Monthly Archives: October 2011

Dear Charlotte Brontë,

Let me add my feminist yawp to the melodious chorus of readers grateful for Jane Eyre. I first met your small, plain, and bookish orphan girl over a hundred years after you wrote her into existence. I was in high school in the fifties, not my best decade. Like Jane, I was skinny, plain, and bookish, but our similarities ended there. For Jane is brave and I’ve always been fearful. I knew I could never survive the many physical hardships she did, but I figured I could follow Jane’s example and hang onto my virginity until, like her, I married my true love. So I guarded the temple through high school and just said no  in college until I graduated in1962 when, on schedule, a wedding band joined the engagement ring on my finger. In the century since you published Jane’s story, little had changed vis á vis the options available to young women.

But that was just before Women’s Liberation. In the early seventies in a grad school course on the 19th century novel, I read Jane Eyre again. Jane had not changed, but the way I read her had. I’d been married ten years and had a little girl. My bra was in ashes, my armpits tufted, and I was teaching English to community college students. These factors plus my male professor’s determination to paint Jane as an early feminist helped me to see her that way too. This prof taught us about male preference primogeniture, the English system of inheritance decreeing that property went to the oldest male heir leaving his sisters to either marry or find work as servants, clerks, or governesses and his brothers to become clergymen or lawyers or find some other vocation. I’d not come across this patriarchy- preserving piece of legislation before, and learning about it changed the way I read your novel.

 Suddenly I understood why you didn’t allow Jane to participate, however  unknowingly, in an illegal marriage to the already married Rochester. Such a union would have offered her no protection and her status would remain unchanged. Before the fire that killed the first Mrs. Rochester, you depicted Rochester himself as extremely powerful. Physically strong with dark eyes and hair, he rode a demonic black stallion and owned a fierce black dog. Together this testosterone-heavy threesome roamed the wild moors, which suited Rochester’s stormy temperament. He also had money, a time-tested virility enhancer. He was powerful. In contrast, Jane is physically weak, fair, virginal, and penniless. But after the fire, Rochester is blind and has lost the use of one arm, a not so subtle phallic reference. The ruins of his mansion  show his decreased finances. However thanks to an unexpected inheritance, Jane is finally financially independent. They are equal. It is only then that you allow them to marry and live happily ever after. Only then can he literally see the world through her eyes and literally follow her lead. Bravo!

So for me Jane Eyre became a highly readable primer on how the personal and the political overlap in the lives of women. Jane helped inspire Aliza Rudinsk, the diarist of my novel The Bones and the Book. Aliza is a gutsy but poor and orphaned Jewish immigrant struggling to work and love in a world where she has pride but little power and monetary  inheritance to allow a happy ending to her story. Thanks for creating a memorable character, one who still moves me to think and write about how hard life is for women when the boys have all the money and clout.  

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under Coming of age story, feminist fiction

Dear David Guterson,

I didn’t read your gripping novel Snow Falling on Cedars because it won the PEN/Faulkner Award. I didn’t read it because it’s a mystery, and I write mysteries myself.  No, I read your book because I’ve always turned to fiction to get the facts, and I wanted to learn more about the Pacific Northwest where my daughter and her boyfriend had settled.  During one of my visits in the late nineties I bought Snow Falling to read on my flight back to Newark.

To this twentieth century tourist, the Seattle area seemed progressive in the best sense of the word. The place seemed too damn hip for racism or anti-Semitism, and I figured it always had been. But reading your dramatic story of how after World War II anti-Japanese bias and post-traumatic stress skew a murder investigation made me wonder. Until I met Kabuo Miyamoto and his wife Hatsue in your novel, the Internment of Japanese-Americans was an abstraction to me and the post war reintegration of the internees into their communities something I’d literally never considered.

Reading of the Miyamotos’ struggle, I found myself wondering what life in the Pacific Northwest was like for Jews during the postwar period. We too had been foreigners. Had we also been blamed for World War II? For being different?  Kabuo and Hatsue are not the only outsiders in your novel. Ishmael, your story’s narrator and a native son, is another. Ishmael is isolated not by his ethnicity but by his war injury and experiences and by his unrequited love for Hatsue, his childhood sweetheart. Both men find strength in memories of their fathers’ cultural and ethical legacies, discoveries not lost on me when, years later, my husband and I moved Out Here and I found myself an outsider.

Phil and I left the east coast for Issaquah, Washington, a suburb of Seattle, in 2003. Although I was still writing the last two books in The Bel Barrett Mystery Series, I was planning to begin work on a historical mystery about an immigrant Jewish girl on New York’s Lower East Side. Writing about an immigrant felt appropriate because here, where I am often the only Jew in the room, I felt myself an outsider. Even as I explained Jewish customs and beliefs to people who actually knew no other Jews, I wasn’t sure I belonged here. The outsiders in Snow Falling on Cedars were much on my mind.

Very, very tentatively I began to consider setting the historical mystery I planned to write not in New York, but in Seattle when it was a frontier town. I began to research what life in the Pacific Northwest was like for those Jews who came here long before I did. Reading Snow Falling on Cedars, a novel as provocative as it is beautiful, inspired the research that eventually led to The Bones and the Book.

But that mystery is not the only novel of mine inspired by Snow Falling on Cedars. Your beautifully written descriptions of the snow, the sea, and the woodlands reinforced this former tourist’s impression that here in the Puget Sound area waterways matter. During my visits I’d seen for myself the many creeks, rivers, lakes, waterfalls and wetlands that divide the terrain and marveled at the scenic inlets, channels, coves, and bays that indent the coast.

Rivers and the ocean matter in The Garden State too. But during my lifetime, northeastern New Jersey, a place I love, has been so overdeveloped that, to tell the embarrassing truth, I never really thought of it as a part of the natural world. But years ago, staring out the window of that jet as we flew low over the notorious New Jersey Meadowlands approaching Newark, your watery tale made waves in my mind. In comparison to the sublimely beautiful San Piedro Island where Snow Falling is set, North Jersey’s familiar boggy backyard appeared more of a wasteland than usual. But with Snow Falling on my lap, I looked at the place differently.  Just as the Puget Sound hasn’t always been home to the cruise and cargo ships, ferries, and Navy installations there now, maybe the Meadowlands hadn’t always been a body drop and a garbage dump.

 Intrigued, I researched those wetlands and learned that long before there were pig farms or outlets, even before Jimmy Hoffa supposedly ended up there, the Hackensack River was an escape route for runaway slaves. Commercial vessels plied its waters, and its banks were home to many varieties of native flora and fauna. The reed-choked waterway of my childhood is slowly being reclaimed by environmentalists. The place is alive with seldom told stories. I set Hot on the Trail in the Meadowlands.

Thank you for writing a book so powerful and so beautiful that it moved me to reimagine my native state and to discover yours and my grandchildren’s.  

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under Coming of age story, Immigrant story, mystery