Here's a quiz: name thirteen remarkable Maine women born before 1900. If you find this challenging, you're not alone. Maine novelist Kate Kennedy, author of More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Maine Women (Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Connecticut; paperback; 149 pages, $10.95), found it a challenge herself. It took Kennedy two full years to choose her baker's dozen of remarkable women, investigate their lives, and write their stories. The result is a small volume of biographies, beautifully written, richly imagined, sparkling with vitality, and chock full of surprises.The project was time-consuming, and Kennedy would not have taken it on had she not changed her life dramatically two years ago when she decided to leave her position at Portland High School, where she had taught for twenty years, in order to devote time to completing her novel-in-progress and seek freelance jobs.
So when an editor from Globe Pequot called and pitched the idea of writing a book of short biographies of Maine women, Kennedy accepted. The press was in the process of producing a series of books on the "remarkable" women of each state; twenty-four volumes have been completed so far.
It was not much of a stretch for Kennedy to turn her hand to writing biographies. Her first novel, End Over End (Soho Press, 2001), was based on an actual event, the unsolved murder of a teenage girl. To research the novel, Kennedy interviewed family and friends of the victim, police officers, lawyers, and the state's medical examiner, among others. Yet the novel flows so faultlessly, a reader would never suspect the work that went into it. The novel she has been working on for the past five years, Atomic Times, about America's nuclear legacy, is similarly research-intensive.
Even so, Kennedy says, when she took on this particular project, she had no idea what an adventure she was embarking on. The story of writing More Than Petticoats is as remarkable in its own way as the stories of the remarkable women Kennedy tells in it.
Deciding which women to include was the first challenge. The publisher's guidelines called for a mix of well-known and lesser-known women, for geographical diversity, and for a range of ways to be "remarkable." Kennedy knew that she wanted to include a Franco-American, a Native American, and an African-American. And, after talking with students from Portland High School's Gay-Straight Alliance, she realized it was also important to include at least one woman who was in an open and socially acknowledged lesbian relationship. So, although she wasn't originally intending to use Sarah Orne Jewett since so much has been written about her, she decided to include the famed Berwick author.
One down; twelve to go. How did she choose the others?
"I started by asking everyone this question: if you were developing a list of remarkable Maine women born before 1900, who would you include?" she says. "Everybody was incredibly helpful. And they gave me more people to ask, and those people suggested other people. It was pretty grueling, though. I only had three months before I had to present the list to my editor.
"Then there was serendipity. For example, I went to a lecture given by the anthropologist Bunny McBride, the author of Women of the Dawn, a book about Maine Native women. After the lecture, I E-mailed her my question, the same question I'd been asking everyone, and she suggested a Penobscot woman, Lucy Nicolar, who was known as Princess Watahwaso. Bunny was very generous. She even sent me the chapter she had written on Princess Watahwaso for a book called Of Place and Gender: Women in Maine History. But I didn't want to take her research, so she suggested Lucy's sister Florence. There was nothing written about Florence, though. To find out about her, I had to talk to her relatives. Florence was a real fighter for her people's right to vote. An activist, but an artist, too. A truly inspiring woman."
Another bit of serendipity led her to another Florence — Florence Williams.
"There's very little written about African-American women in Maine, so I knew I was going to have to talk to people in the community and collect oral histories, which is something I love doing anyway. But it was hard to know where to start.
"Then one day I was reading the Portland Press Herald and there was a story about the Abyssinian Church on Munjoy Hill. A woman named June McKenzie was quoted in the article, talking about her mother, Florence Williams, who had attended the church as a child. She was a remarkable woman. And one of the things I really like about her is that she was also a clairvoyant.
Kennedy went to Madawaska and talked to Geraldine Chassé, the unofficial historian of the Franco community in the St. John Valley, who lives next to the Tante Blanche Museum. Chassé told her stories and recommended The History of Madawaska, where Kennedy found information on Marguerite-Blanche Thibodeau Cyr, known to all as Tante Blanche, the "mother of Madawaska."
She went to Sabbathday Lake and researched the story of Sister Mildred Barker, trustee of the Shaker community for forty years. For permission to use a photograph of Sister Mildred, she had to submit her biography for vetting by the community. "I understand their sensitivity, and I wanted to get it right."
To "get it right" Kennedy went to the Bowdoin College Library to look at Kate Furbish's botanical drawings, and to Robinhood Cove in Georgetown to see the home of the artist Marguerite Zorach, "an inspiring and complicated person," Kennedy says. But Kennedy did not have a personal affinity with every woman whose story she told.
"Lillian Stevens, president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, was my biggest challenge. I had to work hard just to overcome my natural antipathy to her. When I gave the first draft to my husband to read, his response was, 'You really don't like her, do you?' But she was the most influential and internationally important of all the women in the book.
"Abbie Burgess Grant, the lighthouse keeper, was another hard one. But she's important for Maine. She represents a way of life. And you have to admire her. She made a life for herself despite her constraints."
The same could be said of Kate Kennedy herself. Despite all the constraints imposed on her by time, editorial format, and publisher's guidelines, she has written a lucid and highly accessible book honoring the lives of thirteen remarkable women of Maine born before 1900, including: Cornelia "Fly Rod" Crosby; Lillian "La Nordica" Norton; Josephine Peary; Florence Shay; and Margaret Chase Smith.
A quote by Henry James hangs over Kennedy's desk: "We work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."
The rest may be "the madness of art," but for Kate Kennedy, it's also important to get it right.
Novelist Agnes Bushell lives in Portland.