When in was in my 20s, my all-time favorite author was Marge Piercy. I loved her readable yet highly political books that took a hard look at the excesses of American society.
Small Changes, about the changing America of the late 1960s and early 70s, vividy captures the time when drugs, sex, war, revolution and the emergence of a feminist movement were turning the country upside down. Vida, about a leftist revolutionary gone underground, was bold and romantic and seemed to express all my conflicted feelings about American imperialism.
Piercy took a dramatic left turn with Gone to Soldiers, a multi-layered narrative about World War II. In it, she used multiple characters to tell the stories of the conflicts in Europe and the Pacific, the Jews in concentration camps, and the war at home. It was a spell-binding book that also taught me a lot about World War II. Each character personified an aspect of the conflict.
But then something happened. Either my reading tastes changed or Piercy, who turns out a novel every few years, lost her touch. I really disliked He, She, and It, and was left lukewarm at Summer People and Three Women. I found the stories trite and unbelievable, written to convey an opinion rather than to tell a story. I concluded that I was done with Piercy. She was a chapter in my past, an author who had slowly faded away.
But on impulse – or out of habit – I bought Sex Wars, Piecry’s latest novel. It focuses on the early women’s movement through the use of multiple characters, the device that served her so well in Gone to Soliders. Piercy writes about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, two of the country’s earliest feminists; Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president; Henry Ward Beecher, the famous preacher and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the most popular books of the 19th Century, and many more.
To my surprise, I liked this book. Piercy’s writing can be wooden in sections but her characters are well fleshed out and the novel moves at a fast pace. Most importantly, I learned a great deal about the 19th century, including the shocking fact that once a woman married she lost all her rights. She was under the care of her husband and could not even testify in court since she was not considered an adult. She couldn’t vote and her property rights were restricted. Women who tried to branch out from their repressive roles were branded as sexually promiscuous and dangerous.
Sex Wars isn’t lyrical or literary but it is a great read. Welcome, back Marge.