Deare Sister By Chris Wind: Book Review
Posted by: Debbie McCarthy
Deare Sister is a short book of fictional letters based on the premise of a dialogue between women, many of whom existed in history, but were relegated to footnotes. The device of the letters, and in one case, a conversation, is used to illuminate the disparity between the way that women and men have been treated in the annals of history. Because many women were, (and some would say still are), underrepresented in historic accounts, much speculation has occurred regarding their thoughts on this exclusion. What would happen if these women were the storytellers, rather than living scenery? This idea has been explored both in art and in literature.
For example, The Dinner Party, cited by author Chris Wind, started with research, as Wind has done, and then set the scene visually. What if the great women throughout cultures and times were to sit down to dinner? What kind of conversations would they have? In The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, the anonymous writers create fictional letters from historic women artists to the Guerilla Girls themselves. In this case, the premise is used to make points regarding the relationship between gender and art. In both cases, the separation between the figures and those representing them is clear, as is the reason for the device.
However, there is a danger of putting words into the mouths of historic women. How can we assume what might be said? Should we assume a viewpoint in an attempt to understand what we can of their lives? If so, perhaps a clear division between our perspective and theirs is warranted. In Deare Sister, this division is not explained until the footnotes. The only introduction to the material is a short paragraph to the reader before download. This introduction is not part of the book itself.
To this day, many of the names of the women Wind researched are still not recognized. So much so, that this calls into question the structure of the book itself. Since Deare Sister is organized by individual letters, it would be useful to provide the necessary citations ahead of time, rather than at the end of the book. Given the fact that the averager eader may not be familiar with the historic figures cited, it would be helpful to have this information before proceeding. On her website, Chris Wind expressly invites educators to download the work. Certainly educators, particularly those interested in “Women’s History,” will understand the references. However, students and the general public may not. The perceived motivating force behind the book, to enlighten and educate, is laudable. In that spirit, it seems wise to make the author’s intentions clear from the start.
Minor rearranging and a statement about what prompted Wind to begin this project would be welcome changes to the text as it stands. It is neither uncommon nor uninteresting to learn what motivates a writer to engage with the perceived psyches of various historic figures. Given the quantity of research that Chris Wind has done, the motivation behind the story remains an intriguing and unanswered question.
Subjects of obvious interest in Deare Sister include Lady Godiva, Martha Bernays, and Nannerl Mozart. However, some of the most poignant moments come from the fictional letters of women who are less well known. This cautionary tale to Helen Fourment, the 16 year old wife of Rubens, “as written by her sister,” could have come from a contemporary viewer of his work: “He will merely copy you. And you will get no credit. Though you will fill the canvas, though you will be the reason people will want to buy his work, you will remain anonymous: his name will be written on the canvas. And on the cheque” The letter goes on to address the question of body image and body modification in an attempt to meet an ideal put forth in Rubens’ work. It would seem that the issue of women’s bodies and just what they should look like is centuries old.
This question of embodiment is of particular interest when the artist in question also happens to be female. The notion that only men could be sculptors, because sculpting often involves extensive physical labor, carried forward well into the 20th century. Perhaps the most memorable quotation thus far is from Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), who was told she needed “balls” to be a sculptor. It begs the question of how different or similar the situation was in 1510 for sculptor Properzia de Rossi. (Though, it must be said, it is slightly problematic to name a fictional female artist Angelica, because of the indelible imprint that painter Angelica Kauffmann has made on those familiar with her work).
All in all, Deare Sister is an interesting read that captures the imagination, raising additional questions as it attempts to answer existing ones. It would be enjoyable to read additional stories based on this premise, as the book itself is rather short at slightly over 50 pages. It would also be quite a treat to have an insider’s look at what brought these letters into being.
Author’s Note: This review first appeared on the now-defunct www.womenwriters.net.