Book Quote:

“The subject of freedom begs the question of who is ‘free’ and at what cost—and includes the whole history of oppression and the whole history of the oppressor.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (JUN 27, 2011)

Carolyn Cooke is a master of the short story form—she won the O. Henry Award for her collection, The Bostons. Cooke’s debut novel, Daughters of the Revolution, is also set in New England in the late 60’s, in a town called Cape Wilde.

The epicenter of much of the action, even if it might not seem so at first, is the Goode School—a prep school for boys. Principal Goddard Byrd, known simply as “God,” is absolutely against allowing co-education in his school. “Over my dead body” is his constant refrain when asked about it.

Despite all resistance the winds of change do sweep over the Goode School as well and a girl is admitted through a clerical mistake. As it turns out, the girl Carole, is not just at a disadvantage because of her gender—she is also black. Through Carole, Cooke introduces issues of segregation and gender equality and it is to her ample credit, that none of these weighty issues ever feels forced or contrived.

A whole host of powerful women populate the novel. Much of Carole’s story is told through the eyes of a girl several years her junior, EV. As the book progresses, EV grows too and in the late ‘60s, when Carole joins the Goode School, EV and her mother Mei-Mei, are living with “God.” The young and impressionable EV watches Carole’s situation unfold from a distance and she sees the effect it has not just on Carole but also on God.

Incidentally, EV is the daughter of Heck Hellman, a “Goode” boy once held as an example of a model student by God. Early in the novel, Hellman drowns when on a swim with another old friend from the school, Archer Rebozos. As the narrative moves along, Cooke clearly outlines the relationships between the varied cast of characters.

Daughters of the Revolution is a wonderful read—succinct and precise, not a word out of place. For instance, one of the characters is described as “fully formed, the clay still damp.” Cooke treats material that is potentially ripe for melodrama with grace. It is often said that it is hard to make the transition from a short-story writer to that of a novelist. While Cooke has succeeded in moving to a narrative that is more broad in its scope, the only shortcoming in her novel is that it often leaves just a little too much unsaid. The relationship between EV and Carole for example, leaves much room for expansion. It would have been nice to see Cooke draw the line from Carole’s brave foray into unknown waters and its effects on the young EV, much more directly.

Moby Dick makes brief cameo appearances here and one wonders how much Cooke herself is influenced by the themes of fate, courage and racism prevalent in that American classic. Carole once compares herself to the whale and tells God that just as the whale is a projection of man’s fears, she too is a manifestation of God’s.

As for God, “he survived the Great Depression, the crisis of modernism, civil rights, integration, McCarthy, the Bay of Pigs, the 1960s, black power, the sexual revolution, Vietnam and the Cold War,” Cooke writes of him. Cooke’s choice of the word “survived” is careful and deliberate. God did indeed only survive the historic events that shaped the country’s history. While social mores all around them were being rewritten, people like God could do nothing more than bury their heads in the sand and hope it all blew away. That God cuts a sympathy-inducing figure nevertheless, speaks volumes about Cooke’s abilities.

The women though have the last word. At one point in the novel, Mrs. Graves, God’s secretary, reminds him that he is not the only spectator to world events. “The story of the century—well, others have been there too,” she says. In her own subtle way, she puts him in his place. And it’s hard not to cheer when she does.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 6 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (June 7, 2011)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

When Everything Changed by Gail Collins


June 27, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Contemporary, Debut Novel, Facing History, NE & New York, Reading Guide

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