Bergman’s story collection transports me to the antique stores of my childhood, knees pressed against the cement floor while rifling through boxes of faded photographs and erecting sepia-toned stories in my head. Bergman’s sharp, no-nonsense prose gives life to women throughout history who redefine our collective sense of femininity, who rework the historical framework of women in wartime and defy conventions. These stories demonstrate that women find untapped strength even as history overlooks them, and explore the tenuous grasp of beauty or artistic talent on power.
Bergman’s stories begin with a seed, a photograph, a quote, a piece of a much larger story lost to history. These images are grainy from age, reproduction and the technology of their period. Bergman captures these deliberately preserved, yet still lost, moments with simple, elegant writing.
Some of her characters are recognizable by their famous relations: Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, Oscar Wilde’s niece. Allegra, Norma and Dolly are re-imagined as full beings—with hopes, dreams and appetites—transforming their status from historical footnote to feminist crusaders. Bergman’s writing focuses on the psychology of these women—the reactions to circumstances created by and for them.
“Joe” Carstairs, the fastest woman on water and Standard Oil heir, straps a machete to her chest and belies the horror in her heart; she carries the ugliness of war inside her where no one can see. Conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton are, despite their efforts, one body that men, show-business, and age tolls heavily. Tiny Davis blows her trumpet in the first integrated female jazz band in America, angering men whose ignorance is a rack they hang their hats on. Beryl Markham, recently divorced and wild with freedom, breaks a stallion in Nairobi while artist Romaine Brooks succumbs to age and struggles to maintain her power.
Longing characterizes Bergman’s characters: for another life, for freedom, for their dead and even their own deaths. These women flaunt conventionality. Some live with undiagnosed post-traumatic-stress disorder after serving as ambulance drivers and nurses in wartime. These are women who understand the power of lipstick on survivors of concentration camps, for twins who can never stand alone, and on mothers. These are women who break and mend themselves over and over again—who won’t give up or in.
Bergman writes in her author’s note that she never intended her stories as cautionary tales. By bringing these women to life, even re imagined and fitted with her own interpretations, Bergman points to the flaws in our cultural historical record, the incomplete nature of collective memory and how such holes put modern concepts of femininity under unfair constraints. Don’t led generic definitions of femininity mislead us; Bergman’s stories open the door for a discussion about the unacknowledged roles of women in history by reminding us we are discussing humans—beautiful, fragile, strong humans.