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Good Books: Penelope Scambly Schott on Strong Women

Penelope Scambly Schott is a poet. As a child, she wanted to be an explorer and an historian. "I’ve mostly done it at my desk," she explains, "publishing several book-length verse narratives based on history."

Her first book, Penelope: The Story of the Half-Scalped Woman, is about an early New Jersey settler. A Is for Anne: Mistress Hutchinson Disturbs the Commonwealth is a biography of Puritan dissidenter Anne Hutchinson (and received an Oregon Book Award for poetry). In 2013, she published  Lillie Was a Goddess, Lillie Was a Whore, a history of prostitution, particularly in the American West.

"My favorite way to read history is through the voice of some historical personage vividly re-imagined in poems," says Penelope. "All three of these historical women handle their difficult situations with courage. Mary and Susanna survive to write the accounts later used by the poets while Tamsen chooses to stay with her husband. I found these books inspirational in two ways: I admired the historical characters, and the poets reinforced my desire to keep writing historical narratives."

Penelope Scambly Schott suggests books about strong women:

The Journals of Susanna Moodie
by Margaret Atwood

In 1832 Susanna Moodie emigrated from Scotland to Ontario, Canada with her husband and their first child. They lived in a backwoods area where she had four more children.  Susanna found life in the bush difficult and even when they moved to the town of Belleville, she was ambivalent about Canada. In the poem “Death of a Young Son By Drowning” Susanna says, “I planted him in this country/ like a flag.” The historical information in this book is drawn from two journals which have become Canadian classics.

Tamsen Donner: A Woman’s Journey
by Ruth Whitman

In 1846 Tamsen Donner and her husband and three young daughters left Illinois on their ill-fated journey to California.  Caught by snow, the wagon train got stranded in the Sierras where many died of starvation. The Donner party is, of course, famous for the fact that some resorted to cannibalism.
        Must we devour ourselves/ in order to survive?
        ...for my children I find it/ not so hard:

        But for me/ I cannot see

        How I could bear to live/
        by eating my friend’s death

When a rescue party finally arrived, Tamsen sent her daughters to safety and chose to stay with her dying husband.  Tamsen apparently kept a diary but it has been lost.  The poet used an NEA grant to travel the route of the Donner party.

The Dreams of Mary Rowlandson
by Hilary Holladay

In 1676, during King Philip’s war, Mary Rowlandson was captured by Indians who attacked the small settlement of Lancaster in the Massachusetts Bay colony. After eleven weeks of being moved from place to place and the death of her wounded daughter, Mary was ransomed for twenty pounds silver. In Whitman’s poem, Mary says of her captor:

        Quanopin did not force me to be his wife.
        He did not kiss me or slide his hands down my thighs.

        There were a few warm, well-fed evenings when I might have let him:
        I felt the breeze on my flesh, the old music in my bones.

In 1682 Mary published The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, the first in what would become the popular genre of Indian captivity narratives.


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