Don’t know if you want fiction or nonfiction??
Almost Famous Women is a unusual collection that checks both boxes.
Officially, it is a short story collection, but the entries could also be considered extra creative creative nonfiction. The stories are all based on real women: some of them, “almost famous” in their own right, and some of them closely aligned with famous people. There is also a fictional spin on a famous event along with a pastiche of a famous story.
At first, it was difficult to get in to this book, and it didn’t help that the first story was written about one half of a pair of conjoined twins. The idea seemed a bit too exploitative. The second story really gripped me…honestly, because the photo credit was from a museum near my home…but also because I became entranced by the idea of a woman without boundaries…although this woman in particular is not a particularly likable character.
Although the stories are based on historical people and some historical events, this isn’t exactly historical fiction. You can infer clues from the text as to what is going on, but most of the narration is in the first person, so if you are expecting the story to explain the background to you, that isn’t going to happen.
The focus of the stories is the interior: that is, the characters’ thoughts and feelings. In many cases, but not always, the narrator of the story is situated just outside of the main action of the story. The narrator is the almost famous friend of the almost famous person; it just depends.
I felt I had enough background knowledge to basically understand all of the stories but one even though I had not heard about all of the people, or even all the “famous” people mentioned…and not knowing the famous person, who is just “off stage” in most of the stories is what made it a little confusing.
The other obviously deliberate sort of crossover between historian fiction and nonfiction is that most of the stories (barring the two that don’t exactly fit the pattern in other ways) have a frontispiece featuring an image of one of the main characters of the story. So right away, as the reader, you know that character is based on a real person. Other characters may or may not be…or if they are, their actions and their feelings may or may not be imagined.
After the first few stories, I made the conscious decision NOT to look up any of the individuals portrayed in the stories until after I finished the entire collection, and in fact, as I write this, I have done nothing more than read the “Author’s Note” at the end of the book, which honestly, reads almost like a separate narrative on its own. In it, Bergman explains how she got the idea for each story, how she got interested in each character (and there is crossover), and what books she read for background preparations.
If you read The Lois Level often, you know that we like to examine the author’s reliability in terms of sources, and I am please to say that Bergman hits just the right note: I understand where she is coming from, but her notes strike just the right balance from being neither too scholarly for a work of “kind of” fiction or very creative nonfiction, depending on your point of view.
The idea behind this book is to examine what happens to unusual women, whether they are so through an accident of birth, circumstance, or talents/personal characteristics that force them apart. Where is their space?
Stories not to miss from Almost Famous Woman
“The Siege at Whale Cay”
What would you do and where would you be if circumstances left you with money and answerable to no one but yourself?
This imagining of the relationship between heiress Joe Carstairs and Marlene Dietrich is from the third…temporary…corner of the love triangle.
Historical Background with photos from Forbes magazine:
Dolly Wilde, niece of Oscar Wilde, is also mentioned in the Forbes story. She ALSO gets her own story in Almost Famous.
“The Lottery, Redux”
Because that’s a story that probably has 1000 different versions that could be done, for those brave enough to go there. This one is really good…Bergman writes nonfiction about the environment, and her version draws on this interest.
Read The Lois Level on Shirley Jackson, complete with links to her original short story, “The Lottery”:
For Mayhew Bergman’s nonfiction on related topics, click here.
This story about a real band from the 30’s and 40’s, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm is told from the point of view of trumpeter Tiny Davis’ lover.
This all female band consisted of women of numerous nationalities and ethnicities who traveled Jim Crow Southern US. They started as a band made up from orphaned girls and Piney Woods School.
It might sound like a cheesy historical novel, but it’s real.
In addition to the story, Mayhew Bergman has published several articles about the band:
(Note: Tiny Davis appears about half way through.)
Megan Mayhew’s first collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, is about the relationship between people and the natural world.
For more fiction focusing on the natural world, read The Lois Level on Gene Stratton Porter and The Girl of the Limberlost here.