soup of the day: borrowed names by jeannine atkins!

“Can the past press closer than the present? Who is a daughter without a mother?” ~ from “Handful of Dirt,” Borrowed Names by Jeannine Atkins.

Alice Vanderbear reads to her daughter, Fluffy.

I’m absolutely thrilled to be wishing dear friend, Jeannine Atkins, a very Happy Book Birthday! Borrowed Names: Poems about Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C.J. Walker, Marie Curie, and Their Daughters (Henry Holt, 2010), is officially out today!

Though this is Jeannine’s first book of poetry, Borrowed Names is by no means her first book. She’s published a number of collective biographies and picture books about other notable women, including, Anne Hutchinson’s Way (FSG, 2007), Wings and Rockets: The Story of Women in Air and Space (FSG, 2003), How High Can We Climb?: The Story of Women Explorers (FSG, 2005), and Girls Who Looked Under Rocks: The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists (Dawn, 2000).

Borrowed Names is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. The poems are absolutely exquisite, far-reaching, quietly powerful, and undeniably moving — they reveal a poet with a rare, discerning sensibility and wickedly keen insight who, with just a few deft strokes, is able to paint riveting, multi-layered emotional landscapes.

    Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane.

Focusing on the mother-daughter relationships of three extraordinary women born in the same year (1867) is both highly original and endlessly fascinating. Though Wilder, Walker, and Curie came from vastly different backgrounds and made their mark in distinctly different ways, they were all fiercely independent women who shared an unwavering devotion to work and family. Despite numerous personal, social, and economic challenges, they all raised remarkable daughters in a rapidly changing world.

What kind of home did these mothers provide for their daughters? What values and lessons were passed on? What unforeseen factors figured in the give and take of their relationships to directly or indirectly affect their choices? And, in the circle of their intimate, albeit fragile relationships, how did mothers and daughters navigate rough waters?

    Madam C.J. Walker and A’Lelia Walker.

Each poem is a stunning snapshot — a shining moment in time, a revelation, a turning point, a step towards fulfillment or achievement, an encounter with frustration or anguish. I love the compelling emotional dimension these poems provide. All are beautifully crafted and will impact the reader in surprising ways. How much joy or heartache can a moment hold?

In her introduction, Jeannine says, “Details gathered meaning as I lingered over them, and I came to love what was small and tangible as much as the grand or public moments.” So we read of a lap-sized desk, a carton of raspberries, red, pink and yellow birthday roses, petticoats and washtubs, a calico bandanna, a butterfly net, a pinewood table, X-ray machines and glass beakers. Jeannine’s carefully chosen images are laid bare without fanfare, just suggestive enough to fully engage the reader and resonate on a deep level. They pull us right into the stories, into the hearts and minds of these women, till we feel like we’ve truly touched history.

           Marie Curie and Irène Joliot-Curie.

Moreover, Borrowed Names reminded me that history is not always made by fighting great wars or grandstanding for unpopular causes. It can happen when a daughter convinces her mother to write down childhood experiences of pioneer life; when the daughter of former slaves, who battles against all odds to make a better life for her daughter, becomes a self-made millionaire, entrepreneur and philanthropist; even when a daughter is so inspired by her mother’s scientific accomplishments, she decides to follow in her footsteps.

Madam C.J. Walker driving automobile (circa pre-1923).

I admit this is the first I’d heard of Madam C.J. Walker (née, Sarah Breedlove) and her daughter, A’Lelia, who inherited her mother’s vast fortune and became a successful businesswoman and patron of the arts during the Harlem Renaissance. I’m glad it was Jeannine who introduced me to them, because now I’m intrigued and anxious to learn more, and feel I have a good sense of what made them tick.

I loved reading about Marie’s daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, who jointly received a Nobel Prize for chemistry with her husband, Frédéric. I was startled by Marie’s bare bones existence, the black dresses she and Irène wore almost exclusively, saddened by the family separations Marie deemed necessary for her work. Marie’s younger daughter, Eve, also figured prominently in the equation. And though I knew something about Laura and Rose Wilder Lane, I gained new insight into their psyches, by imagining, along with Jeannine, what might have been said when they were alone together.

Pierre, Marie and Irène Curie, circa pre-1906.

I do believe Jeannine has set a new gold standard for excellence in verse biography. It is one thing to be a good historian, who conducts diligent, thorough research, who must decide which facts to bring to light, and then be able to write about them in a meaningful and engaging way. It is quite another thing to bring a poet’s heart to the material, to extract meaning from details others may have overlooked, and in so doing, touch the reader’s heart.

        photo by Blondieyooper.

Each segment reads like a novella, with its own narrative arc and attendant pathos, while skillfully interwoven literary motifs (roses, mothers’ hands) unify the whole, underscoring the women’s common humanity and illuminating universal truths.

I fear my words cannot do justice to this gorgeous piece of writing, so I will mention that Borrowed Names has already received two well-deserved *starred reviews* from Booklist and School Library Journal, who said, “The images created bring powerful emotions to the surface, felt by the women profiled here and by those who read this gem that belongs in any literary cedar chest, as well as in every collection.” I give Borrowed Names (the perfect choice for Women’s History Month) my highest five spoon rating!

“After supper, Grandpère picks up an apple and knife. Irène says, Papa cut off the skin in spirals.” ~ from “Doors and Windows” (photo by Di’s Eyes).

Now, we’ve got something a little different in the way of celebratory soup: two bowls instead of one, so grab two spoons. I’m sure Jeannine’s own relationship with her daughter (to whom the book is dedicated) informed this literary gem in myriad ways, so today we celebrate heart to heart poetry as well as the beautiful Emily, arguably Jeannine’s most brilliant accomplishment. Thank you both for the gift of this book and Congratulations!

Today’s Special: Blue Willow Broth (seasoned with enough love to last at least six lifetimes). 

Yes, I know you are looking for dessert. We are serving gingerbread with chocolate frosting (a favorite in the Wilder household),

photo by Food Librarian.

and champagne and caviar (à la A’Lelia).

photo by Carnwennan.


To top everything off, a rose cupcake:

photo by DeliciousDelights.

You’re still here? Why not race over to your local indie or click through to your fave online bookseller to order your very own copy of Borrowed Names? If you go to a bricks and mortar store, be sure to wear something borrowed and something blue, perhaps pin a rose to your waist. Assume the pose of a famous writer, scientist, or hair care products entrepreneur, and tell the cashier your life is at last complete with Borrowed Names in hand. ☺

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

For more about Jeannine and her books, visit her official website and Live Journal blog, Views from a Window Seat.

To read excerpts from the book, click here and here.

Lovely post about Borrowed Names byauthor Loree Griffin Burns here.

BORROWED NAMES by Jeannine Atkins
published by Henry Holt, March 2010
Young Adult Poetry/Biography, 224 pp.
Review copy provided by publisher.

Cornelius loves Jeannine!

The past is more than ashes and char.
Maybe one person can’t shape truth
into a story,
but handing orange notebooks back and forth,
a mother and daughter put ordinary girls into history.
~ from “Truth”

A washerwoman puts away her tubs.
Anyone can change her life.
~ from “Costume”

More Soup of the Day posts here.

*Photo of jam crêpes by komertzialak.

Copyright © 2010 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.

6 thoughts on “soup of the day: borrowed names by jeannine atkins!

  1. Oh Jama, I bought this book in October at our book fair & still haven’t gotten to it. You’ve made it sound just grand. Maybe it will be my Christmas present to read it! My TBR pile grows & grows. Thank you again for wonderful posts, & thanks to Jeannine for the book I’m sure I’ll love.


    1. I know you’ll LOVE it, Linda. It’s exquisitely written and definitely unique in its approach. Don’t know how Jeannine did it — I’m so in awe of her brilliance!


  2. Jama, it was fun to see this old post scroll up in my blog reader. You made my release day so special, as you’ve made it for so many others. I appreciate your past and present cheers!


    1. Whenever I make any corrections on old LJ posts, they get sent out as new WP posts.🙂 I can’t believe it’s been two years since Borrowed Names was released. Still in awe of every word!


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