Almost Famous Women
By Megan Mayhew Bergman
Scribner January 2015
From the library
Those of us who love to read history will sometimes find people lurking in the peripheries. They are people you won't find in your high school history textbook or featured in a special on The History Channel. They are the almost famous ones and they are exactly the people that Megan Mayhew Bergman brings to life in her new collection of stories.
The women we meet in these pages are from all over history - a little girl abandoned by her famous father, twins literally attached to each other, a musician in the first integrated female swing band, and the women imprisoned at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Each story is a new experience, as Bergman flips perspectives. In "A High-Grade Bitch Sits Down To Lunch," Beryl Markham determines to ride her new horse, embracing her reputation for being tough. Romaine Brook's story, though, is narrated by the artist's houseboy Mateo. We meet many of these women at the end of their lives when they can only look back at their glory days through a fog of illness and depression.
Some of these tales seem to touch on entire lives, while others give us just a single moment told in a page or two. It would be easy for these stories to become strict homages to these women, but Mayhew takes the more honest and interesting approach. Some of these women are cruel to those around them. Others are self-destructive, ensuring their own downfall.
My favorite story was about two females - one who had lost everything and one who never had the chance to gain an adult life. An unnamed nun forms an attachment with a girl who has been left at the convent by her father. The girl's father just happens to be the famous poet Lord Byron. Our protagonist finds a kindred spirit in the girl's anger and wild spirit. I found myself desperately hoping that these two could find some happiness with each other, but the women in these stories rarely find happy endings. These are women who didn't fit in the carefully constructed boxes prescribed by society. Their bravery is inspiring, but their fates are often tragic.
In the notes at the end of the book, Bergman confesses that she found daredevil Hazel Eaton via Internet rabbit hole. Almost Famous Women will be that jumping-off point for many readers. The stories here serve as just enough to whet the appetite, to spark our interest and spur us on to research them further, and to give these women a permanent spot in our memories.