Rhubarb Report

These fat nubs are my rhubarb, planted last summer and, after overwintering, poking through the soil in the narrow garden plot beside our garage and promising a first proper harvest to come in June!

Rhubarb reportedly prefers well-drained, fertile soil in full sun, but the garden plot where we have planted ours has thin, stony soil and only partial sunlight. It is also partly beneath the eave of our neighbours’ garage, meaning it receives only peripatetic rainfall. But last year it seemed to do quite well, and I’m hopeful that this year we’ll get a decent harvest.

A decade ago this stretch between our neighbours’ garage and our back walkway was dry and stony, and underlain by shards of glass and broken concrete. I resolved to turn it into a garden where I could grow raspberries, and here is what it looked like last June.

I’ve set in a row of old bricks to hold soil and moisture, and every year I amend the soul liberally with compost. To me this strip–about 18 inches wide and about 12 feet long–is evidence that almost any space can be made into a garden with a little care and a willingness to experiment. It does have limitations, though: last year we planted zucchini along here, which flowered but never fruited and eventually developed powdery mildew.

This year I would like to grow a few sunflowers along here, and am tempted to colonize the garage wall with hanging planters for lettuce or other shade-tolerating edibles.

But for now, the big news is that the rhubarb is up!

Birthday Me, Circa 1974

… and birthday me, circa 1975, when Easter coincided with my birthday and my mother made a bunny cake, the instructions for which almost certainly came from a Family Circle or Woman’s Day magazine.




Spring Bulbs

I’ve been sick all week with a cold, but went out yesterday afternoon to rake the front gardens. Dug the leaf rake out of the garage, located a few yard waste bags, brought out the pruning secateurs, and found one remaining pair of wearable gardening gloves (I buy them in bunches each spring at the dollar store, but more seem to disappear over the year than ever actually wear out).

Every fall I pile fallen leaves onto the garden for winter insulation. The challenge, in the spring, is to rake them off at just the right time. Too early and sprouting greens may end up frost-bitten; too late and the bulb tips will already have begun poking into the leaf litter and get nipped off by the rake. The prefect day to rake is a mild, sunny day followed by rain, and yesterday was mild and sunny, while today a light mist is falling.

While raking, the only signs of life I noticed were thin green strands of scilla (squill) marshaling themselves for the season. But ten minutes after I had finished raking, the tips of crocus had begun to appear all over the garden.

It is so good to have my hands in the soil again after the winter. The earth is alive and warm and rich, and there there is increasingly good research evidence that healthy soil microbiomes contribute positively to agricultural yields as well as to good human health. There is evidence, too, that healthier soils produce sweeter crops. I am not a soil scientists, but ‘know’ from long experience that in the spring the soil feels particularly alive, even sentient. And I try to treat it the way I would any other living thing. [Anyone interested in a fascinating, accessible and beautifully written book about soil would do well to read William Bryant Logan’s book Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth (1995; 2007).]

This morning it was raining lightly, and overnight the front garden had grown a green cast. Bulbs are popping up all over–crocus, scilla, tulips, narcissus, hyacinth–and so too are the green beginnings of dame’s rocket, goldenrod, echninacea, bergamot, creeping Charlie, iris, mint and serpent garlic. For several years I have planned to dig up and reset the front garden, which has grown rather wild. But getting the timing right will be just as important as it is when first raking the leaves off in the spring. Too early and there’s the risk of digging over plants worth keeping; too late and the soil will have grown hard with midsummer drought.

I’m not quite sure what I’d like for the front garden. It enjoys a west and south exposure but is lightly shaded by our large honey locust tree. Years ago we designed it around a large, elevated slab of limestone atop which sits a sundial. This edifice is surrounded by a ring of limestone meant to serve as a walkway, but the some of the limestone has gotten buried and the walkway was too narrow to be practical. I am thinking, I suppose, of renewing the garden as a quadrant, perhaps with more perennial herbs toward the front alongside perennial flowers. I do like the wild English garden effect, and so do the cats who lie hidden in it on hot days, but think it could also work better if it was just slightly more formal. Something to dream out in the coming weeks, I think.

After the Storm

Two years ago, on the day the ice went out in the lake, my beautiful mother died.

Her breath, which had raged in her throat all afternoon, grew lighter and fainter and further away, and then stopped, like the wind after a storm.

After her death I did everything that needed to be done, and bore everything that needed to be borne.

I kept all her secrets.

*

Yesterday, on the first day of spring, I took my bike out of the garage and rode down to the lake. The ice had gone out, all of it except for a few slabs heaved onto the shore by a storm. From underneath each one came a musical tinkling as hexagonal columns of ice sheared off in the sunlight.

I shared a sandwich with a pair of swans, and moiled in the gravel for beach glass. I found part of a tiny porcelain insulator, a Bakelite wheel, four fat nuggets of frosted slag glass, five pieces of blue transferware, and the cobalt rim of a very old crock or pitcher. I brought them home to value and keep, and to learn what may be learned from them.

Beach glass, Lake Ontario, 2019.

So much wreckage, softened and worn by the erosion of time. Not all of it washes ashore–the lake keeps a few secrets–but enough pieces of it make landfall for parts of the story to be pieced together. Beloved crockery, broken and discarded, returns to haunt or heal.

After a storm is the best time to find beach glass. During a storm waves scour the lakebed and churn up the shore, obliterating and then reshaping it. Afterward, the rough outline of points and bays remains the same, but on the beach itself, everything has changed.

A beachcomber will, with diligence, uncover the familiar landmarks and, by observing the pattern of the waves and the spill of sediments along the shoreline, identify where artifacts are most likely to wash up.

And this is what I did yesterday; what I’ve been doing for two years. I waited out the storm and watched the shore and gathered what could be retrieved.

The Queen of Sheba

Today is International Women’s Day, and this morning I woke up thinking of my grandmother, Helena Inazella Damery (nee Black), seen here circa 1933, who knew how and when to wield an axe. She was widowed early, and supported herself for decades on a rural farm in the Canaan Valley, New Brunswick, planting her own fields, hunting, building whatever she needed (including an indoor bathroom, in aid of which she inveigled a highway works crew to dig a septic system in exchange for gossip and a drink!), cutting lumber for her woodstove, traveling to Moncton and Fredericton to work, and writing sardonic letters that make me wish I had known her as an adult. On the back of this photograph she has written, “The ‘Queen of Sheba’ Ha ha!”

‘Lena, as she was known, was born at Cherryvale NB in 1914. She was the eldest of seven children born to William Harold Black and Edith Helena Black (nee Corey). In 1937 she married my grandfather, Thomas Murray Damery, and together they lived near Hunter’s Home, a few miles downstream until his death in 1965 and the illness that resulted in her death in 1988. They had two children: Cecil William Damery, who died in 2003, and my mother, Bernita Helena Harris (nee Damery), born in 1944.

After my mother died in 2017, I came across several boxes of documents in the attic of her house, including about 100 letters from her mother. A few days ago I began sorting and cataloguing them, appropriate timing, I think, in advance of International Women’s Day. My mother and grandmother were not always close–my parents moved to Ontario in 1971 and returned ‘down Home’ infrequently, and my grandmother felt somewhat abandoned–but ‘Lena’s letters are always loving and rich in detail. They are also somewhat sardonic, reflecting her judgments of relations, coworkers and acquaintances to whom she was required by convention or relationship to remain civil in person. In addition, they reveal a private bitterness about some of the challenges she confronted in the years after my grandfather’s premature death–running a rural household without help, driving long distances to a series of poorly-paid housekeeping jobs–but also a triumphant pride in her ingenuity and persistence despite these difficulties.

Here are a few representative excerpts from her letters:

[25 July 1972]: “I shot a porcupine the other night, 2 shots with the 22. he had kept me awake the night before chewing on the back of the wood-house. I gave him a decent burial the next day. I tried to shoot a ground-hog but took buck fever, the old gun just shook, then when I got over that, I didn’t want to shoot him in the back, so I missed, but the mud flew in his face. I’ll try again the next time I’m home.”

[26 April 1973]: “This man came knocking on my door, he was returning to Fredericton […] from a convention, in Moncton, when his back, white topped car developed trouble, oil, and power steering lost, etc. I took him up to phone the tow truck, he helped me wash my car. I gave him coffee, cookies, and good conversation, thought I might have to sleep him too, but the town truck arrived after several hours wait. […] He told me he wasn’t married. [….] Yesterday in the mail came a box of Smiles and Chuckles Turtles, and a “gratefully yours” note, a very small token of his appreciation for my kindness and helpfulness during his stop in my neighbourhood. Frankly, I never expected to hear from him again, even though he asked me to call in to see him if I was in town. Now I have to write and thank him for the candy, and I’m in a quandry because I would like to leave the door open a few inches, and I don’t want to appear to do so. ha ha ha!”

[9 October, probably 1973]: “[B]elieve it on Sunday morning, I had a good s _ _ _ in my own john and flushed it all away. There is still quite a lot of work to do, but give me a little more time. I didn’t know how I was going to get a cess pool and septic trench dug. I couldn’t afford to get a man with a machine to come from Sussex or Jemseg, and they charge from the time they leave home, around $200 to $250.00 even though the job only takes a short time. So I made a deal with the boss of the [highway] construction crew in exchange for “bull pens” on my property, they dug my cess pool and ditch. He gave me a bottle of lemon gin, and we had a little drink (gin and 7Up) and I got them a bottle of Bacardi’s Rum. I had gone to Sussex one afternoon and when I came home the big machine was at work. They had the cess pool all dug, and ready to start the ditch, so I just stood around and yakked with the men. “

I don’t know whether my grandmother would have described herself as a feminist. She would, I think, have been far more likely to make a joke about burning bras in the fire barrel behind the barn, “ha ha ha!” But she was a survivor, and a person who made purpose out of persistence, and on this day it is a special privilege to read her loving, sarcastic, personality-revealing letters.

Reading: The Women’s Patriotic League Cookery Book, 1918

Years ago for a dollar at a yard sale, I bought this well worn copy of The Women’s Patriotic League Cookery Book, published in Brockville (Ontario, Canada) in 1918.

1918 was the final year of the First World War and the cookbook, according to its publishing note, was produced “for the benefit of Red Cross Work.”

During the First World War, Women’s Patriotic Leagues sprung up in cities and towns across the British Empire; in Ontario, there was also a Six Nations Women’s Patriotic League, funded by the Grand River Territory in support of the allied war effort. Women’s Patriotic League activities focused on direct and indirect war efforts ranging from knitting socks for soldiers, fundraising for Red Cross activities, educating housewives about food conservation, supporting families whose loved ones were fighting overseas, and maintaining morale in war-wearied regions.

My cookbook, which sold for $1 in 1918, is filled with “tried and true” recipes standard for the era. But it also has features that make it unique.

First, my copy includes numerous handwritten recipes, most in pencil but a few in black or blue ink. This is a cookbook collector’s dream: to find a handwritten record indicating how the book was used, and when, and by whom. My book has no owner’s name, unfortunately, but the names of many of the women who supplied the recipes written in by hand are included; e.g., “Mrs. garland’s [sic] drop cookies,” “Edie De Wolfe” (“A good Molasses Cake”), “Blanche’s ice box rolls,””Lemon pudding – Stella’s,” “Mrs. C. C. Cooke” (“Xmas Cake”), “Mrs. Jas Davidsons” (“Cake,”) “Aunt Cecha’s [??] Cookies,” “Marie McWilliams” (“Tomato Sandwich Filling”), etc.. Researching these names would almost certainly help indicate how they were connected, likely through a church or other community network in the Brockville or Leeds County region of Ontario.

The handwritten recipes, which list specific oven temperatures suited to the use of an electric range with thermostat (there are also two handwritten “icebox cookie” recipes), also indicate that this book was likely updated by hand for at least two or three decades, even as technological changes may have made some of the 1918 instructions (e.g., “bake in a moderate oven”) seem dated.

Nearly all the handwritten recipes are for desserts or pickles, and as a result it seems hardly surprising that the printed pages with bread, cake and pickle recipes are the ones that appear most used, at least judged by spills and annotations. A few of the printed recipes in other sections have checks beside them, indicating they had been tried and approved, and others have handwritten annotations and substitutions. But for the most part this cookbook reads like a compendium of community events and social gatherings at which fancy cakes–and their recipes–would have been shared.

A second feature of this cookbook that stands out is the section of War recipes, mainly involving substitutions for white flour and refined sugar. The section is prefaced by the following rhyme–

“If you would be healthy, wealthy and wise,
Eat less meat, waste less wheat,
Cut down on sugar and pies.”

–intended, presumably, to bring food conservation beyond the immediate imperatives of supporting the war effort and into the broader domain of frugality and physical health.

There is a lengthy introductory text in the War Recipes section summarizing some important procedural differences between bread made with white flour and baked items made with whole wheat, rye, oat, barley and rice flour or meal, or with potato (mashed or in starch form). It is an intriguing read a century later, at a time when alternative flours are appreciated for their nutrient advantages and lower glycemic index numbers. Indeed, the 1918 recipe for Sweet Potato Muffins (flour, baking powder, salt, mashed sweet potatoes, milk, water, egg) reads like a pared-down version of this contemporary recipe produced by the Canadian Living Test Kitchen in 2009!

The War Recipes section also includes a recipe for Canadian War Cake, which appears to be a simplified fruit cake:

Canadian War Cake

One cup brown sugar, 1 cup water, 1 1/2 cups seeded raisins, 2 tablespoonfuls lard, 1 teaspoonful cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoonful cloves, 1/2 teaspoonful salt.

Boil together for five minutes and cool. When cold stir in 1 teaspoonful soda dissolved in a little warm water. Add two cups flour sifted with 1/2 teaspoonful baking powder.

Baking instructions are not indicated, but I am guessing this is a cake that would be baked in a “moderate oven” for 25 minutes, in keeping with the other recipes.

In all the years I’ve owned this cookbook, I have never yet baked from it. But a surprising number of the recipes seem strikingly current, and when there is time during the summer, I plan to test out a few, such as this one:

Fried Egg Plant

Cut a nice egg plant in thin slices, lay in salt water two or three hours, then steam until tender. Make a better of 2 eggs, 1 teacupful sour cream, 1 teaspoonful salt, 1/2 teaspoonful soda and flour to thicken. Dip the slices of egg plant into the batter, fry till a light brown in boiling lard. Serve hot.

I might even, I suppose, give Canadian War Cake a chance.

The Women’s patriotic League Cookery Book is reportedly a hard-to-find book in print, but for those interested, the complete text is available online here, thanks to Archive dot org and the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto.

[Text and images not to be reused without permission and attribution.]

A Piece of the Storm

“From the shadow of domes in the city of domes,
A snowflake, a blizzard of one, weightless, entered your room
And made its way to the arm of the chair where you, looking up
From your book, saw it the moment it landed. That’s all
There was to it. No more than a solemn waking
To brevity, to the lifting and falling away of attention, swiftly,
A time between times, a flowerless funeral. No more than that
Except for the feeling that this piece of the storm,
Which turned into nothing before your eyes, would come back,
That someone years hence, sitting as you are now, might say:
“It’s time. The air is ready. The sky has an opening.”

[Strand, Mark, 1998.A Piece of the Storm. From Blizzard of One. Knopf: 20.]

For twenty years I have loved this poem, the first of many of Mark Strand’s poems and essays I have read and loved. I have the book, with the clipping of the newspaper article in which it first appeared to me tucked into it. I remember the stillness it left in its wake.

For me the “city of domes” was and will always be Kingston, Ontario, where I lived within sight and shadow of its cathedrals. I first read the poem in another city, sitting in a chair in a south-facing window with the domes of another city shadowed and sunlit in the distance.

I awoke this morning with the certainty that has risen in me for months:

It’s time. The air is ready. The sky has an opening.

Winter Light

When the clocks change, it is possible to sleep in and still wake up early. There is a gift of light at at morning, and when the darkness closes in at the end of the day, the house is warm and bright.

In the afternoons the winter light, low on the horizon, illuminates the undersides of things. Branches, tree trunks, bricks and foundations. The curve of land along the edge of the ravine reveals itself.

No one attuned to the seasons can hate the changing of the clocks. The shifts–an hour forward, an hour back–remind us that we are still, even in our cities and towns, despite our cars and central heating and schedules and routines, bound by the shifts and rhythms of the seasons. They remind us that chronos is clumsy–how the loss or gain of an hour jars–while kairos is stealthy and almost imperceptible, like the curve at the edge of the horizon. If we pay attention, and if we listen carefully, kairos tells us when it is time.

A few mornings ago the roofs were white with frost. The leaves detached, one after the other, from their branches, and showered down in golden cascades. The leaves of the basil and beans had shriveled. In the cedars the little birds chittered and spoke but did not sing. And the lake lay low and glassy long after sunrise, and on the stony beach each pebble glowed in the low light.

In the low light of the afternoon, I tipped over the garden pots, and tucked away the cast iron frogs, and put away the hose. I gathered leaves and spread them over the gardens, and put away the chairs and cushions and cleaned the ashes out of the fireplace. I swept the walks and inventoried the shovels and filled a bin with rock salt. And that night for dinner I roasted vegetables and made a stew, and we lit candles at the table and, in the last hour before bed, sat together in silence.

I knew to do these things–just as we know to leave the porch light on, and to wait a little longer for the cats to come home, and to fill the bird feeders and shut the storm windows–not because of a date on the calendar, or because the clocks were about to change, but because kairos told me it was time.

The Last of the Summer Herbs

Yesterday I went out one last time to snip herbs from my garden. A few more sage leaves; some oregano, as soft and shapely as a squirrel’s ear. Then three woody spikes of rosemary, and the last of the spearmint.

I dry herbs in the simplest manner possible: in bowls and colanders set out on the kitchen counter or on the dining table. Sometimes I strip the leaves first; at other times I wait until the stalks have dried and the leaves are easy to crumble from them. I store dried herbs in the same glass jars my mother saved her herbs in; a source of solace not only in the memory of these same jars lined up in her kitchen, but in the act of saving some of the very same herbs she gave me years ago as cuttings.

My mom’s herb garden was compact but ornate. Lined with granite cobblestones, it was divided diagonally into sections organized around an ornamental fountain and a narrow cross-shaped walkway, and in it she grew dozens of varieties of herbs, many of which she divided or took cuttings from to start me on my first herb garden. For several years I grew herbs in a round garden divided into sections like the spokes on a wheel, but because our garden is currently too shady for most herbs to thrive at ground level, over time I have shifted my herbs to containers grown on the various balconies and decks of our house, where they thrive in sunlight or dappled shade according to their needs, and where I can commune with them all the hours of the day.

Every year the variety of herbs I grow increases: this year’s plantings included basil, lemon thyme, sage, oregano, marjoram, tarragon, pineapple sage, parsley, cilantro, dill, mint (spearmint and a potent, large-leafed mint labeled ‘Mohito Mint’ at the garden centre), rosemary and chives. And while in past years I have simply mourned the loss of my garden with the first frost, after my mother died I resolved to preserve as much of the summer as possible. Last year I dried half a dozen varieties of herbs, and managed to save just enough lemon thyme and tarragon (the herbs I use most in cooking) to last through the winter, but this year I made batches and batches of basil pesto, a batch of mint jelly, two batches of lemon verbena jelly, dried everything else I could to store in jars, and hung lavender to scent the house in winter. Tomorrow I plan to make chive butter, and then I won’t have to weep over the first hard frost.

Next year I plan further expansions to my herb garden. More lemon thyme, basil, parsley, tarragon, cilantro and dill for sure; and for the first time in a decade I would like to grow borage, an herb I love not because it is useful in cooking (it is mainly a medicinal plant), but because its drowsy heads of star-like purple flowers attract clouds of bees. More lemon verbena. More mint. More of everything, as soon as it becomes possible to set new plants into the warming soil on a spring day.

But in the meantime, harvesting and drying the last of the summer’s herbs is a kind of prayer, and every time I use these herbs during the winter it will be in thanks for the gift of the growing season and in faith of light returning to the hemisphere.

 

 

A Read of The Girl’s Own Annual (1907-1908) and an Inadvertent Critique of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls (2016).

At the 2018 University College book sale I bought this 1907-1908 volume of The Girl’s Own Annual, a bound compilation of the preceding year’s weekly issues of The Girl’s Own Paper.

The Girl’s Own Paper was a weekly and, later, monthly, publication produced between 1880 and 1956 for older girls and young women. Its founder and first editor, Charles Peters, is described as having sought “to foster and develop that which was highest and noblest in the girlhood and womanhood of England.” After Peters’ death late in 1907 (an In Memoriam is printed in the 25 January 1908 edition of the Paper); his successor, Flora Klickmann, saw the Paper through the First World War and the important social changes that followed, including women’s suffrage. Scholarly work on The Girl’s Own Paper notes that Klickmann’s editorial influence became apparent early on, especially in the form of an increasing (if somewhat ambivalent) emphasis on the changing roles of women in the early decades of the twentieth century.

At the same time, even under Peters’ directorship (at least in the volume I have), women, their lives, well-being, interests and work are valorized in ways that seem to go beyond commonly received late- and post-Victorian notions of the proper place of women. I found it both a surprise and delight, for example, to discover an article titled “How to Become a Lady Librarian” in a 1908 issue of the paper. The article notes the scarcity of training and opportunities for women librarians in England, and laments that even well trained women “have been unable to find employment at the same rate of payment as men.” It goes on to indicate the proper rates of pay women librarians may reasonably expect, and makes suggestions about where to obtain training, including at the London School of Economics. At its close, the article lists “public libraries controlled by women,” among them Manchester College at Oxford.

“How to Become a Lady Librarian” is far from the only article offering career advice. “A New Employment for Women” offers recommendations on obtaining training and suitable employment for teaching hearing impaired children. It also indicates the salary range a qualified teacher may expect to be paid. Another article, “A Strange College for Women Workers,” describes bee farming in detail, including set-up costs, and observes, “[i]t would take more nerve than the average “mere man” possesses to allow from 25,000 to 30,000 bees to roost on his bare arm and make themselves at home; any yet, at the Luton Bee College, women students think nothing of this performance.” “How I Became a Lady Doctor” describes one woman’s progress into the profession; in it the author, Doctor Penelope Smith, concludes that the greatest difficulty facing qualified women doctors is not ability but unequal access to hospital experience: “To gain a wide experience hospital practice is absolutely necessary,” she writes, “and it is in the deficiency of opportunities for this practice that women are placed at a disadvantage as compared with men; not in the training, nor in their capabilities for mastering the details of their profession.” An essay on portraitist and illustrator Marcella Walker describes her work (exhibited at the Royal Academy, reviewed in the Academy Review and published in the Illustrated London News) as a rebuttal to those who “assert that women have no originality, and merely follow and copy men in art.”

Swatting at much more than a tennis ball.

The volume is still, of course, evocative of its era. Young women are urged to take care of their skin, lest it become reddened and wrinkled with work. Readers are invited to participate in physical activity, but (horrors) not in any way that might masculinize them. An otherwise charming illustration of a woman playing field hockey, for example, has the admonition captioned to it: “Avoid all excess in the field games which are suitable only to sporting men.” Every woman pictured is white (although The Girl’s Own Paper was circulated throughout the Empire), in good health, and visibly representative of her upper class (or upper class-aspiring) upbringing. The amassing of a “White Trousseau” receives treatment in a number of issues, as does an ongoing series called “How a Girl Should Dress” (properly, with full skirts and gloves and enormous hats; restrictive, and yet: how I long to have at least one similar costume).

While browsing the Annual, I have felt wistful for two reasons. The first is that my mother would have loved it. We shared a fascination with the sometimes ephemeral traces of everyday life found in old newspapers, letters, paper crafts and magazines, and would spend hours poring over all these sorts of documents whenever they came to light. This Annual is one of the richest such resources I have encountered in years, and I wish so much that we could share it. She would have loved the quirky essays (and their quirky titles), like “Methods of Travelling Used by Women from Early Times Down to the Present,” “Fire-Lighting Without Sticks,” “Insects Mentioned in Shakespeare,” “Familiar British Seaweeds,” and perhaps especially, “Book-Binding for Girls.”

The second reason I feel wistful while reading the Girl’s Own Paper is because, despite its implicit snobbery and adherence to vastly outdated conventions, there is also something empowering in the articles and stories in its pages. Women, it says repeatedly and in many different ways, have value. Women’s pursuits and work have worth, whether they involve sewing, cooking, writing, playing music or caring for others–or pursuing higher education and working in demanding fields. An older girl or young woman reading its pages would have reason to feel encouraged, not only by the things articles suggested she could do if she chose, but by the histories of other women who have done them, too.

Annuals featuring improving stories for girls have fallen mostly out of favour, even in the United Kingdom where they could once make a publisher’s year, but some months ago I received a copy of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (Penguin Random House, 2016) to give to my daughter. The book was received with wild enthusiasm by reviewers, spurring a sequel, but in our household it was met with a muted “meh.” The book is subtitled “100 Tales of Extraordinary Women,” and this, I think, is at the heart of the book’s problem. It is not that the women profiled are not extraordinary, and it is not as if this kind of book is not desperately needed: it is.

But even its dedication makes demands of its young readers: to be rebels, first of all. And immediately afterward, it suggests that the things girls do already are not enough: they must “dream bigger, aim higher, fight harder,” and live with the conviction that they are “right.” Most of the women profiled in Rebel Girls are wonderfully chosen, and I do love the profile of American Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But the narratives return, over and over again, to how extraordinary they were or are, and how unusual their accomplishments. Very few of the narratives directly invite the reader to consider herself capable of doing the same kinds of things. Sadly but perhaps revealingly, one of the few stories that does so is the one about Virginia Woolf, which discusses her depression and acknowledges the possibility that even rebel girls might sometimes be sad. Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek is quoted as saying, “You are beautiful. It’s okay to be quirky. It’s fine to be shy,” — but her important message seems to be drowned out by so many injunctions in the other stories for girls to be aggressive, competitive and attention-seeking. After 200 pages of superlatives, the reader is, at last, invited to “write your story,” but it seems to me that by this time, after so many pages of genius, originality and victory, especially those in which systemic barriers to women’s flourishing are subsumed beneath narratives of individual strength, more than a few readers might feel deflated. I certainly did, and I am an exceedingly determined person who has been standing for something for nearly three decades. My daughter liked the book, but found the stories hard to relate to.

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls reminds me of the response to the 2016 all-woman remake of the popular 1980s film Ghostbusters. Although the remake was fun to watch, it was essentially mediocre; basically on par with most remakes, and slightly better than a typical sequel. But public response tended to be sharply divided between those (whose testicles seemed to shrivel at the sight of a woman wielding a proton pack) who insisted it was the Worst Film Ever, and those (mostly women) who insisted upon its virtues. It seemed impossible for anyone to simply say out loud that it was a fun but essentially mediocre remake–because women in film, like women in public life, cannot afford to be mediocre.

In this context, the overwrought exhortations of “extraordinary” women’s greatness in Rebel Girls seem to me to undermine the book’s very good intentions. Indeed, ultimately the book’s message seems somehow indistinguishable from diet and ‘wellness’ marketing campaigns exhorting girls and women to be ever thinner, sexier, more feminine–and ever more obedient to always arbitrary, always external injunctions about how they must look and live. It seems to me, especially in the era of the ‘crisis of the mediocre man,’ that women should not always have to overcome the social (and political and economic) deficit of being women in a sexist society by being deemed geniuses, heroes, winners or leaders. Very good women actors should be able to star in mediocre films. Ordinary girls and women should be counted, too, whether they are ‘rebel girls’ or not.

This is something, oddly enough, that The Girl’s Own Paper seems to have gotten right more than a century ago. Despite its conventionality and essential conservatism, its pages reinforce the perspective that every girl, and every woman–not only those deemed “extraordinary”–is special and has worth, and that every girl and every woman has the capacity to stand up for herself, and for others, and has the right to contribute to both private and public life and to make herself heard in both worlds.

I suppose I am hopeful that the Rebel Girls franchise will eventually get to the point of unpacking some of the contradictions in its narratives. On the way, its authors could do worse than read a century-old volume or two of The Girl’s Own Annual.