I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to have Sweetpea grow up in a country so far from my own. England is a long way from the Adirondacks, and not just in miles. I’m staggered sometimes by how different Sweetpea’s childhood will be from mine.
Right now Sweetpea still says “to-MAY-to,” not “to-MAH-to,” and her reference points, from blueberries to zucchini bread, are mostly American. But I know that will change after she starts nursery school in September, and I know it will take some getting used to.
So I’m doubly grateful to have had a chance to read Jeannine Atkins’s subtle stunner of a book, Borrowed Names: Poems about Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C. J. Walker, Marie Curie and Their Daughters. Grateful first, for the poems themselves, so striking and absorbing that they took me completely out of myself. And grateful, too, for the reminder that no daughter grows up in the same world as her mother, even if she grows up in exactly the same place.
I love Jeannine’s work, and I’ve been looking forward to this book for a long time. But even I was amazed by what a treasure trove it is. Every poem is told in the voice of a daughter, starting with Rose Wilder Lane, moving on to A’Lelia Walker, and finishing with Irene Joliot-Curie. Reading them was like listening in on family conversations —- the kind that happen late at night, when memories cast long shadows. With every word, you can feel how strongly these daughters and their mothers are bound to each other. And also how there is a nevertheless a gulf between them, one that both widens and narrows over time.
One of the temptations in writing historical fiction is to include a fact simply because you researched it, but there is no such shoehorning in Borrowed Names. What you’ll find instead is a wealth of revelatory detail: the crackle of the kindling that burns down the Wilder homestead, the sweet luxury of coconut oil in Madam C. J. Walker’s hair, the fraying skin on Marie Curie’s fingertips. These details center us in these women’s lives –- and in jeannineatkins‘s skillful hands they become metaphors for emotions that can’t always be expressed out loud.
Here’s a taste of what I mean, from a poem about the days when Madam C. J. Walker and A’Lelia lived in one room and took in laundry for a living:
“Walking away, A’Lelia asks, Why do you call her Mrs.
while she uses your first name?
It’s just the way it is.
A’Lelia feels the weight of stacked sheets
she no longer holds. There are two sides of town
back and front doors
those who can enter both and
those who’d better knock on just one.”
I could pull other highlights from every page. But I won’t, because this book is one you will definitely want to read for yourself —- and then share with the much-loved mothers and daughters in your own lives.