Wednesday, September 18, 2013

"My Notorious Life"

Kate Manning is the author of Whitegirl, a novel (Dial Press, 2002). A former documentary television producer for public television, she has won two New York Emmy Awards, and also written for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times Book Review, among others. She has taught creative writing at Bard High School Early College in Manhattan, where she lives with her boisterous family, including a dog named Moon, who walks her regularly.

Manning applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, My Notorious Life, and reported the following:
Set in the 1860’s, My Notorious Life follows the scrappy Axie Muldoon from her impoverished childhood on the Lower East Side of New York, to a wild journey on an “orphan train” out West, and ultimately to great wealth and success as a midwife and “females’ physician.” It’s a novel about longing. For home. For whoever might supply it, or wherever ir might be.

Page 69 is in several ways a good representative slice of the story. Although it doesn’t feature an example of Axie’s headstrong moxie, or her sense of humor, this scene is a pivotal moment. Here, Axie, thirteen years old, has just assisted her own mother in childbirth at home in a cold tenement room. Her wee newborn sister has turned limp and blue. Her stepfather, who has lost a wife and child before, is consumed by grief.
He cursed God and picked up the coal bucket and flang it at the wall. It hit with a terrible tin crash and clattered to the floor in a powder of black dust. My mother startled so her eyelids fluttered. Duffy made a strangled sound and went out the door.
The events on this page change Axie’s life irrevocably. The novel’s preoccupations with family, love, childbirth, and loss suffuse the moment. Later on page 69, Axie’s Aunt Bernie takes over at her mother’s bedside, in a manner that illustrates the everyday nature of tragedy in these “fevernests” and “dreadful rookeries of the poor.”
She found a strip of rag by the stove, which she gave to me.
—Run and tie this to the door and then tie the other half out front downstairs for the undertaker to see, she whispered.
Axie’s main worry in this early part of the novel is with her mother, and on page 69, she realizes that her beloved Mam is having trouble recovering from childbirth. Axie witnesses her aunt’s inept attempts to help.
Bernie was there beside Mam’s bed, kneeling low by her knees. She was busy with some articles, a bowl and a burlap sack and a bunch of chicken feathers and pressing hard on Mam’s belly... My eyes did not escape the bloody rags, the bowl dark with liquid.
This moment and the events of the day inform the course of Axie’s life, her choice of profession, and her determination to prevent such scenes as the one on page 69 from occurring again in the bedrooms and lying-in hospitals of 1860’s New York. After this scene, her fortunes improve, her voice grows more irreverent, and her story becomes quite rollicking in places. Page 69 does not feature a sample of Axie’s particular vernacular, in which, for example, her enemies include “a bitter old catamaran” a “pompous tub of lard, and some “cabbage-hearted weevils.” What it does show is how My Notorious Life is Axie’s testimony of loss and love, and why she translates both into a fierce defiance of authority and a defense of women and children.
Learn more about the book and author at Kate Manning's website.

--Marshal Zeringue