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A Narrative Compass: Stories That Guide Women’s Lives

When I read the back cover of A Narrative Compass, I thought it might be something nice to read before going to bed at night, and luckily, I was right. The texts this collection contains are great bedtime stories: attention grabbing, short, and self-contained. Reading it is a little bit like having all of your closest friends over for a gathering to talk about the stories you treasure from your youth, and how they have influenced you. The amazing women who have contributed to this collection often share stories so intimate, that they will shock you with their sincerity.

According to Betsey Hearne and Roberta Seelinger Trites’ introduction, the aim of the collection is to begin answering the following questions: “why storytelling is important to women, why storytelling is often gendered as a female discipline, and why we think narrative compasses have particularly important methodological consequences for women scholars.” This is an ambitious goal, but one that they seem to have gotten a good response to, judging by the selection of authors whom they have included. The theorizing will have to be left to a later date (luckily!) since introspection seems to be the order of the day and overarching theme of the texts included.

The nineteen contributors are all professors or students from a wide variety of fields. Every author takes up the editors’ challenge of showing and writing about her intimate narrative compass in a different manner and style. It is quite amazing to see how much thought has been put into these texts and this makes the collection quite unique and very pleasant to read. The compilation is divided into three parts called “Finding the Compass,” “Literary and Critical Directions,” and “Escaping Home, Finding Home.” These distinctions are not really important because as one reads through the book one realizes that each individual narrative is a self-contained entity.

As for the diverse narrative compasses, Karen Coat’s very introspective piece is often witty as she applies Lacan’s theoretical tenets to her developing relationship with her daughter Emily, who was born with Down’s Syndrome. Claudia Quintero Ulloa applies melodrama to her own life story as she depicts the past generations of strong females in her family (even including a family tree) and analyzes these women’s expression of emotion only while watching telenovelas. In Seelinger Trites’s piece, she reveals her own tumultuous trajectory through academia and finds analogous moments in Jo March’s nonconformist life from Little Women. Deyonne Bryant parallels her chosen path (both gendered and racialized) with that of the fictional Mary Jane from Dorothy Sterling’s 1959 novel about two black students entering an all-white school. Cindy L. Christiansen transforms her father’s sudden death when she was four years of age into a Nancy Drew-style mystery which she tries to solve in her essay. Joanna Hearne and Minjie Chen both construct the stories of their own families through recuperation of folktales of their youth and recording the stories of their elders.

Other books and authors examined in this anthology include: A Passage to India, The Teachings of Don Juan, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Secret Garden, the Nancy Drew series, The Bible, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Laura Ingalls Wilder, traditional Chinese texts, and many fairy tales. Any passionate reader will find something to their liking in this collection which guarantees many “me too!” moments.

Written by: Sophie M. Lavoie, July 21st 2009

This looks incredible! Thanks for your great review!