Freedom Fighters

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A new novel by Kate Walbert chronicles five generations of women’s struggles, from suffrage to the War on Terror.

Kate Walbert’s latest novel, A Short History of Women, is an accomplished, absorbing, and ferociously graceful work. The novel centers around five generations of American women, the eras ranging from the first decade of the 1900s to post-9/1l, the locales spanning from New York to Patagonia. Walbert, writing in a style that is at once delicate and intense, illuminates the limitations her women struggle against—from the battle for suffrage to the quiet indignities of contemporary domesticity—and the often brutal ways in which they seek their freedom.

This pursuit of freedom drives much of the novel’s action. The opening line—“Mum starved herself for suffrage, Grandmother claiming it was just like Mum to take a cause too far”—foregrounds Dorothy Trevor Townsend’s final push for liberation, an event that echoes throughout the novel. Her fight is felt as an unshakeable trauma by her two children—Evelyn, who becomes a successful but emotionally isolated professor of chemistry at Barnard, and Thomas, who descends into misery and alcoholism. But Dorothy Townsend proves an inspiration to Thomas’s daughter, Dorothy Townsend Barrett. Weary of the dullness of late-life domesticity, the younger Dorothy wants, with increasingly desperate urgency, to “do something,” an impulse that compels her to take illegal photographs of war casualties returning to a military base:

Today, she plans to fight back. She can almost taste it; see herself in the resistance. Dorothy Barrett, granddaughter to the suffragette, mother to three: Caroline, Liz, and the dead one, James; wife to Charles. She mounts the camera on the track and angles the lens toward where the plane will descend—they come from the east, she has learned, out of Mecca, the bodies mostly coffined, then wrapped in flags, but sometimes carried in a tiny box.

Kate Walbert

Kate Walbert

Her daughters, Caroline and Liz, are less inclined toward rebellion. Liz, in particular, lacks the drive to explore her own discontent, let alone do something about it. They watch in horror as their mother’s actions at the military base lead to tangible changes in her life—arrests, separation from her husband of many years, the launch of a confessional blog, a renewed desire to understand what it means to lead a gratifying life—as they grapple with taking meaningful action in their own lives. Caroline, still mourning her daughter’s departure for college, takes to reading her mother’s blog in the middle of the night. Liz, ensconced in the comfortable but repetitive landscape of privileged urban domesticity, seems utterly disconnected from world and self—in one quietly wrenching scene, she gets staggeringly drunk in the middle of the day with another mother—but lacks the ability, or even the desire, to understand why she hungers so desperately for escape.

The novel’s technical grace is remarkable, Walbert’s prose masterful. Her sentences spiral beautifully outward, as evidenced in Evelyn’s ruminations in the midst of her mother’s self-starvation:

I climb the stairs. Adults only, Grandmother says, and even so, Grandmother stays away, Mum now preferring her solitude, she said, the word closing around Mum as a shell would around a seed, as hard as the steel of a submarine. She sits within it, and you can no more get to her than she can get to you. It is as if she is going somewhere; she has made up her mind. Or maybe she’s just waiting for time to pass; for something to be over. She is caught in there, in her solitude, held in the light and poured steel of it and moving away at great speed.

A Short History of Women begins with Evelyn recounting her mother’s death, and in the novel’s final pages, Evelyn, now an old woman, circles back to that life-altering moment with shattering beauty. Between these two poles in time, the narrative leaps around with unbroken fluidity, the deeply realized characters reflecting each other in moving and complex ways. Walbert resists drawing easy parallels between the lives of her women; rather, the chapters, all centering around crucial moments in the characters’ lives, create a perfect interlocking, a luminous patchwork of mystery and discovery, of persistent struggle and occasional triumph.

Laura van den Berg’s first story collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, was published by Dzanc Books in 2009. More from this author →