That’s my kind of history

Carol Luers EymanMy big rebellion in high school was refusing to study for a couple of Mrs. Carter’s American History quizzes and getting D’s on both of them.

Every history course I sat through was focused on war, which left me yawning. I never even took history in college.

But after I finished school, I found a branch of history that left me fascinated.

It’s the social and cultural history that Bill Bryson brings to life in At Home: A Short History of Private Life,  full of fun facts like this one: Back when only the wealthy could afford sugar and toothpaste didn’t exist, aristocrat-wannabes would blacken their teeth so people would think a diet of sweets had made them rot.

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty is available from the library in hardcover, large print, audiobook on CD, and downloadable audiobook.

That’s the history I love, and that’s the history that’s makes me a fan of historical novels like The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty.

It’s the story of Cora Carlisle, who is sent from her New York City orphanage to the Midwest on an orphan train. As a teenager, she is married off to a prosperous Topeka attorney, to prop up a façade of propriety that leaves her cruelly deceived but saves her husband’s reputation and livelihood.

Despite her uncomfortable living situation, Cora does bear children, twin boys. Most of the book takes place in the summer of 1922, when they are teenagers and out of town for a few months. Finding herself idle, Cora agrees to chaperone an avant-garde 15-year-old girl on her travels to New York to attend dance school. That 15-year-old is Louise Brooks, who in real life starred in 17 silent films and 8 talkies.

Louise Brooks

Louise Brooks with bobbed hair. By …trialsanderrors (Louise Brooks by Bain News Service, ca. 1928) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Louise Brooks helped popularize the bob–the short, blunt haircut with bangs that was not at all respectable in the early 1900s. In The Chaperone, a friend of Cora’s talks about how employers won’t even hire girls with bobs.

Reading about Louise Brooks’ haircut and clothing brought to mind scenes from Downton Abbey, whose recent season also took place in the early 1920s. And then I realized that Cora, not a name you hear often today, is Lady Grantham’s first name too. And that got me doing some research where I found out that Cora was a top-20 name in the 1880s . . . about the time our two Coras would have been born.

So what The Chaperone has to recommend it is not just an intriguing plot and convincing characters but its recreation of bygone society that motivated a history dropout like me to do my own research–something I never did voluntarily in Mrs. Carter’s 11th-grade classroom.

About Carol Luers Eyman

Carol Luers Eyman is the outreach and community services coordinator at the Nashua Public Library. After graduating from Kirkland College, she earned a master’s of education and a certificate in technical communication from the University of Massachusetts.

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