Sunday, February 12, 2017

Notes on STONE MIRRORS: THE SCULPTURE AND SILENCE OF EDMONIA LEWIS

Some time back, a reader wrote to ask if I'd seen Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis by Jeannine Atkins. Published this year (2017) by Atheneum/Simon and Schuster, I see that it got starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist.

Here's the description:

From critically acclaimed author Jeannine Atkins comes a gorgeous, haunting biographical novel in verse about a half Native American, half African American sculptor working in the years following the Civil War.
A sculptor of historical figures starts with givens but creates her own vision. Edmonia Lewis was just such a sculptor, but she never spoke or wrote much about her past, and the stories that have come down through time are often vague or contradictory. Some facts are known: Edmonia was the daughter of an Ojibwe woman and an African-Haitian man. She had the rare opportunity to study art at Oberlin, one of the first schools to admit women and people of color, but lost her place after being accused of poisoning and theft, despite being acquitted of both. She moved to Boston and eventually Italy, where she became a successful sculptor.
But the historical record is very thin. The open questions about Edmonia’s life seem ideally suited to verse, a form that is comfortable with mysteries. Inspired by both the facts and the gaps in history, author Jeannine Atkins imagines her way into a vision of what might have been.


And for now, here's my notes. I'll be back with a review of Stone Mirrors. It will have some thoughts and analysis, based on research I'll be doing. When I'm done, I'll come back here and insert a link to that review.

Oberlin, Ohio
1862-1863

Page 3
Edmonia Lewis is 16 and a student at Oberlin College. She's in the woods, thinking:
When she was given a chance to go
to boarding school, her aunts' farewell was final.
People who move into houses
with hard walls don't return to homes
that can be rolled and carried on backs.
As she's in the woods, she reads tracks in the snow. Some are bird or animal tracks, but some are boot prints.

Page 4
Edmonia looks at a deer; the deer looks back. Its gaze "binds them, turns into trust."

Page 5
A boy--Seth--is in the woods, too. Neither of them are supposed to be in the woods. It is against rules. He speaks to Edmonia:
They say you make your own rules.
Edmonia thinks that he's breaking rules, too. She thinks about rules.
She was raised to respect fire, fast water, and heights.
Page 6
Seth tells Edmonia that he read Hiawatha; asks Edmonia if her life was like that and if it is true that she lived outside. She thinks
Most strangers want only a slip of a story,
like those the aunts who raised her gave tourists
to go with the deerskin moccasins
and sweetgrass baskets they bought

Page 7
Edmonia tells Seth that
In winter, we stretched strips of bark
over trees young enough to bend, and slept
with our feet toward the fire in the middle.

Page 10
Here, there's info about her parents. First, her father:
Edmonia can keep secrets. She doesn't speak
of her father, who, not long before her mother died,
left Edmonia with brown skin, round eyes, a wide mouth,
and not one memory. Still, his name is part of hers.
Then, her mother:
She won't speak of manitous, good spirits
who may stay within stone, but might warn
with a cracking branch. Her aunts taught her much
that they warned could be ruined by revelation.

The page also introduces us to Longfellow's influence on her, as she thinks about forbidden romances:
...Romeo and Juliet
defying their families, Hiawatha and Minnehaha
marrying despite fighting between Ojibwe and Sioux.
Page 11
Edmonia is in the art room thinking about work with clay, how working with clay is an art that:
...takes up space
like the deerskin her aunts sculpted into shoes,
the baskets they wove from broken willow branches.

Page 15
Edmonia is with her roommate, Ruth, who is African American. Edmonia tells Ruth she's going upstairs to help Helen (who is White) select clothes for a sleigh ride. Ruth reminds her that she's supposed to be studying, that she's not Helen's servant, and that
We vowed when we came here to be of a character
that no one can criticize. And don't tell me
you're an exception. No matter how many stories
you tell about your past life in the forest,
they don't see halves.
You and I are the same in their eyes.
Edmonia replies:
I'm not like you.
and
My mother was Indian. And my father a freedman.

Page 21
Christine and Helen (the two white girls going on the sleigh ride) are talking. Christine tells Helen
... you can recite all your daffodils and nightingales and shores
of Gitche Gumee, while Seth minds the horses. 
Page 23
It is a Sunday. On Sunday's, students sew blue shirts for soldiers and they write letters home.
Edmonia's aunts roll up their homes each season
and follow signs from rivers and stars.
Edmonia writes, then burns her letters.
Smoke is as useful as stamps she can't afford.
Page 28
In Helen's room, Edmonia:
... looks through a book of poems, stopping
on the page where Hiawatha mourns Minnehaha.
Edmonia hadn't paid enough attention
to this particular poem, or the ends
of Juliet's and Cleopatra's stories:
the betrayals, lost words, poison.
Page 30
Mr. Ennes, Christine's father, says to Father Keep (a school admin)
... our Christine claims that colored girl
who calls herself an Injun poisoned her.
Page 32
In her room,
The bureau Edmonia shares with Ruth is bare on top.
The only charms she has are hidden, a pair
of small moccasins her mother stitched before she died.

Page 36
A boy calls out
Watch out for the wild Indian.
Don't take a drink from her.
And
You gave them an Indian potion. Murderer!

Page 44-45 
Under suspicion of poisoning Helen and Christine, Edmonia is confined to her room. Everyone is at chapel:
Her throat feels as if it were gnawed by
dangerous spirits who tear skin and flesh,
who took her mother, even most of her memory.
There's no end to their greed.
She wonders if she should run away.
She lies down and dreams of her aunts, who praised
her older brother for seeking a new life out west.
They told her no one can go back.
Once traders brought in beads,
women stopped decorating moccasins with quills,
making pictures of turtles, loons, otters,
and starflowers they'd seen in dreams.
After women could buy cloth, thread, and needles,
they rarely sewed deerskin. Steel needles are sharper than bone.
Even as she grew up, the past was breaking.
Her aunts sold its pieces spread on blankets,
turning what was scavenged into mementos and toys.
They sewed pin cushions and small pillows,
stitched English words they couldn't read:
Niagara Falls and Remember Me. 
Edmonia takes out the moccasins her mother made
when she was a baby. The beaded blue flowers
and fish-shaped leaves are beautiful, but there's a hole
by the heel. Ojibwe mothers left an imperfection
to trick spirits into thinking an infant was unloved,
not worth snatching for the long journey to the other side.
She thinks of foods she used to eat and kneels to pray but rather than the words of the people who
 ...built ceilings
between themselves and sky,
laid floors to block the lands, voice,
an old Ojibwe plea runs like a pulse through her.
Page 47
Edmonia is running away but it caught by several men who grab her.
No! she cries, then Naw! Booni'!
She is beaten and raped.

Page 53
Back in her room later, Edmonia says to Ruth
Give me my moccasins.
Edmonia holds them to her face and breathes in their deerskin scent. Then, she says to Ruth:
Burn them.
Aren't they all you have from your mother?
She thinks:
Holes or missing stitches didn't help.
and again, Edmonia asks Ruth to burn them.

Page 58
Edmonia is on her way to a second day of court where she is accused of trying to poison Helen and Christine.
Edmonia wishes she were in the woods
or at least back where she handed sightseers
birchbark tipis and canoes small enough to sail on a palm.
Buyers, turning their backs to the waterfall's beauty
and danger, seemed to crave a glimpse
of her brown hand as much as a toy,
small enough to pocket and forget.
Cross-legged on a woven blanket, she took coins,
traced the embossed reliefs of a bird, star,
wreath, goddess. 
From that time with her aunts, selling items to tourists, she learned how to read their eyes and body language. She uses that skill now, in court.
Her face stays as still as her aunts kept theirs
when strangers picked up beaded belts or willow baskets,
then put them back down.
Stillness was a skill as much as the crafts.
Page 67
The court goes on. Another season sets in.
During the time of Leaves Turning...
Page 74
The court determines she is not guilty of trying to poison Helen and Christine, but plans are made for Edmonia to leave the school. Father Keep tells her of people in Boston, specifically, a person named Mrs. Child, who
...has written much about the evils of slavery and wrongs done to Indians. 

Page 76
As Edmonia packs to leave, she
...opens a drawer and grabs her pencils like a fistful of arrows.

Page 80
Edmonia is on a train for Boston:
Silently, she chants, Faster, fasterwanting to move more swiftly than memory
or manitous who won't stay under branches, stones,
or skin, but shift shape or disappear like shadows.
She has only the future now, a place her aunts
knew was necessary but dangerous,
as they stitched a way forward with thin thread,
making blankets and baskets too small to be used.
And
Will she ever again see her aunts hunching over baskets?
Reeds bend when they're damp, so her aunts lifted them
to their mouths, breathing in life. They held birchbark
over flames, just close enough for it to soften, then curved
it into small canoes they spread on blankets.
Tourists offered a few coins for swift
journeys to places where they'd never live.

Boston, Massachusetts
1863-1865

Page 85
Edmonia is with Mrs. Childs in Boston and as she makes a pie crust,
...wonders if Mrs. Child scrubs the sink and sweeps floors
the way her aunts burned cedar branches
to keep their home safe.

Page 88
Edmonia tells Mrs. Childs that maybe she can be a painter like Mrs. Bannister's husband:
Back when I wove mats and beaded belts,my aunts said I had clever hands and eyes.

Page 91
Mrs. Child's tells Edmonia that she wrote a book about
...a romance between
a white woman and a Pequot Indian. I was charmed by
Mr. Longfellow's poem about Hiawatha.
Then she says
I heard your mother comes from
people I've long admired. Can you tell me
about her and how you grew up?
Page 93
Still in Boston with Mrs. Child's, Edmonia thinks of her life before she was at Oberlin:
Everything she left, the wisps of smoke curling
from the stove, stinging her eyes, the stench of ashes,
is beautiful. She couldn't see that the day
she asked Ruth to burn her old moccasins.
Could she disappear, like those deerskin shoes
or the canoes and bark houses her aunts shaped into toys
to barter to children who wanted a past
fit for children's eyes?
Page 107
Edmonia has begun sculpting. She tells Mrs Child's
I've begun work on a bust of Mr. Longfellow.
Not only a gentleman, but he bought freedom
for some slaves with income from his poems.
Page 111
In Boston Common for a parade celebrating the victory in Gettysburg, Edmonia follows Robert Gould Shaw's eyes as he raises them skyward:
Angels or manitous,
clear as water or wind, beat their wings.
Briefly they touch almost every other soldier.
One grazes the colonel's shoulder,
then a man who looks like Thomas.
She hears the feathery thud of wings
under the beat and breath of drums, fifes, and horns.
Are the spirit choosing who will soon cross with them?
(Note: Thomas is Ruth's beau, back at Oberlin.)

Page 120
Edmonia is in line to visit the works of a Miss Hosmer at a gallery in Boston. She overhears one lady say:
Miss Hosmer grew up near Boston
though now she makes her home in Rome. Her father
did his best after her mother passed over,
but the girl rode horses, paddled in the river,
was raised like a wild Indian.

Page 124
Edmonia is getting ready to leave for Italy.
Mrs. Child gives her a knitted pair of slippers.
Did I tell you how much sickness can be avoidedby putting on slippers every morning?Edmonia folds them so they fit in her hands
like the small sculptures of deerskin
her mother made when she was a baby,
smooth as a swan's wings collapsing back
into her own feathered body.

Rome, Italy
1865-1875

Page 131
In Rome, Edmonia learns she'll be sculpting in a courtyard located in a neighborhood that is convenient for tourists to stop in to watch her sculpt.
People watch you sculpt? Edmonia remembers
her aunts weaving sweetgrass while strangers stared.
Page 143
Edmonia is in Italy:
Months have different names, but through the times
of Snow Crust, Broken Snowshoes, then Maple-Sugar-Making,
Edmonia hunches over her work the way her aunts had
over baskets woven of rumor, nostalgia, and some truth.
One afternoon, a wealthy widow with two homes
to decorate orders a marble statue of Minnehaha
bidding her father good-bye.

Edmonia starts to work on the statue of Minnehaha bidding her father good-bye:
Slowly she sees a Sioux man carving arrowheads
just before his daughter leaves everything
she knows to live among the Ojibwe. 
Page 150
Edmonia has a dream in which Ruth hands her a pair of soft, small moccasins. When she wakes, she wonders:
Did Ruth keep the small moccasins,
burn something else, then put them
in the carpetbag Edmonia left behind?
She can almost smell the worn deerskin.
She knows the texture of each perfectly placed bead,
the deliberately ragged edge. Her mother
must have always wanted her to find beauty
in both careful stitches and unraveling borders.
---End of Notes---

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