- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 28, 2006

SEX WARS: A NOVEL OF THE TURBULENT POST-CIVIL WAR PERIOD

By Marge Piercy

William Morrow, $24.95, 411 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

How do you like your history? Straight with footnotes or maybe with a dash of literary license? How about shaken-not-stirred and served up as fiction in a mix of historical figures and imagined characters? Had you asked me that last question before I read “Sex Wars,” I’d probably have said thanks but no thanks.

However, having read it — in a serial imitation of a single sitting — I now know that would have been a mistake. I would have missed something special. “Sex Wars” is that rare book that can satisfy lovers of history and lovers of fiction without slipping into the less-desirable category of what used to be called, perjoratively, historical fiction. This book is the genuine article — a ripping yarn that gives you a real feeling of and for the times and the people.

Subtitled “A Novel of the Turbulent Post-Civil War Period,” “Sex Wars” is Ms. Piercy’s 16th novel. She’s also written 16 volumes of poetry (giving her the literary equivalent of basketball’s double-double) plus a miscellany of four other books and a play.

It opens in 1868, flashes briefly back to 1862, picks up again in 1869, and ends about five years later, with a brief coda that provides an early-20th century update for several of the main characters. Along the way, we meet a distinguished main cast that includes, in order of appearance: Victoria Woodhull, Freydeh Levin, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Anthony Comstock, with Levin the sole product of the author’s excellent imagination. In addition, Susan B. Anthony, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Horace Greeley, Jay Gould, Jim Fisk and even President U.S. Grant appear in roles that range from large to walk-on.

The action of the novel centers around the reality-based attempts of the main characters to find success and achieve the goals each one has set. And they are very different goals, indeed. Woodhull, a spiritualist and freethinker, especially in regard to sex and marriage, wanted riches and respectability, and got so close that she became the first woman to run for president of the United States before the powers-that-be moved the candle too close to her wings.

Stanton wanted not just the vote so fervently sought by her friend Susan B. Anthony, but a better deal for women across the board. The other Anthony, Comstock, desired nothing so much as to rid America of sin and vice, especially in the area of sex.

Cornelius Vanderbilt, along with Fisk and Gould, wanted, if not all the money in the world, then certainly all of it in this country. The beauty of this action is that (unlike historical events depicted in certain current movies) it is all true. You could, as they say, look it up.

And then there’s Freydeh Levin, who may not in fact have lived but who represents tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of immigrant women who did live and struggle and, in a small percentage of the cases, succeeded by achieving their goals. When we meet her, she is in her late 20s and, already a widow, living with a family of fellow Russian Jews and working full-time in a pharmacy.

“Freydeh got up before dawn as usual. She had a straw mattress in the windowless kitchen, three dollars a week. Freydeh washed quickly in a basin she filled a third full from the bucket hauled up the night before from the pump in the yard behind the tenement. She ate her bread, smoked herring and tea sitting on her cot, and then she was off to the pharmacy, leaving the tiny flat with its eight other inhabitants. She wanted, oh, she wanted, a place of her own. A place of her own: she dreamed of that day and night.”

As dramatic as the events of the period happened to be, and as simple and effective as it would have been simply to relate them in a straight chrono-logical order, Ms. Piercy the storyteller wisely keeps us in suspense as she shifts her focus from one of the principals to another.

How close to Commodore Vanderbilt do Victoria Woodhull and her temptress of a sister dare to get lest he become skittish and deny them further access and financial backing for what would become the first brokerage house owned and operated by females?

Will Anthony Comstock, the professional prude, be able to find financial support for his campaign against the evils of the flesh in person, print and product? And will the men who profess to support the suffragette cause stand up when it’s time to be counted?

As the author makes so very clear in a most effective characterization, Elizabeth Cady Stanton has her doubts. If you know your history, especially your history of the women’s movement circa the late-19th century, you already know the answer, but that doesn’t detract from the pleasure you’ll get reading Marge Piercy’s take on the way it all played out.

The development of those dramas, be they small, medium or large, should be enough to satisfy all but the most literal minded of readers, but what makes the novel — and don’t forget it is a novel — so wonderful is the character and story of Freydeh Levin.

From the moment she comes on stage she has hero written all over her, and she stays in character all through the book, but you never get the feeling that the author is overdoing it, and thus your interest (mine, anyway) never flags.

She adopts and raises not one but two half-feral street urchins of the human variety, and tames them with her love and trust. In many ways, she functions as a near-perfect symbol of the struggle for the same equality that Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony are championing for women through pen and platform.

I must confess I’ve always been a little leery of contemporary authors putting words into the mouths of historical figures without something like a diary or an autobiography to back it up. But, in what has to be a tribute to Marge Piercy’s skill as a writer and her care in using her acknowledged sources, that never bothered me in the least. In fact, I wonder what she could do with, say, the 1920s in America.

The title may be “Sex Wars” (and, yes, that may have influenced my decision to read the book, though not as much as the author’s reputation), but it’s sex in the sense of being male or female, not in the sense that made Anthony Comstock so crazy.

What you end up with after reading this powerful book is the feeling that the women conducted themselves much better than the men, and far more honorably. Hmmm. Could that be historically accurate?

John Greenya is a Washington writer and author of “Silent Justice: The Clarence Thomas Story.”

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