Megan Mayhew Bergman, known for Birds of a Lesser Paradise, her first book of short stories, has written a new collection that was published by Scribner this month. Almost Famous Women tells the fictionalized stories of historical women on the fringes of fame. Bergman writes their lives into a larger existence than the footnotes to which they have been relegated.
The women whose lives are included in this collection range from a Standard Oil heiress who ruled over her own island, to the conjoined Hilton twins who—for a short time—made it big in show business, to Dolly Wilde, the ambulance-driving niece of Oscar Wilde. Some stories are more fictionalized than others: in “The Lottery, Redux,” Bergman writes a matriarchal cover story for Shirley Jackson’s famous piece. Still other stories feel as though Bergman was right there alongside her characters, a treasured confidant chronicling these women’s lives.
One of the standout pieces of the collection is “Hell-Diving Women,” about the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated, all-girl swing band in the US. We follow Ruby, the do-everything woman in the band, and Tiny, the star trumpet player whom she loves. They tour the Jim Crow South, playing gigs while trying to dodge the KKK: “And yet the lines of people still wrapped around the clubs every night, though when the gigs were over Ruby half-expected to see torches coming for the bus. She was always looking over her shoulder now.” The story pulses with smothered anger, which finally bursts one night when Tiny gets heckled one too many times. Bergman balances a good many threads in this piece: the desire to make good art and the desire for another person, the need to speak out against injustice and the need to just plain survive, and it’s all tied up in Ruby and Tiny and their bus full of women on the edge of something completely wonderful and entirely dangerous.
Bergman’s writing is intimate, vivid, and utterly real: the reader feels as though she’s peeking into the private worlds of these women on the outskirts of the history books. In her author’s note, Bergman describes her writing process and her inspiration for the volume:
“I’ve never been comfortable with writing historical fiction, though I love reading it. When forming these stories, I kept with me Henry James’s notion that all novelists need freedom, and I gave myself permission to experiment, and to be honest about my inspiration. . . . I did not want to romanticize these women or dwell in glittering places; I’m more interested in my characters’ difficult choices, or those that were made for them. I’m fascinated by risk taking and the way people orbit fame. I wanted to explore the price paid for living dangerously . . . ”
And the women of these stories often do pay a price, whether in money or status or life, although the stories are not, on the whole, tragic. The latitude Bergman gives herself to abandon pure accuracy and pursue an emotional, character-based story creates a collection that may not be entirely factual, but feels entirely true. What she does in bringing these unique women back to life is a gift, and a reminder that for every well-known story, there are many others (likely more interesting and more vital) that have been brushed aside. With these pieces, we uncover the tales of brave, flawed, and unapologetic women who lived extraordinary lives, and pushed the limits of society, propriety, and—at times—gravity. Bergman’s newest collection is a compulsively good read, and a fascinating examination of history’s forgotten women.
Publication Date: January 6th, 2015
Reviewed by Arielle Yarwood