Book Bag: ‘My Father’s Wife and my Daughter’s Emu’ by Nina Dabek; ‘Chaotic Freedom in Civil War Louisiana’ by Bruce Laurie

Staff Writer
Thursday, March 03, 2022

My Father’s Wife and My Daughter’s Emu
By Nina Dabek; Atmosphere Press


While growing up in the Bronx, Naomi, the narrator of the stories in “My Father’s Wife and My Daughter’s Emu,” recalls how her mother often confided in her that the two of them shared a lot since they were both middle children: “Because of that my mother claimed to understand me very well.”

But Naomi isn’t having it: “My mother assumed I was just like her. I knew I wasn’t.”

In fact, Naomi will eventually choose a different path than that of her parents and two sisters, as she comes out as a lesbian as a young woman and builds a long-term relationship with another woman, with whom she raises two daughters.

Naomi is the voice of Amherst author Nida Dabek, who in “My Father’s Wife and My Daughter’s Emu” has created a series of 12 linked stories that take Naomi from her childhood to adulthood.

In what reads a bit like a fictionalized memoir, Dabek is particularly good at capturing Naomi’s youth with both a child’s perspective but also a certain sense of adult understanding, providing a clear look at her emotions and the events in her life.

Emotion is a central part of these stories, as Naomi moves between moments of self-doubt, grief and anger and times of joy and peacefulness. As a child, she struggles with her resentment of her older sister, Rachel, who either ignores her or bosses her around, and she longs for a closer relationship with her father — but then must come to grips with a more dangerous and disturbed side of him as he ages.

Dabek also brings some wry humor to her stories that temper some of the more difficult moments. There’s a family trip to the Bronx Zoo during a Jewish high holy day, for instance, when Naomi is 7 and her father buys some peanuts for her daughter to feed to an elephant.

“I wasn’t sure if [an elephant] could even touch food,” Naomi recalls. “ ‘Daddy, are you allowed to give food to the elephant? On Yom Kippur?’ ”

“What, you think this elephant is observant?” says her father.

“The Explorer Project,” another story of Naomi’s youth, explores a topic every kid can relate to: wondering how you measure up to someone in your class who seems a bit cool and distant, even a little intimidating. Naomi, in sixth grade, is assigned to share a research project with Dana, a girl who’s more forthright than her and asks a lot of blunt questions when she comes to Naomi’s apartment after school to work on their project.

Yet something about Dana impresses Naomi — until one day when Dana ropes her into slipping a nasty letter under the door of their fifth grade teacher, who lives nearby and who Dana insists was a lousy teacher, one needing a reminder of just how bad she was.

“Suddenly,” thinks Naomi, “I just felt sad.”

“My Father’s Wife and My Daughter’s Emu” also covers Naomi’s first realization that she’s attracted to girls — during a stay with her aunt and cousin in California when she’s just out of high school — and then the beginning of a love affair with a young co-worker, Sarah, at a job she takes with an insurance company when she’s in her early 20s.

Perhaps most poignant is the book’s title story, in which an older Naomi visits her father, now in a nursing home in Northampton. He’s convinced he has a new wife and wants Naomi to call her, so Naomi must find ways to work with him and his diminishing memory and grasp on reality, even as she confronts the memories of the dissolution of her parents’ marriage and her difficult past with dad.

“Nostalgia, grief, gratitude, devotion, it’s all here,” says one reviewer of Dabek’s book. “[A]ll the beauty and difficulty of living in the world.”


“Chaotic Freedom” in Civil War Louisiana: The Origins of an Iconic Image
By Bruce Laurie; University of Massachusetts Press


It might be one of the most seminal images from the age of slavery in the U.S., one that horrified a nation when it was published in July 1863 during the height of the Civil War: a portrait, taken partly from behind, of a Black man who had escaped from slavery and whose back was riddled with hideous scars from repeated whippings.

The photo, which appeared in Harper’s Weekly, one of the most widely read magazines in the country, was titled “A Typical Negro” and identified the man as Gordon. It described how he had escaped enslavement in Mississippi to make his way to a part of Louisiana controlled by Union troops, in part by rubbing himself with onions to confuse the dogs used by his white pursuers.

But as Bruce Laurie explains in “ ‘Chaotic Freedom’ in Civil War Louisiana,” little of that Harper’s story was true. Gordon’s name was Peter, for instance, and his background was quite different; he was actually a native French speaker.

In addition, Laurie, a retired professor of history from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, discovered that two men from western Massachusetts — Henry S. Gere of Northampton and Marshall S. Stearns of Northfield — likely took the picture of Peter when they were serving with the Union Army in Louisiana and sent the photo to Harper’s.

All this and more is contained in “Chaotic Freedom,” published by University of Massachusetts Press, which has been adapted from an essay Laurie previously wrote on the subject for The Massachusetts Review.

Beginning in 1857, Gere, who died in 1914, was the publisher of what was then called the Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, while Stearns (1824 to 1902) was a currier and carpenter. The two men met during training in Greenfield for the 52nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers.

Both were posted to a “contraband camp” (for runaway slaves) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where they were so shocked by Peter’s appearance they felt compelled to try and tell the country about it.

Laurie’s book examines how the photo eventually appeared in Harper’s and why the magazine’s story about Peter was probably concocted. But the focus is on Gere and Stearns and how they were affected by what they saw in the South, most notably the plight of formerly enslaved people.

“They entered the war as Unionists but became emancipationists in the course of interacting with African Americans,” Laurie writes.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.