Review: The Fifty States

Randomly receiving books in the post is something that happens to me with distressing infrequency, so it was nice to get this rather gorgeous book to review, courtesy of Mumsnet.

The Fifty States is a beautifully produced coffee-table hardback consisting of fifty quirky illustrated maps, one for each of America’s states. The idea is that instead of using conventional cartography, each map shows several facts about the state. So Alaska includes a picture of musk oxen, a gray wolf and a note about Sign Post Forest, where homesick people make signs showing the number of miles to their hometowns. And Montana’s map reveals that the state possesses a garden of 1,000 buddhas, where locals go to meditate.

Each map includes a summary of the state’s history, a list of moments to remember and some key facts. It’s informative, but the real beauty of this book is in the presentation: the illustrations and design are really lovely. My two year old daughter enjoyed looking through it and an older child would find it an engaging way to learn about the US.

The Sacrifice of the Suffragettes, or, How I Discovered that I am a Colossal Wimp

I have a fridge magnet, given to me by my colleagues. It’s a picture of a crying infant with the strapline, “Mummy’s a suffragette!” It is, apparently, a genuine piece of anti-suffrage propaganda from the early part of last century.

When I opened the gift I laughed, marvelled at the desperate tactics deployed by those demonstrably on the wrong side of history, stuck it on the fridge and forgot about it.

Today, watching the film Suffragette, I thought more deeply about it. Suffragette tells a story we all know through the life of Maud Watts, a humble foot-soldier in Mrs Pankhurst’s green, white and purple army. Maud is drawn into the militant suffrage movement by a friend, and kept there by the repeated insistence of her husband, her boss and the police that she is irrevocably powerless. Her arrests lead to the loss of her husband, job and ultimately her young son, who is sent off for adoption – as the legal property of his father, he can be disposed of without Maud’s consent or even knowledge.

We know how this story turns out. The women win, and it is very much to my advantage that they did. So I was shocked and ashamed at my response to Maud’s increasing activism. I didn’t want her to do it. I watched Maud dive deeper into the world of clandestine meetings and assaults on public property, and I silently urged her to go home. To retain her job, see the good in her husband and above all, keep hold of her son.

Which goes to show that I’d be a rotten scriptwriter – “Woman continues to live life much the same as always. Has toast for supper. The end”.

But also demonstrates, sadly, that faced with the injustices and indignities visited on my ancestors, it’s unlikely I’d have taken a stand. I’ve always identified with the suffragettes’ fight against the straitjacket of twentieth century definitions of womanhood. And I’ve often considered that, had I been born eighty years earlier, I’d have been throwing stones and waving banners.

I guess it’s not true. I can’t bear to watch a fictitious woman’s life fall apart because of her commitment to equality. What chance that I’d have lined up alongside her, offering up my own family for destruction?

I always knew I owed a great debt to the suffragettes and their non-violent sisters, the suffragists. But I never considered until today just how much these women had to sacrifice, for me to be able to vote, work and take decisions about my children on equal terms with men. When my daughters are old enough, I’ll make sure they know the stories of the many real-life Maud Watts, who gave up the chance to raise their own children, in order that mine could be free.

Thank you, science

I love graveyards. I’m not ghoulish, I just love the stories that cemeteries tell. Gravestones encapsulated brevity long before Twitter. A birthdate, a date of death, some family members and maybe a religious quote. And that’s it: a whole life, summarised.

Our new house is near a large cemetery and I often walk through it with my daughters on the way to the park. And I am struck by the stones which speak of sadness. Those whose birth and death dates are just a few years apart. Those which begin with the names of a couple, followed by a relentless list of the children who predeceased them.

Any child’s death is a tragedy, but in Western society it is also now a rarity. Reading these gravestones reminds me that this is a very recent state of affairs. I look at these names of stillborn babies, tiny infants who didn’t make it to school age, teenagers destroyed by diptheria or whooping cough, and I try to imagine what it must have been like to be a parent in those days. To see your baby born, to stroke their soft perfect face and know they are uniquely yours, but to know also that every day is a treacherous assault of germs, dangers and infections for most of which science had no ready answer. I imagine mothers, broken from earlier losses, tiptoeing  into a child’s room at night, peering into the crib where an older brother or sister once lay dead, anxiously counting the breaths.

My younger daughter had her first vaccinations today. It was awful, of course, to hear her scream as the needles went in. But it was also a kind of miracle. Today she was immunised against diptheria, tetanus, polio, whooping cough and meningitis B. Think of the misery these diseases have caused throughout human history, the agonised farewells, the desperate deathbeds, the pitiful funerals of child after child after child. Those parents who had to watch helplessly as their children slipped away would have given anything, literally anything, for a magical liquid that would save their son or daughter. I get it for nothing, simply by popping into our doctor’s surgery.

I am ashamed to say I have no idea who invented these vaccines, which even now are settling into my daughter’s body, ready for a lifetime of protecting her from harm. But I do know this: whoever it was, they truly lived a life to be proud of.