Recently at a conference, one speaker remarked that "books will only be dead when women stop reading them." As long as books such as "The Wet Nurse's Tale" are being published, women will be reading, and books will always be alive.
This medieval tale by Carrboro writer Erica Eisdorfer is truly a woman's book with a character so real and remarkable she plops down in your life, opens up her dress and begins to spill out her story before you realize you're reading. Susan Rose, one of 13 children, says of her mother, "I wasn't the prettiest, nor yet the sweetest-tongued, but she loved me best, though she loved us all."
And throughout, Susan is her mother's daughter -- daughter to a woman who wet-nursed to aid the family income while the father, a tenant farmer, tended to bend toward a bottle of another kind. Wet-nursing another's child "paid better than plaiting straw for hats or selling eggs" for women who had milk for both their own and another and didn't want to waste it. Yet Susan is no Moll Flanders, even if at times her adventurous life reminds you of the world of those who are not "to the manor born" and survive best on their wits and wiles.
Working in the great house, as had her older sister before her, Susan learns quickly. "We are used to them being our Betters. It's the system God made and so it must be right."
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She's as accepting and cheerful about her social standing as she is about her body and appreciates the talents with which she has been richly endowed. Susan says, "My bosom is as deep as all the oceans and my hips as wide as the fields. I sometimes feel pride though I know it's a sin."
Susan is a "good girl" but only human, and there's no surprise at the next turn in the plot of her life: She's pregnant by the master's son. Rationalizing, she says, "I felt sorry for him, and that's an uncomfortable feeling for a servant to feel, pity for her master." She also says she's "just trying to explain how it is that it was possible for me, always the smartest of us girls no matter how you cut the cake, to let herself get carried away and forget the future."
Eisdorfer creates in Susan a most lovable, believable girl who somehow manages to make the best and most of her life. You never once fault her, which is more than you can say for those who employ her as a wet nurse.
Their stories are interwoven in short, powerful chapters that, though they interrupt Susan's tale, give the reader a more complete picture of life in those times that is not pretty for either those living "upstairs" or "downstairs." "Childbirth," Susan knows, "is dangerous business."
And for a seemingly gentle and kind person, Susan knows danger and dangerous business. How she turns a nightmare of a job into a situation straight out of the Bible and finds her own true love is adroitly handled in masterful writing and brilliant plotting.
You read the last page with a satisfied sigh, well suckled with sweet, nourishing words.