Can women have it all?
In Katherine A. Sherbrooke’s moving Leaving Coy’s Hill, a strong fictional depiction of real-life heroine, abolitionist and suffragist Lucy Stone, the answer is one we’ve been asking for centuries. For as long as women have been daring to dream of a world beyond their own hearth, that is.
Like Alexander Hamilton, Stone is a prominent American figure who hasn’t been entirely awarded her time in the sun. A prominent speaker at a time when the mere idea of women talking to men in public could be scandalous, Stone took on such lighthearted topics as the abolishment of slavery and voting rights before contemptuous, angry crowds. She swears young that she will never marry, having seen how quickly women become the property of their husbands … and lose all property and autonomy themselves. Yet we know that Leaving Coy’s Hill is, at its heart, a love letter from a mother to her daughter.
Bold, sensitive, intelligent, committed—Lucy Stone was a force dedicated to the building of a better country, a better world. We know the names of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (if we stayed awake in high school history classes, anyway), but Stone herself? She’s faded into the mists of time.
Lucy Stone was completely unfamiliar to me. Going into the book without any preconceived notions was probably a good thing. It didn’t take long for me to feel like Lucy was a close friend and I, the reader, her confidante. I felt those tugs of sisterhood and solidarity, to be sure.
What amazed me most in Sherbrooke’s powerful story is how so many themes prominent in pre-Civil War America continue to be present today. I certainly related to Lucy: her struggles, fears, perceived failures. As a wife. A mother. A worker. As someone who must find a way to weave all three roles together … sometimes to her own detriment.
I wished I could explain to [my mother] how different I intended my life to be. I didn’t know how to tell her that the awful circumstances she endured had provided much of the inspiration to sculpt my life from different clay. It felt like a cruel compliment. I hoped she had found more happiness than had been obvious to me.Leaving Coy’s Hill, p. 196 (review copy)
I thought about how each generation of women gains a few inches here, a foot there—enough that, eventually, we’ve walked miles and crossed mountains. I thought about suffragettes marching with hecklers lining the streets. I thought about women forced from their professions when they showed obvious signs of pregnancy. I thought about efforts to offer paid family leave and protections against workplace discrimination. I thought about the joy of witnessing our first female vice president take office. I thought about #MeToo.
I thought of my grandmother, a homemaker, who always had something delicious and comforting simmering on the stove when I bounced in after school. I thought about my mother pursuing one of the narrow career paths—secretary, nurse or teacher—open to her as a young woman, and how she has carved out both a successful career and family life just the same.
I thought of my own history, the new opportunities available to me … the trailblazers and world-shaker-uppers I’ve known, including all the strong women I work with now in health care. And, of course, I thought of my own daughter, hazel eyes flashing, asking me question after question about the planets and declaring she will see them all herself one day. Maybe Comm. Hadley Johnson will call her ol’ mom super, super long-distance from Mars someday. I can only hope.
Lucy Stone is our foremother. If I may paraphrase “Hamilton,” her legacy has meant planting seeds in a garden that she never got to see. But her spirit, determination and bravery begin to get their due in Sherbrooke’s capable hands. Best of all? Sherbrooke paints her as a real, live woman … human.
[My husband] was due home any day now. I reflexively looked around the house. Every surface was covered in dust. I had no fresh food on hand save what little I could pull from the garden and had yet to pick up a new block of ice … Eggs needed to be gathered and cream and bread made. [My daughter] and I could live on oatmeal, syrup, and apples for a few days, but even Harry would expect better than that. The thought brought a new wave of anger. I had spent a lifetime ensuring I would never be judged by such things. And yet, in my rage, I wanted to prove I was capable of doing it all.Leaving Coy’s Hill, p. 232 (review copy)
This quiet, enveloping novel gains more power by not letting readers feel its tremors immediately. Leaving Coy’s Hill is unassuming, thoughtful, steady, retrospective. I loved the strong female friendships portrayed (and betrayed, if you will). I love the complicated push/pull of “balance” and its ever-elusive nature, even in the 19th century. I loved that I could relate to a story set in a very different time in a way that was simultaneously comforting and inspiring. I loved that it inspired googling … and plenty of soul-searching.
We have Sherbrooke—and Lucy!— to thank for that.
The seeds bloom, indeed.