July 17, 2008

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Women of Granite: 25 New Hampshire Women You Should Know, written by Janet Buell and The Write Sisters, illustrated by Janet Greenleaf, 2008, Apprentice Shop Books, 136 pages
By Lisa Parsons news@hippopress.com

Guess what: There’s more to New Hampshire history than John Stark and Daniel Webster.

For kids (fourth or fifth grade?) needing summer reading material, Women of Granite is a good one.

For grownups, it’s a good book to surf through — won’t take long and you’ll learn something. It brings Harriet Wilson (the country’s first published African-American novelist) to life more than anything else I’ve read about her, and the same goes for Granny D, the 90-some-year-old who walked across the nation encouraging people to get involved in politics.

Each chapter opens with a quick vignette of the biographee in a telling situation (“Margaret Knight sat in the courtroom and listened to witnesses.”). The chapters are short and lined with “tidbits” about the biographee in the margins. At the close of each chapter there’s a timeline, a list of resources and a glossary.

Starting with a Thompson (Amias Thompson, “the only European woman in New Hampshire” in 1623 — and I wish they’d explained how they know this) and ending with a Thompson (U.S. Olympic swimmer Jenny Thompson), the profiles are arranged in chronological order.

Some are women you already know a lot about, like teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe and former governor Jeanne Shaheen (only the 15th female governor in U.S. history, out of 2,400).

Some are women whose names we know but whose stories we probably don’t, like innkeeper Lucy Howe Crawford (Crawford Notch), Marian MacDowell (the MacDowell Colony), Lotte Jacobi (photography artist) and May Gruber (Pandora). And some will ring no bells; do you know who Mary Bradish Titcomb was? Well, you will now.

Make sure to read the entry for Marilla Ricker, suffragette. She lived in Dover; she passed the bar exam in Washington, D.C., in 1882 but wasn’t allowed to practice law in New Hampshire until she sued for the right — because she won the case, the New Hampshire bar was opened to all women in 1890. She repeatedly tried to vote although women weren’t allowed to. She tried to run for governor to “start the ball rolling” on the idea of women in public office.

There are black & white photos of the modern women, drawings of the earlier ones.

The book occasionally gets that cheery tone common in grade-school books (“The fishing village was saved!”), especially the “you can do it too” kind. But it’s not bad. It lives up to its title: these are women you should know, and so the book tells you about them. Not deeply — no one here cares about whether you supported or opposed Shaheen’s policies, for instance (though there is one bit in the Granny D profile that indicates that yes, kids, sometimes government agencies lie). It’s just about the sheer accomplishments of women.

There are a couple of difficulties in presentation — some incorrect punctuation and some atrocious weirdness in the glossaries’ pronunciation guides, which is very unfortunate in a book kids might use for actual education (also, if you’re going tell us how to pronounce “butterfly” and “workout,” shouldn’t you address the nearby tougher words like “surgery” and “ceremonies”?). Even so, the material is worthwhile and presented nicely enough. Check out its authors at www.thewritesisters.com, the publisher at http://apprenticeshopbooks.com. BLisa Parsons