort. While subject matters range quite a bit – elephants, flies, abortion clinics and cancer hospitals, sports, childhood and motherhood – they clearly track the evolution of one mind. Tisdale is a Buddhist, although that doesn’t come up as an explicit fact til late in the collection. She is an artist, passionate, but practically minded. She is concerned with the body, and with feminism, in different ways. I enjoyed very much getting to know her in these essays; but I also have an impression of her as a very private person, and in some ways don’t think I really got to know her very well at all.

The introduction gave me my first moment of aha! simpatico joy: “Long before I knew how to describe it, I liked ambivalence. Certainty has always seemed a bit dishonest to me.” This is so much what I feel, and it’s perhaps something I’m still working on describing, myself. It was my first, early signal that I would get along with this writer.

I really enjoy her style. She is the essayist’s essayist, or these are examples of the classical essay-as-assay: the mind wanders on the page. She is curious. She brings in a huge amount of outside research, sometimes, as when she writes about elephants and moray eels. She reminds me of Annie Dillard in the combination of immediate personal experience with science, but without the raving exuberance that Dillard often brings. Instead, Tisdale remains calm. On the other hand, the title essay is about the memoirist’s famous problem: family responses to one’s work. The nature of memory, and the question of what is ours to write about. More purely personal essays like this one require little or no research.

These essays are concerned with art and creativity, yearning, body image, and what boys and girls were allowed to do (and still are and are not allowed to do)… so many things, but not all at once. They take on really different things. And while most are alike in basic structure – discrete essays, with narrative journeys and mountains to climb and points unto themselves – one of the ones that most struck me was the segmented essay “Scars,” published in 2003, about raising a son. I loved the wordplay (of each segment’s title) and the enormous scope in a small package (just over 7 pages total). It spans a lot of time: sections are labeled with years from 1982 to 1997, and a brief note at the end says that the first section, in its original draft, was one of the first essays Tisdale wrote. I really appreciated seeing the bones of this one a little bit. And then, immediately following, comes “On Being Text,” about what it’s felt like as a writer to be included in anthologies that teach literature or writing: to read what’s said about her and about her methods and intentions. (It’s not all good.) This juxtaposition helped me again to appreciate the range in this collection.

But definitely some of my favorite essays were the two about elephants, “The Only Harmless Great Thing” and “The Birth.” The first, early in the collection (1989), is over 40 pages long, and brings in an enormous amount of scientific and historical information about elephants and zoos, and calls as well on literature and myth. It’s also personal: the narrator feels lucky to have gained back-room access to the elephants at Portland’s Washington Park Zoo. The elephants are magic, and she writes about them beautifully. This was an essay I snuggled into, fascinated and comforted by these strange creatures so loved and respected.

And then “The Birth” (2003), under ten pages, and tender and very much in-the-moment; it handles the same setting and the same (elephant and human) characters, but easily stands alone from the earlier essay too. “Elephants are so outside the size of things.” They “held up the world.” As she later does with the moray eel, Tisdale insists upon a distance from these animals: she acknowledges the temptation to feel close, to anthropomorphize, but holds herself to appreciating their otherness too. These essays are dreamy.

Tisdale is curious, thoughtful, considerate, and honest. I’m so glad that she allows this curiosity and careful consideration to range over the wide, wide world. (I didn’t even get into the lengthy treatise, “The Sutra of Maggots and Blowflies,” about much-maligned insects and Buddhism.) This was a treat, and I highly recommend it for curious readers of all kinds.


Rating: 8 sheep bot flies.
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