What could whale watching for a week on San Juan Island and the books I’m going to review, Blood and Beauty, by Sarah Dunant (Random House, 2013), Stuck in the Middle with You, by Jennifer Finney Boylan (Crown Publishers, 2013), and The Witness Wore Red, by Rebecca Musser (Hachette Book Group, 2013), possibly have in common? Other than the fact that I brought the books with me to read while I reflected on retirement from a thirty year teaching career, an empty nest, and how I would go about reinventing myself, all while scanning the horizon from my rental house every day for whales, it would seem the answer is “Not much”. But as I watched and learned about Orca Whales during the day and read these books by night, it occurred to me that they do have a very important common denominator: the myriad ways in which “family” can manifest itself in our world.
Orca whales move almost exclusively in matrilinear “pods”, where several generations hunt, rest, raise youngsters, and play together. One pod of Transient Orca whales we watched actually included a 90 year-old female and her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren! We humans have developed decidedly more complex family structures. Blood and Beauty narrates the story of one exceedingly “inappropriate” family: the Borgias, of Renaissance fame. Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI in 1492, made no secret of his illegitimate children, and tales of their debauchery have titillated readers through the subsequent centuries.
Sarah Dunant is one of my favorite historical novelists, and she does a brilliant job in this book of teasing out the more lurid parts of the Borgia legacy from the probable reality. Dunant’s books are always solidly researched, and in this novel she takes the approach of viewing the Borgias as similar to a modern celebrity family, showing how references to them in the existing documents from the era could be misconstrued for political gain by the various players in the continuous chess game that was late medieval/early Renaissance Europe. Given that Popes weren’t supposed to even have children, the blatant attempts by Rodrigo Borgia to elevate his family legacy at the expense of church doctrine has made this family endlessly fascinating through the centuries. I especially liked the way Dunant portrayed the infamous Lucrezia as less a sex-crazed siren and more a young woman manipulated by the political whims of her father and brother.
From 1492, fast forward 500 years. Stuck in the Middle with You, tells the very modern story of how transgender author and college professor Boylan transitioned from being a father (James) to being a mother (Jenny) of two young sons, all while managing to keep her marriage and family together, in effect creating an entirely new family construct with two non-lesbian mothers. The book is memoir writing at its finest. I really empathized with the pain this individual and couple experienced, and developed a deep respect for the way in which they created a loving and stable home for their sons, all while challenging some of society’s deepest assumptions about gender and family. What struck me repeatedly was how matter-of-fact the boys were about this change, even coining the name “Maddy” for Boylan as a way of acknowledging the new reality of Daddy as Mommy.
Interspersed through chapters narrating the author’s childhood and realization that she needed to be her most authentic self as a woman are interviews with noted authors and friends like Edward Albee and Ann Beattie, in which they discuss all the ways in which families shape us. I liked the way in which each interview revealed an entirely different perception of family and parenthood. I have lately had many of my own assumptions about what my family should look like be challenged, and this book helped me embrace these challenges and see them as a way to grow as a mother and as a person.
Boylan is a gifted writer, with a genuine, thoughtful voice. Her story is alternately funny and heartbreaking, and I emerged with a new understanding of transgender issues and the basic reality that while we are all products of our families, we can always chose how we respond to our past as we strive to shape a better, more honest, and more fulfilling future. (FTC disclaimer: I received the book Stuck in the Middle with You, by Jennifer Finney Brown (Crown Publishers, 2013) for free from Blogging for Books for this review.)
Stuck in the clothing and original Mormon teachings of the 1800’s, The Witness Wore Red looks at an entirely different, but also unconventional family structure, that of the FLDS (Fundamentalist Later Day Saints) group presided over by the now-imprisoned Warren Jeffs. Author Rebecca Musser grew up in this culture, and was the 19th wife of Jeffs’ father, Rulon Jeffs, considered a prophet by this sect. When Rulon died and Rebecca was being forced into another polygamous marriage, probably to Warren, she took the courageous step of leaving the group. In her determination to save the thousands of women and young girls being exploited by the increasingly bizarre religious edicts of Jeffs, she eventually ended up being a key witness in the trials that sent Warren and several of his cronies to prison.
While the FLDS sect expounds on the ultimate in “family values” as an integral part of achieving salvation, Musser narrates a childhood of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her father’s first wife and family, and then the Jeffs family. I admire her ability to think through the inconsistencies between the words and actions of the sect’s leaders, and her decision to seek her own truth. In this way she actually has quite a bit in common with the transgender Jennifer Finney Boylan. It seems that Musser is determined to raise her own children in a healthier, more loving setting, and I found myself thinking that the unconventional, but exceptionally stable and loving family built by Finney Boylan is a decidedly much better example than most that Musser could find in her supposedly deeply traditional family of origin.
When my dear friend and I returned to her home in Portland after our week of whale watching, her husband asked me if I had experienced any sort of revelations about my retirement. At the time I couldn’t think of a good answer, and I’m still not sure I have one – other than the realization that after thirty years of teaching, I’m just plain TIRED! But my unconscious choice of reading material did help me to reflect on my empty nest, on the family I thought I would have and the one I actually ended up with, and on the conclusion that it doesn’t matter what your family looks like as long as there is deep love, acceptance, and support.
And looking at this in writing, it seems like that’s a pretty good thing to have accomplished! Plus, I got to see whales three different times, and bald eagles pretty much every day. Oh, and I learned that I love sea kayaking. 🙂