Neil Gaiman, the prolific and durably imaginative American author of novels, short stories, films, graphic novels, and even comic books is fiercely devoted to promoting reading. He said “the simplest way to make sure we raise literate children is to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means finding books that kids enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.” That’s precisely the mission of the homegrown Guys Read Gals Read program that presents engagingly fun books to elementary students because not everyone is lucky enough to have a mom read to them every night, like mine did. Most of the books she shared were fun and stimulating, and, many decades later, I’m still seeking out and devouring fun books, though my definition of “fun” has broadened considerably.
The Dictionary of Literary Biography is a fun book in my estimation because it’s rife with fascinating, even bizarre writers who were heretofore unknown to me. A recent perusal of volume 121: “Seventeenth-Century British Nondramatic Poets,” for instance, introduced me to Lady Mary Wroth, “the first English-woman to write a complete sonnet sequence as well as an original work of prose fiction.” Her novel was titled “The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania,” and its plot (which contains over 300 characters) was a transparent mirroring of the many peccadillos and scandals she was privy to as one of Queen Anne’s ladies-in-waiting in the early 1600s, as well as details from her own notorious affair with her cousin, William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, King James I’s chamberlain and steward.
Mary’s mom, who was also a poet, made sure her girl got a solid education. Unfortunately, when she was twelve her money-grubbing father betrothed her to the son of a wealthy landowner, Sir Robert Wroth, whose hunting skills made him a favorite with King James I. Wroth was also an alcoholic, a terrible gambler, abusive, and anti-intellectual who “had only one book dedicated to him – a treatise on mad dogs.”. As Mary’s friend Ben Jonson put it, she was “unworthily married on a Jealous husband,” but Wroth died of gangrene in 1614 a month after her son was born, leaving her deeply in debt. Mary lost her estate when her son died two years later, and the property devolved to the next male descendent: her husband’s uncle. Mary moved into Pembroke’s London mansion for a few years and subsequently had two illegitimate children. Although she claimed to not have intended the publication of “Urania,” the uproar following its 1621 publication ruined her at court, caused Herbert to distance himself and she spent the years up to her death in 1653 forestalling her creditors. Her literary reputation endured, however. The famed Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. went to pains to possess two of the twenty-nine extant copies of “Urania,” and the rest are in other rare book libraries.
Johanna July, another remarkable woman, had husband trouble, too. I discovered her in “The Wild Mustang: Horses of the American West,” a Guys Read Gals Read book. Johanna’s family were multiracial Black Seminoles who were forced out of Florida to Oklahoma before fleeing to Mexico, where Johanna was born in 1860. Not long afterwards her father, Ned Phillips, a noted horse breaker, joined the U.S. Army’s Negro Indian Scouts and moved his family to Eagle Pass, Texas beside the Rio Grande. He died when Johanna was 12, whereupon she helped make ends meet by breaking horses. The Texas Handbook, that state’s online encyclopedia and another source of enjoyable browsing, described Johanna’s “method of breaking horses. She put on her clothes that needed washing and led the horse to the Rio Grande. July pulled the horse into the deep water forcing it to swim. She stayed in the water until the horse was tired, and then she hopped on its back and rode out of the river. Her method of gentling the horse took advantage of the terrain and lessened her chore of cleaning her garments.”
Johanna was an excellent judge of horseflesh, but of husbands, not so much. At eighteen, in 1878, she married Carolina July, a Negro Indian Scout, who immediately began roughing her up, so she stole a neighbor’s horse and fled to her mother. “Her husband tried to take her back, but she eluded both his capture and his bullets,” until he died in 1884. Johanna didn’t wait for that event; she married a soldier, Alex Wilkes around 1880, and they had four children before his death sometime prior to 1900. In 1909 she married Charles Lasley, and they “ran a successful business raising cattle, breaking horses, and selling hides” until he died in 1925. We know of this remarkable woman thanks to the Folklore Project of the New Deal Federal Writers Project interviewing her shortly before her death in 1942.
“Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World” by French artist Penelope Bagieu is a graphic novel from our public library that introduced me to a bevy of unfamiliar remarkable women. Some I knew – daring journalist Nelly Bly, actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr, dancer and French resistance fighter Josephine Baker, but others I enjoyed meeting for the first time: Agnodice (Athenian gynecologist in the 4th century BCE), Nzinga (Queen of Ndongo – modern Angola – in the early 1600s CE), and twentieth century volcanologist Katie Kraft.
I met Helen Fagin through her letter about why reading is important that was included in a collection titled “A Velocity of Being” which raised money for the New York Public Library. Letters from a bunch of A-listers (like Jane Goodall and Yo Yo Ma) are included, but Helen’s stands out. At twenty-one she was imprisoned in the infamous Warsaw Ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland. “I conducted a clandestine school,” Helen wrote, “offering Jewish children a chance at the essential education denied them by their captors. But I soon came to feel that teaching these sensitive young souls Latin and mathematics was cheating them of something far more essential – what they needed wasn’t dry information but hope. The kind that comes from being transported into a dream-world of possibility … one girl beseeched me: Could you please tell us a book?” The Nazis forbade all books, but the night before Helen had read a smuggled copy of “Gone With the Wind.” “As I ‘told’ them the book, they shared the loves and trials of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara … For that magical hour, we had escaped into a world not of murder but of manners and hospitality. All the children’s faces had grown animated with new vitality.”
Helen escaped the ghetto with her sisters and made it to New York City knowing no English, but earned a PhD, taught literature for twenty years, and was instrumental in the creation of the Holocaust Memorial in D.C. The Dr. Helen N. Fagin Room in New College of Florida’s Cook Library contains her personal library of holocaust and human rights materials as well as her personal oral history. A library is a fitting place for that repository, for Helen was also Neil Gaiman’s cousin, and, as committed library lover Gaiman has said, “Libraries really are the gates to the future.”