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‘The Book of Old Ladies’ Gives Them Their Due

Issue 255.5

Eleanor Bader May 20

“Older women are almost never the ones whose story matters,” Ruth O. Saxton writes in the Introduction to The Book of Old Ladies. “The mother or grandmother is either absent or important only as she affects the (younger) heroine.”

This maddening realization sent Saxton on a decades-long quest. “I searched for stories that get inside the heads of old women,” she explains. “I wanted to gather examples of good aging, of wise and surprising women over sixty and into their nineties, like beads on a string, a secular rosary to help fend off fear of being elderly in a society whose mainstream vision of aging women is marked by fear, loathing, refusal, or reduction.”

Saxton provokes readers to think about where our ideas and assumptions about aging come from.

The 30 diverse stories referenced in this work of literary criticism — all of them written during the last century by women, about women — do this and more. Many of the included writers are well-known, including Toni Cade Bambara, Margaret Drabble, Mary Gordon, Doris Lessing, Penelope Lively, Alice Munro, Jean Davies Okimoto, Tillie Olsen, Vita Sackville-West, Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Strout and Helen Yglesias. It’s a great mix.

At the same time, the range is geographically narrow, featuring protagonists living within the confines of the United States, Canada, South Africa, and Western Europe. As such, Saxton ignores stories about elders in Asia, Central and South America, North Africa and the Middle East, regions where the aged are often respected and even revered. What’s more, despite the advanced age of the women who are referenced, none of them seem to have been touched by activism or any of the pivotal movements of the 20th or 21st centuries. Lastly, while lesbians and gay men hover in the background of some of the included works, none of the selections feature queer protagonists.

These deficits aside, there is much of value in Saxton’s thoughtful and thought-provoking assessment. Her careful deconstruction of plot and character reveal more than a few misogynist literary stereotypes and provoke readers to think more generally about where our ideas and assumptions about aging come from.    

This can be a powerful jolt.

To her credit, Saxton takes great pains to decry stories in which marriage and childbearing are presented as incompatible with female career success and she critiques tales in which catching a man is presented as the be-all and end-all. In fact, her gaze falls almost exclusively on feisty, risk-taking, sassy and sexy dames whose independence makes them great role models — in fiction and in life. None are perfect. They have affairs, are negligent moms, say hurtful things and sometimes act in ways that others find bewildering.  

My Man Bovanne by Toni Cade Bambara is a case in point. Written in 1971, the story centers around Miss Hazel, whose three adult children are aghast, not only because she is wearing a low-cut dress to a community function, but because she is strutting her stuff on the dance floor. This clearly offends her offspring, all of whom expect her to act her age even though none of them know exactly what this means. Miss Hazel finds their condescension repugnant and ignores their snide comments and disapproving glances, demonstrating, through her actions, that sexuality is not just for the young but is the province of all who are alive.

Similarly, The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg, penned in 2014, is a showcase for elders who defy expectations. In this story, five residents of a Stockholm retirement home plan and execute a daring museum heist. Even after they confess, the local police refuse to believe them capable of such an ingenious crime. A light, humorous piece, the author nonetheless offers readers a perceptive look at the infantilization many elders experience.

Not surprisingly, death is a constant in many of the stories. Nonetheless, one of Saxton’s main points is that as long as we’re alive, we’re capable of changing our ideas and behaviors. In addition, The Book of Old Ladies challenges us to think critically about our youth-obsessed culture and presses readers to look at human life as a continuum. Her conclusion imagines a world in which “change, aging, and death” are acknowledged as normal components of human existence.

“The lack of good fictional role models for aging women appears to be wrapped up in a larger problem of how we think about old age,” Saxton concludes. “Our society is unkind to aging people across the board. However, we allow for the possibility that old men may have richly complex interior lives, imagine them able to create art and have erotic potential, political capacity, business acumen; we do not see their sexuality as a punch line or imagine their personhood to be only in service to others.”  

The Book of Old Ladies asks us to consider the sexism that treats old women differently, more-often-than-not painting them as doddering, ineffectual crones. Can we imagine — and then create — something less demeaning? Literature, Saxton suggests, can send us in the right direction, but it is ultimately up to us to change the world.

The Book of Old Ladies: Celebrating Women of a Certain Age in Fiction
By Ruth O. Saxton
She Writes Press, Sept. 6, 2020 (available for preorder now) 

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