Dear Madam President: An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run the World by Jennifer Palmieri is an empowering voice for women. It's written as a letter to the future female President of the United States (if you couldn't figure that out from the title). To give some background, Palmieri served as the White House Director of Communications under President Obama and then afterwards as the Director of Communications for the Clinton presidential campaign in 2016. Therefore, the reader will not be surprised that a large chunk of this book is devoted to behind the scenes of that campaign and its aftermath on herself and the country (from her point-of-view). From this standpoint alone, the book is interesting as we are seeing an event through the eyes of someone who actually experienced it from the inside. The overarching purpose of this book is to give advice and encouragement to women in any and every type of environment. Palmieri seeks to embolden women to allow for vulnerability and use the strengths that have historically been seen as weaknesses to launch yourself to the top. She emphasizes the importance of sticking up for yourself so that your voice is heard especially when yours is the only female voice in the room. (Did I mention this is quite a pro-female book? It is and I love that.) Remember: We cannot play by the same rules as men and we shouldn't have to. Personally, despite its shortness I think this is a necessary book for all peoples to read regardless of gender (but ladies ya'll should really try to seek this one out). I especially liked the book recommendations scattered throughout. :-D A solid 8/10 for me.
What's Up Next: Condoleezza Rice: A Memoir of My Extraordinary, Ordinary Family and Me by Condoleezza Rice
What I'm Currently Reading: Star Trek Destiny #2: Mere Mortals by David Mack
This book is a hidden gem: the biography of a mixed-race family around the time of the Civil War. It was published well before its time – in 1956 there wasn’t much interest in African-American family sagas – but it is well-written and fascinating in part because this isn’t a commonly-told story. Murray was a fascinating character in her own right – a prominent civil rights and women’s rights activist, a lawyer and finally a priest, genderqueer long before people knew what that was – but here she focuses on her family history, which is fascinating in its own right. The book is chiefly about her maternal grandfather, who grew up free in the North, joined one of the first black regiments to fight in the Civil War despite the fact that he was already going blind from an injury, and went south after the war to educate freed slaves in the face of white opposition. Murray’s grandmother’s story is quite different: she grew up a slave, though she didn’t feel like one, being the daughter of a son of the house and mostly treated as such. (Murray’s mother’s family would likely be seen as white today, though by the conventions of the time they were black no matter what they looked like.) All this is mixed in with Murray’s memories of being raised by her grandparents in the early 20th century.
Pauli Murray mural in her hometown of Durham, North Carolina
Overall, I really enjoyed this biography/history/memoir and found it to be absorbing reading, though somewhat slow going. It is a good story and provides a little-known perspective on a well-known time in American history; unlike many books, which approach the time period through fiction, this one is based on family stories and documents and on historical research, and is more complex and authentic for it. I am definitely interested in reading more about Murray and her family.
Overall, I enjoyed this book a lot, though a number of issues bothered me. The author, a journalist, follows the lives of three young Mexican-born women living in Colorado for several years, beginning just before they finish high school. Two of the girls are undocumented, having been brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents at a young age; despite their intelligence and motivation, their immigration status creates myriad barriers to living a normal life. The third has a similar history, but comes from a family that was able to obtain legal status, and the differences in opportunity sometimes put a barrier between her and her friends.
This book is not a representative look at the lives of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. (I would love to read a book like that, but it doesn’t appear that one exists.) These girls are exceptional, able to overcome the barriers that poverty and family circumstances put in their way, perhaps because they have such a strong support system in each other. The author does an excellent job, though, of bringing them to life on the page, getting to know them and their lives and telling an engaging story. I really enjoyed reading the book, found the author’s style readable and compelling, and became invested in the protagonists. The pages flew by.
That said, it has its issues. First, there's the degree to which it is influenced and held back by the career of the author’s husband, then mayor of Denver and currently governor of Colorado. Immigration was a hot topic in Colorado at the time of writing (the book was published in 2009), and Thorpe even writes about her articles being used against her husband by his political opponents. In the same paragraph, she insists that she opposes illegal immigration, largely from seeing how their lack of status limits the girls’ opportunities. Thorpe visits Yadira’s family in their hometown in Mexico and knows very well that however curtailed her opportunities in the U.S., she would have had even less of a chance there, so I don't believe her; either she's not thinking her opinions through or what she actually opposes are the circumstances that make illegal immigration necessary. In another cringeworthy passage, she observes that some critics called then-U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo “a modern-day Nazi, but . . . I did not think he could be so easily dismissed. His critics failed to acknowledge the congressman’s considerable charm,” as illustrated by an anecdote in which he makes a joke. I can’t tell whether she’s honestly stupid enough to believe that charm is inconsistent with hate, or is just struggling vainly to look “balanced.”
Either way, her discomfort with being the mayor’s wife crops up a lot, for a book that isn’t about her – in another unfortunate passage, she compares her life to the girls’ because both are defined by other people’s decisions – and she closes the acknowledgments with the opinion that “In truth, writers and politicians should never marry, so at odds are the two endeavors.” Based on this book I think she is right, and awful as it sounds, the fact that she and her husband divorced before she published another book makes me more likely to read her other work.
Perhaps because of her husband, or perhaps because she was a journalist still feeling out the transition to author, Thorpe chooses to spend much of the book reporting on the immigration debate, rather than contributing to it. Where other authors would supplement the human drama with their own research by interviewing other immigrants, providing relevant statistics, or tracing the history of immigration policy, and ultimately would make an argument or policy proposal of their own, Thorpe just describes the political situation, for instance, by going to the statehouse for a floor debate on an immigration-related bill and quoting what various state representatives have to say on the topic, or by attending yet another Tancredo event. This is not very enlightening – anyone likely to read this book already knows the contours of the immigration debate – and seems to equate immigration opponents’ opinions to the girls’ lives.
Finally, for an author who is clearly sympathetic to the plight of immigrants, Thorpe sure likes to call people “illegals,” with a frequency that made it nails-on-a-chalkboard for me. Marisela and Yadira are collectively “the illegal girls,” a discussion of a court case will say that “the judge ruled in favor of the illegal schoolchildren,” and so on. I wonder what the girls – Marisela in particular is an activist – made of that.
It speaks to the quality of Thorpe's writing, though, that despite all these issues, I’m still interested in reading her other books. She sounds a bit obnoxious as a person, but she can sure tell a story, and does a great job of finding and getting to know people with different perspectives (including the woman whose identity was stolen by one of the girls’ relatives). While I would have made different recommendations had I been Thorpe’s editor, I still recommend this book.