I’m in the middle of reading Karin Altenberg’s historical novel Island of Wings, which takes place on St. Kilda, an archipelago in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Altenberg fictionalizes the lives of the minister and his wife, Neil and Lizzie MacKenzie, assigned to tend to the spiritual needs of the small native population during the 1830s. Altenberg writes beautifully about the both barren and stunning landscape, Lizzie’s feeling of isolation as a non-Gaelic speaker and outsider, and Neil’s struggles with combating what he views as the natives’ barbaric superstitions. The island’s population faced an incredibly high infant mortality rate of more than 50%. The cause was the “eight day sickness” or neonatal tetanus. Lizzie and Neil, sadly, do not escape this sad fate. This month we asked our editors and columnists to share some of their favorite books on the theme of “Mothers Around the World.” Island of Wings is a striking reminder that it is often sadness and loss alongside joy that binds parents in different places and different times together.
Kristina Riggle, Fiction Co-Editor, writes, “I just read This Burns My Heart by Samuel Park, which is a love story set in postwar Korea, but it’s also a portrayal of a mother’s choices and how one’s destiny is forever shaped by motherhood. This book’s main character, Soo-Ja, finds herself in a painful, impossible position from which she cannot free herself without risking the loss of her daughter. This is a beautiful, emotional, graceful book and not to be missed.”
Caroline M. Grant, Editor-In-Chief, shares, “I’ve just started reading the new How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting (from Argentina to Tanzania and Everywhere in Between) by Mei-Ling Hopgood. It’s an engaging mix of anecdotes, research, and interviews — with anthropologists, teachers, and childcare experts — about how parents do their work around the globe. Hopgood is an American expat living in Buenos Aires who was inspired to work on the book because she was shocked at how late Argentinian children stay up. That observation sends her on a journey of exploration, untangling myths and stereotypes, setting aside judgements, to discover what’s best practice in different cultures.”
Katherine J. Barrett, Mother City Mama Columnist, recommends An Elegy for Easterly: Stories by Petina Gappah. “Gappah is a Zimbabwean writer, mother and lawyer. Elegy for Easterly, her debut collection of short stories, has received accolades from around the world. She writes about Zimbabwe under Mugabe and manages to render the horrific engaging, insightful and, at times, very funny. The title story takes place in Easterly, a squatter camp on the outskirts of Harare. ‘Josephat’s wife,’ as she calls herself, moves to Easterly after several miscarriages, thinking her former neighbors had cast spells preventing her from carrying her babies to term. ‘They are eating my children,’ she says. Easterly is eventually bulldozed by the government, and Josephat and ‘Josephat’s wife’ flee once again. Elegy for Easterly portrays all walks of Zimbabwean society: a wife and mother who flies to Johannesburg for groceries; a coffin-maker with a penchant for dance; Rosie, whose bridegroom’s cracked pink lips betrays his HIV status and her fate.”
Four Worlds Columnist, Avery Fischer Udagawa, adds, “I cherish two quite different books about mothers in rural Japan: Haruko’s World : a Japanese Farm Woman and Her Community, With a 1996 Epilogue (83 Edition) by Gail Lee Bernstein and At Home in Japan: A Foreign Woman’s Journey of Discovery written by Rebecca Otowa. Bernstein, an anthropologist, studied the life of a farm woman in Ehime Prefecture by living with the woman and her family from October 1974 to May 1975 and visiting again in 1982 and 1993. She created a classic portrait of her subject, Haruko Utsunomiya, in a book that is both scholarly and highly readable. Rebecca Otowa, by contrast, became the wife and mother in a 350-year-old farmhouse in rural Shiga Prefecture, assuming a role far different than that expected of women in her native California or adopted country of Australia–or even in Tokyo. Her hand-illustrated vignettes illuminate topics from “Fitting In” to “The Harvest” to “Household Gods.” Both Bernstein and Otowa explore how motherhood entwines with agricultural work, extended family duties, community obligations, and even politics in conservative yet changing Japanese hamlets, in a way that even urban mothers overseas (like me) can appreciate.”