Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Slammerkin - "From the Stacks Winter Challenge"

Slammerkin - Emma Donoghue

I never leave the house without a red ribbon.

Mary Saunders, the focus of Slammerkin, is thrown out
of her house
after being raped for her desire for a red ribbon.

Does the red ribbon establish a kinship between Mary and
Perhaps. Lacking a common desire or situation, the
reader may have
difficulty opening herself to a character
– in my case, the relationship
between a middle-aged
librarian and a doomed teenaged prostitute.

Slammerkin places a very young woman in a desperately
household, where she is neither loved nor consulted
about how her life
will unfold.

All evidence points to a miserable and colorless
continuation of her mother’s life of poverty, drudgery,
subjugation that was sealed when her father
was killed in a misguided protest
by men who believed that
they were going to lose, literally lose,
eleven days of their
lives when the government changed to the
calendar in 1752 -that they would lose time.

I was fascinated by the subjective inconstancy of Mary’s
perception of
time. In her mother’s house, time is nearly a
solid mass, changing
only by suffering and the family’s
heartless response to Mary’s
pregnancy. This response, a
product of the times, is doled out without

How could the family understand the depth of Mary’s need
escape the faded beige of their lives, or the magical hope
by that red ribbon? And yet, how could a mother
cast out her raped,
pregnant daughter?

(As I write, I realize that Mary’s mother is the only truly
unforgivable character in the book. Perhaps my modern-time
sensibility intrudes. All of the subsequent damage and
tragedy that
defined Mary’s brief time, and all of the bitter
focus on the actual
material that she craved in this world,
began with this primal betrayal.
If she was not loved for
what was within, she could, at least, adorn
herself with the transitory beauty of clothes.)

Time, and the times, were different when Mary fled
to London. London
was fast-paced, and the woman who
accepted her into the sisterhood
of prostitutes were fast.
Doll’s love and practical
guidance showed Mary that society
can tolerate – even require –
actions and beliefs far larger
than she had ever imagined. Through
prostitution, Mary
acquired financial independence and freedom to see
some of
thewonders of her modern world. Likethe fireworks over
she and her sisters of the night were brief flashes
of beauty, dressed
in their colorful slammerkins (loose
dresses) and masked behind their

Mary’s sudden need to escape a street thug impelled her
to Magdalene
Hospital, a residence founded to purge the
evil from the street-wise
women. Time was suspended there,
with silence, blandness,
and time to think without fearing
starvation or death in the freezing
streets. With Doll’s death,
Mary realizes that she has to leave London,
and her
retreat ends in a desperate flight from the sanctuary
to the
town where her mother had grown up. Glimpses
of the possibilities
there almost melt her cynicism, but
her nature has been formed, and
she can not escape.

This novel is based, loosely, on the actual life of a Mary
Saunders who
was executed for murder in 1764. From the
beginning of the novel,
when Mary is 13, to her death by
hanging at age 16, Mary passes
through more lifetimes
than many experience in ten times the years.

How many such lifetimes can a child endure? For Mary is a
child, and
my working-class perception of childhood
makes me ache for this young
girl, whose only
transgression was the love of a piece of red ribbon.

How does the red ribbon bind me to Mary’s life? For both the
18th -
century child and the 21st century woman, the red
ribbon symbolizes
hope. Mary’s hope for a better life is
destroyed, but the
hopes of my Eastern European Jewish
ancestors for the children who would be born in the new
world, and would escape the Evil Eye of the old. have
realized. After reading Slammerkin, I realize anew
that I am, indeed,


Thank you, Stephanie, for giving me this book!


pixie girl said...

Beautiful review - sounds like a wonderful book. Thanks.

David Hodges said...

Good God, melanie. It's hard to imagine surviving the book, let alone the life it chronicles. Can it be that the transformative power of the author's art makes such a story tolerable? Enough for you to be able to say "thank you" for the book? The proof must be in the pages, but it sounds beyond belief.