The Monk Woman’s Daughter Book Reviews
A young woman’s story of survival, this meticulously researched novel brings to life an era when women wore bonnets and steered a narrow course between the roles of wife, widow, maid, and “parlor girl.” The driving force behind this riveting tale is the mystery of Vera’s birth, which contains the essence of the fierce conflict between Protestant and Catholic in 19th century America.
~ Solveig Eggerz, author of Seal Woman
My wife and I have both read this book and we both had a hard time putting the Kindle reader down to, you know, get on with life. The author must have spent many hours in historical research.
Don’t read it for the accurate history and herstory; read it for the great story of a courageous woman and her struggle to become free and survive against heavy odds. Read it for an inkling of how far we have really come as a nation and people. Read it for fun, in front of a fire in a cozy chair and celebrate the resilience of the human mind and and soul.
~ Amazon Customer, Washington, DC area
Susan Storer Clark’s first novel The Monk Woman’s Daughter takes us back to New York in the 1840s. Our narrator, Vera Monk, tells of her life in the 1840s where children who “were assigned to empty chamber pots often took the easy course of dumping…in the street.” Vera and her younger sister Lizzie live with their mother who neighbors call “the Monk woman.” She is famous—or rather infamous—for her lurid tale of sexual abuse by priests. It had quickly become the best-selling book in America when published in 1836: The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, as Exhibited in a Narrative of Her Sufferings During a Residence of Five Years as a Novice and Two Years as a Black Nun, in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery in Montreal. Still in print today, believe it or not.
Clark’s tale reads like a cross between Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Dickens’s David Copperfield, revealing the struggles of females and Irish and blacks in that tumultuous period of American history from the 1840s through the 1860s. We follow Vera from place to place in the northeastern USA, beginning in a squalid part of New York where she dances in the muddy streets. Pigs roam free until chased down for slaughter. When mother’s drinking gets out of hand, the good stepfather takes Vera and her sister down to the river, causing the younger Lizzie to ask, “Is he going to drown us?”
Instead he takes them out to Flatbush where Vera is left to live with Miss Julia, a widow and Universalist. At first rather standoffish, Julia finally gives her a hug, saying, “I am a crank, but I’d a sight rather be a crank than a fool…. It don’t matter to me who your mother was…. It can be lonely here, and I am mighty glad of you.”
Clark knows how to stage a scene. It is from the pulpit that Vera learns “why my mother was scandalous.” Like Dickens, she can create a character with a few well-drawn strokes. The visiting preacher, Mr. Oosterhuis “was a small, thin man, and his booming voice was a startling surprise…warning us about the tortures of the fires of hell.” It is from his fiery sermon that Vera learns the source of Maria Monk’s ill repute.
Like Moll Flanders, Vera moves through a series of situations, each one revealing the challenges of being female in mid-nineteenth century America. Julia finds her a place in a hat shop doing needle work for room and board and she begins to see life as an adult. When she marries an Irishman who takes her off to Mob Town (as Baltimore is known at the time), she discovers how different that city is from the New York she grew up in. Instead of mud, the streets are cobblestone and the building brick instead of wood. Clark has done her research, capturing the detail of place and language which brings this tale to life.
At first married life is good but then her husband begins spending his evenings talking politics with men who oppose the famous Know-Nothings of the day. She writes Miss Julia, that down-to-earth Unitarian who cared for her. Julia advises her to seek ways to take care of herself: “Men have the best of intentions, but they have a number of inconvenient habits such as becoming politicians or drunkards or even dying.”
That last word foreshadows Vera’s next situation as a widow rolling up her “floorcloth” and looking for a new place to stay. Offered a place at a brothel, she declines, but remains friends with Emmeline and Delilah. “Don’t look at our color,” Emmeline tells her, “Look at us.”
Vera’s journey is a search for home, that place where we feel we belong. “Did other people always feel a sense of belonging?” she asks herself. Then speculates: “Maybe a sense of belonging was just a comforting illusion. Like God.” Vera, like many of Dicken’s protagonists, struggles to find her right place in the world and remain true to herself in bitter circumstance.
With the onset of the Civil War, soldiers fill Baltimore, making life difficult. Vera visits her sister in “Washington City” who, to her horror, owns slaves. Yes, slavery was legal in our nation’s capital until the Civil War was half over. But their value declines as it becomes increasingly clear that they will all be freed.
The end of this historical novel deals with the aftermath of the war, as Vera learns to see across the racial divide to the humanity of those people we now call African-American. She becomes close friends with a freedman, Elijah Smith, assisting him in freeing his wife, Bathsheba Spottswood. “Why isn’t your name Spottswood?” Vera asks. “I be the smith,” Elijah tells her. “My name is what I am.”
After they learn of Bathsheba’s death, Vera decides to help him find his wife’s daughter. Not his daughter, but that of Bathsheba’s white master. She takes the train to war-torn Memphis and finds the daughter. As she returns she wonders to herself “Will Elijah want me along with her?” Even to the end, Vera is never sure of belonging.
~ Bill King, Amazon
Imagine an America rife with racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, religious profiling, fire-and-brimstone preachers and misogyny. Sound familiar? We’re talking about the 1850s, of course. You knew that. Even if you didn’t, that’s the context for Susan Storer Clark’s debut novel, “The Monk Woman’s Daughter.”
In the mid-19th century, it wasn’t the Muslims who were being picked on — it was the Catholics, Irish immigrant Catholics in particular. The potato famine in Ireland — the product of heartless austerity by the English ruling class — had forced the emigration of millions of Irish. Many ended up in the United States, and they were met by a virulent anti-Catholicism, including a movement (the “Know Nothings”) that sounds like a precursor to the Ku Klux Klan.
In the midst of this was published a best-selling autobiography — “The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk” — which purported to expose appalling sexual practices of priests victimizing nuns and killing the resulting babies. The real Maria Monk may have been as much a victim of Protestant preachers as of the Catholic Church, but she did have a couple of children — daughters — out of wedlock in a U.S. where women had few rights and “bastard” girls even fewer. Clark has elected, as she puts it, to “give a life” to one of these girls, in the process painting a vivid picture of America in a period of major transition.
From the farms of Flatbush (now part of Brooklyn) to the haberdasheries of Manhattan, and south to the railroad yards of Baltimore and the mud streets of Washington City (D.C.), Clark portrays an America undergoing a rapid industrial change, and struggling to reconcile the stated ideals of the country with the facts of slavery, wage exploitation, strong class divisions, and relegation of women to a second-class status. Major issues were in play, including whether the U.S. was intended to be a Protestant country (some argued that Catholicism is incompatible with democracy) and, of course, the appalling practice of slavery. The issues weren’t just fought out in Congress or legislatures; gangs with opposing political views fought in the streets and mob violence often climaxed with murder and arson against oppressed groups.
Clark skillfully uses the details of place and dress, of speech and patterns of deference to give a sense of an America obsessed with religion, hierarchy and race. Clark’s character, Vera St. John, is a more aware observer than most, noticing, for example, how the guests’ slaves are kept in secured underground rooms in good hotels. The conclusions she draws leads her to a kind of liberalism that would seem anachronistic if it weren’t so well-motivated.
Vera has to find a way to live in a society that denies married women most employment, underpays unmarried women and offers few options other than prostitution for a woman to raise herself out of poverty. Through a combination of good luck, intelligence, good mentoring and hard work, she is able to make the transition from a street urchin (as she’s described at the beginning) to a skilled hat-maker, and then, because of a shortage of male workers during the Civil War, a federal government employee.
Vera also has several sexual adventures, though the novel isn’t steamy enough to really qualify as a romance novel. Fired after the war to make room for returning soldiers, she manages, through some fortuitous investments, to become independently wealthy. It’s an unlikely trajectory, but it does allow Clark to take her through a cross-section of America, including a visit to the racist whirlpool of post-Civil War Memphis.
In the course of this, Vera has to figure out who she is, beyond the context of her mother’s notoriety and the mystery about who her own father really was. She’s aided in this both by a marriage to an Irish street-fighter who is surprisingly gentle and supportive of her as a whole person and by her ability to move among the various classes of society, from the very wealthy to the poorest African-Americans, from bankers to high-paid prostitutes and entertainers. Her own ability to accept people at face value is apparently conditioned by her foster mother’s Universalism — the then-uncommon branch of Christianity that believed heaven was open to anyone, no matter what they had done, though this piece of her background could have been better developed.
“The Monk Woman’s Daughter” is an absorbing read, if sometimes a bit unbelievable. Could a woman like Vera really live through all that happens relatively emotionally and physically unscathed, including the tragic death of her husband, and with such ability to overcome the prejudices of class, race and gender preference? But it’s nice to think that it could be possible.
~ Mike Wold, Real Change