Thursday, March 16, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: A History of Silence by Cynthia J. Bogard

In time for Women’s History Month, I just read the newly released A History of Silence by Cynthia J. Bogard.

The novel opens in 1986 after the death (murder) of history professor Johnny Wharton, chairman of the department at a low-tier Texas university. His murderer has not been caught.

Four women, each with a different relationship to Johnny, tell their life stories. The book deals with various aspects of women in academia in the 1970s through ‘80s. The feminist movement, discrimination, racism, sexual assault, and inter-generational trauma are all touched upon.

Maddie is also a history professor in the department. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Maddie is somewhat appalled to find herself in a Texas backwater at a university with no prestige. She moved south to be with her lover, Roz, an academic in another department, who is from Texas and needed to return to care for her aging mother. This was a university where they could both hope to have tenured positions; however, they would have to keep secret their same-sex, mixed-race relationship. The trade-off was worth it for Maddie until she finds herself dumped by Roz and re-evaluating her life.

Liz is Johnny Wharton’s wife. Born and raised in the South, she was brought up to be the quintessential southern lady. She defers in all things to her husband. She asks no questions. She and Johnny had one daughter from whom she is now estranged, though she cannot fathom what went wrong. Liz works part-time as an accountant and volunteers at an animal shelter, but she is pretty much sleepwalking through life, mourning the lost relationship with her daughter.

Jenny is the daughter. She is filled with rage at both her parents and determined to cut them out of her life. She is now in school in Madison and is starting, against her will, to make friends and care about others. But at the same time, she is self-destructive and full of self-loathing.

And there is Jane, a smart but timid graduate student who is scooped up by Johnny as a research assistant. He quickly seduces her, reducing her, as she is well aware, to a stereotype. Yet she hopes, for a while, that his interest will help her to grow beyond her own mousey self-image and allow her to face the abuses in her past.

The trauma each of these women experience is related with sensitivity as horror piles upon horror. Each person in the novel will, at one point or another, express a wish to kill Johnny or at least, that he will be killed. By the book’s end, the reader is glad that someone killed the man. 

This is a gripping novel with sympathetic female protagonists, each with her own strengths and her own blind spots. The reader is taken on a painful but ultimately satisfying journey.

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