Some minis on remarkable women doing amazing things today, because we can always use more of that.
The Double Life of Katharine Clark: The Untold Story of the Fearless Journalist Who Risked Her Life for Truth and Justice, by Katharine Gregorio. Published March 15, 2022 by Sourcebooks
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Quite the incredible story here, as the titular figure’s great niece Katharine Gregorio writes about her aunt’s unusual life in Cold War Europe. She first worked alongside her husband as a wire reporter and later collaborated with Serbian Communist leader Milovan Djilas to smuggle the manuscript of his book, The New Class, an exposé into how Communism was really playing out in Yugoslavia, out of the region to the rest of the world. It “would go on to sell three million copies worldwide, become a New York Times bestseller, be translated into over 60 languages, and be used by the CIA in its covert book program”; needless to say, this was a massively important achievement. The insights into Djilas’ interactions with Communist party leaders, including Stalin himself, were a fascinating highlight here.
Something that came up repeatedly in Clark’s life was the blatant sexism and discrimination she faced as a woman. The “Nevertheless, she persisted” attitude Clark espoused in the face of it is extraordinary and inspiring, even when she was passed over for projects that were her idea in favor of her husband, Ed, also a journalist.
This is styled as narrative nonfiction and it reads like a novel on every single page. At times for me a bit too like one, as although the research is meticulous, I felt taken out of the story with a detail level that could feel unnecessary.
But this is a minor grievance, and Katharine does come alive vibrantly. She’s smart, resourceful, creative, and unfailingly brave. Gregorio included the sweetest line that Clark enclosed in a letter to her about her future: “You have the biggest job—Katharines always do!” So sweet! I love that this story was able to be told by her relative, who used Clark’s extensive personal papers to piece it together.
And I also love that there’s been a focus in recent narrative nonfiction on telling the stories of women who accomplished exceptional things during turbulent times of the 20th century and haven’t received widespread recognition for that. Not to mention that it shows in so much detail what life in postwar Yugoslavia was like: not a story often told or a common setting, as I just mentioned.
Downeast: Five Maine Girls and the Unseen Story of Rural America, by Gigi Georges. Published May 2021 by Harper
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Journalist and political scientist Gigi Georges delves into the world of Washington County in northeastern Maine, an insular, remote rural fishing community where non-locals are considered “from away” and a place struggling greatly to adapt and stay afloat in the current economic environment.
Using the microcosm of this region, she follows five teenage girls, pseudonymized as Willow, Vivian, Mckenna, Audrey, and Josie, as they finish high school and try to figure out their place in the world. It’s an uphill battle: the region’s population is draining as young residents migrate for work and educational opportunities and under the looming threat of the opioid epidemic.
Willow lives in the shadow of an abusive, drug-addicted father and searches for stability through photography and love. Vivian, a gifted writer, feels stifled by her church and town, and struggles to break free without severing family ties. Mckenna is a softball pitching phenom whose passion is the lobster-fishing she learned at her father’s knee. Audrey is a beloved high school basketball star who earns a coveted college scholarship but questions her chosen path. Josie, a Yale-bound valedictorian, is determined to take the world by storm.
I grew up in a fairly similar kind of community in Maryland, although I was completely unfamiliar with this part of Maine. But I could understand the feelings and frustrations these young women faced, and for that I really enjoyed getting this deep dive into their worlds at such a pivotal time in their lives. I also really enjoy this type of embedded journalistic deep-dive, reminiscent of one of my favorites, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx. This isn’t as extensive as that book, which was the product of many years’ of the author’s living with the family, but there’s something similar. Until I read Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls I also had no idea that parts of Maine were in such dire economic straits, so I was very interested in learning more about this.
Georges takes a sympathetic view to her subjects and peppers their narratives with facts and statistics about rural poverty, employment, education, and women’s roles. This may have been the part of the book that I really appreciated the most, as her style of weaving these statistics into the narrative was seamless and they were fascinating. I think I would’ve preferred even a somewhat broader view based on this data than what this takes, as sometimes the girls’ stories felt a bit too granular. Nevertheless, it’s an admirable social study and portrait of a region that represents greater truths about the state of rural America today and the complex, interconnected economic issues these areas are facing.
Although this did at times feel depressing, it is ultimately more hopeful than not. Seeing what these young women were able to accomplish despite tough starts and conditions was reassuring. The future isn’t easy but there are paths, and the resilience and dedication these girls’ show is truly admirable.
I received advance copies courtesy of the respective publishers/authors for unbiased review.