Archive for the ‘women's roles’ Tag

Dictionary Women — and Men   Leave a comment

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams is an engaging novel about how the complete edition of the Oxford English Dictionary came to be. In addition to its development, perhaps more importantly, it addresses women’s roles in the achievement.

Along with the words that make it into the initial version is the vocabulary that the mostly male lexicographers overlooked – either by design or ignorance. Here’s where narrator Esme comes in. As a young child she spent most of her time under the table where her widowed father and his colleagues collected words for inclusion in the dictionary.

When not in the “Scriptorium,” Esme is in the nearby home of James Murray where housemaid Lizzie cares for the young girl. Despite class differences, theirs is a relationship that endures as Esme grows up and begins her own collection of words. She starts with some discarded by the men and later adds the vernacular of working class women she discovers with Lizzie’s help.

Williams’s novel is inspired by true events, but isn’t just historical. The story is brought to life by the vivid personalities of the main characters, but also lesser, nonetheless equally important, ones. While the dictionary is being compiled (a decades-long endeavor), the arduous battle of the women’s suffrage movement is underway (another lengthy process). The backdrop of societal mores, the Great War and personal relationships imbues the work with emotion.

Words and their meanings are significant but their power is reflected in how they’re used and by whom.

The Dictionary of Lost Words

Four Bookmarks

Ballentine Books, 2021

388 pages (includes epilogue, author’s notes, timeline and book group discussion questions)

Women at War   Leave a comment

43726511

Although beautifully written, Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King was initially frustrating. I was anxious to meet the title character. He isn’t introduced until more than halfway through the novel at which point it becomes difficult to put down.

A shadow king, it’s explained, is essentially a double, someone who can pass as the real thing. In this case, it’s a peasant who looks like the exiled emperor in war-torn Ethiopia. Yet, the narrative highlights the role of two women: Aster and her servant, Hirut, in the battle against the Italians.

Before the invasion, before the emperor vacates his country, Hirut arrives at the home of Aster and her husband, Kidane an officer in the emperor’s army. Newly orphaned, Hirut must learn to accept her role as a maid to Aster who is jealous of the younger woman.  

In 1935, Mussolini’s army is ruthless in its assault leaving many dead and homeless in its wake. Kidane assembles a small band of soldiers, with the women serving as cooks and nurses, forced to hide in the hills to avoid capture or worse.

Among the Italians are a ruthless, sadistic officer and his assistant, Ettore, a photographer tasked with documenting the war to put Italy in the best possible light. He has a conscience; his superior does not.

Hirut and Aster want to do more than be supporting players. Their efforts reflect the power and strength of women in even the most dire circumstances, along, unfortunately, with the easy dismissal of their accomplishments.

The Shadow King

Four Bookmarks

W.W. Norton & Co., 2019

428 pages