Review 1641: The Dictionary of Lost Words

After reading The Professor and the Madman, Pip Williams got interested in the ways that gender affected the original edition of the OED. She wrote The Dictionary of Lost Words to honor the women who helped produce the dictionary.

As a little girl, Esme becomes fascinated with the strips of paper used to keep track of different uses of words. Her father is the assistant to Dr. Murray, who is in charge of the OED project, and she spends a lot of time sitting under her father’s desk at the Scriptorium. One day, she finds the strip for the word “bondwoman” and puts it in her pocket. She begins collecting duplicate strips or words that will not be included in the dictionary and puts them in a trunk.

As a young woman, she begins working in the Scriptorium. She becomes fascinated with the idea that some words are not allowed in the dictionary because they don’t have a written source. Many of these words, she notices, are related to the poor and to women—words for women’s body parts, professions, epithets for women. She begins collecting her own words from Lizzie, the Murray’s maid, and from common people in the market.

link to Netgalley

This novel not only reflects the love of words but also the events of the time—the battle for women’s suffrage and eventually World War I. At first, I had difficulty getting into it, but that may in part have had to do with my problems with eBooks. Eventually, I was sucked in and found the novel touching, even though a few plot points are predictable.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review. I had this review already scheduled for posting when I learned that the book made it to the shortlist for the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize.

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Day 468: The Invention of Wings

Cover for The Invention of WingsBest Book of the Week!

When I began reading The Invention of Wings, I thought it was purely historical fiction. It wasn’t until later in the novel, when some names rang a few bells, that I realized I was reading biographical fiction about two women whose accomplishments have been forgotten—Sarah and Angelina Grimké. A third important character, the slave Hetty, is fictional, except that Sarah was given a slave by that name when she was 11 and they both got into trouble when Sarah taught her to read.

The novel tells a remarkable story, narrated alternately by Sarah and Hetty (known as Handful), beginning in 1803. Sarah was born into privilege in Charleston, South Carolina. When she is given Handful as an 11th birthday present, slavery is already so abhorrent to her that she tries to free her slave. But legally doing so has been made more difficult, and her parents won’t allow it. Sarah is her father’s pet, and he takes pride in and encourages her intelligence, but when he finds out she thinks she can become a lawyer, he firmly rebukes her and bars her from his library.

Handful’s mother Charlotte is a strong and rebellious figure and a wonderful artist. She is the best seamstress in town and keeps the history of her life in a quilt she is sewing. By earning money hiring herself out behind Mrs. Grimké’s back, she is trying to save enough to buy the freedom of herself and her daughter. After Sarah’s mother has her brutally punished, she takes whatever liberties she can get away with, including sneaking away to have an affair with a freedman named Denmark Vesey.

As Sarah gets older, her sense of injustice deepens to the point where feels she must leave Charleston to move north to Philadelphia and become a Quaker. She is eventually followed by her much younger sister Angelina (Nina), where they become infamous for their lectures and articles on abolition, racial equality, and feminism.

http://www.netgalley.comFor the first half of the book, I was fascinated most by Handful, a character with a distinctive voice and personality. She becomes as gifted with her needle as her mother and loves to hear Charlotte’s stories of her African homeland. More subtly subversive then her mother, after Charlotte disappears, Handful visits Denmark Vesey’s household and assists with his attempted slave revolt. Later when Sarah and Nina find their purpose in life, I found both stories equally interesting.

This novel is remarkable. The Grimkés’ story is amazing, especially for their time, which was years before Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But Handful’s story is evocative, compelling, and touching.