“Feisty First Ladies and Other Unforgettable White House Women,” by Autumn Stephens
Remember last year’s political uproar? No, I’m not talking about election stumping or finger-pointing. Not mavericks or six-packs or porcine lipstick (although, who can forget those?).
No, think farther back. This uproar came with a conundrum of sorts: If a woman became president of the United States, what would we call her husband? “First Man” is too clinical. “First Gentleman” sounds so stodgy.
Maybe “First Guy?”
Or, maybe not. At any rate, the argument is safe for now. But, would you believe that our first ladies weren’t so-called until our nation was several years old? In fact, the first, “First Lady,” really wasn’t. Read more in “Feisty First Ladies and Other Unforgettable White House Women,” by Autumn Stephens.
Back when our country was just born and the senate wanted to call George Washington “His Highness,” Martha Washington struggled to find a suitable name for herself in her new position. “Marquise” was a brief possibility, but, in the end, “Lady Washington” sufficed. Incidentally, although portraits usually depict Martha as a dignified, elderly woman, she was known for sassiness in her youth.
And, speaking of less-than-demure behavior, Quaker-raised Dolley Madison was said to, “cut quite a figure on the dance floor.” Martha loved snuff, plunging necklines and fabulous chapeaus, and her patriotism is legendary. During the War of 1812, as the British were descending upon the White House, she snatched a portrait of George Washington off the wall and hurried to safety. What most history books don’t tell you is that she also saved another portrait: of herself.
Not content with rescuing paintings, Elizabeth Monroe once saved a human from the guillotine.
Yes, the White House has seen plenty of unique individuals. Several first ladies shunned publicity and became virtual hermits while their husbands were in office. There was once, arguably, a mentally ill first lady, and a few who were quite possibly better educated than their husbands. Some acted as advisors and offered unflagging support for their mates, while others (unhappily) shared the president not only with constituents, but also with other women. Then, there was the 20th-century first lady who was rumored to have offed her husband to save him from embarrassment.
I was afraid, when I got this book, that it was going to be more blah-blah-blah about Washington wives. I couldn’t have been farther from the truth. “Feisty First Ladies” is a lively book, filled with thumbnail bios of not just first ladies, but of daughters, nieces and other women who left their marks on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Stephens surprised me, page after page, with delicious political gossip and little-known trivia-like factoids. I was pleased to see mini-chapters on the first woman who ran for president (long before women could vote); the irrepressible Martha Mitchell; the first lady who refused to share a checkbook with her husband; and the woman whose name came from an Italian opera term.
Even if you’re tired of Washington business-as-usual, grab this book, anyhow. “Feisty First Ladies” makes politics seem like a party.
“Coop,” by Michael Perry
Throughout your life–and quite possibly throughout every day–you experience a series of milestones. Your parents eagerly looked for many of your firsts: tooth, word, steps and day of school. You remember your first date, your first car, your first love and your first job. These days, you look for first signs of spring, first day of vacation and other, never-happened-before events that can occur.
As a new husband, author Michael Perry anticipated a whole slew of new experiences, and in “Coop,” he writes about them: his farm and his family, fresh seasons, young livestock and seeing his parents in a different light.
Perry grew up on a farm in northern Wisconsin. During much of his childhood, his father milked cows to pay the bills and raised sheep to make up the difference when ends didn’t meet. From his parents–both members of an obscure fundamentalist Christian sect–Perry learned self-sufficiency, the value of hard work and the ability to stand for his beliefs. He also learned to cobble together what he needed from what he had on hand.
Those legacies helped when Perry, his new wife Anneliese, and his “given” daughter moved to his mother-in-law’s former homestead.
Leaving behind his beloved New Auburn in favor of a smaller Wisconsin town wasn’t without adjustment, but Perry had a few things to look forward to. He was planning to build a coop for a long-desired flock of chickens. A weed-infested corner of the property would, with salvaged fencing, become a pigpen. There would be the beginnings of a garden beneath a hastily-made cold frame. And, Anneliese was pregnant with their first child.
During their first year on the farm, in-between book tours, family obligations and deadlines, Perry noticed the land, as he is wont to do. He used a tailfeather-less pheasant and wood-stacking “punishment,” as a lesson for his daughter. He reflects upon a “waste-not, want-not” philosophy when feeding his pigs with plants and game from the land. His memories of growing up on a farm in a warm, loving household tie into most of his observations.
On a farm, you embrace life. You know it’s cyclical and though you never get used to it, you know there is death. At the end of this book, you’ll know that 368 pages of “Coop” is woefully inadequate. It’s hard to let go of. You’ll want more.
“Tell me a story from your childhood,” is a plea Perry is used to hearing, and his readers are lucky he’s a willing tale spinner. This book is part paean to devoted parents, faithful community and a good upbringing; part joyous love letter to a family and to friends-made-family; and part common-sense parenting, with plenty of humor, Will Rogers-ish philosophy and not just a little grief.
If you’re looking for the perfect Mother’s Day gift, something heartfelt for Father’s Day or, if you just need a book to take to the hammock with you this summer, look for this one. “Coop” should be the first book you grab.
The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. Terri has been reading since she was 3 years old and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.