Friday, October 2, 2009

A Life of Her Own The Transformation of a Countrywoman in 20th-Century France by Emilie Carles

Although I am an academic by training, I don't often pick up a non-fiction book just for fun. I prefer to keep my reading light and unencumbered. When I do read non-fiction I find myself straying and often skimming. Not so with Carles' book. I really enjoyed reading it and found myself reading much more carefully than I sometimes do.

Carles lived through all of the most important historical events in the twentieth century. As a rural Frenchwoman she had a unique perspective that sheds light on how people viewed significant moments in history. What impacted her was not the big moments it was the small day-to-day goings on. The World Wars were important insofar as her family had to fight and live with soldiers occupying their small village. But the large political debates affected her not at all.

As I read I found myself wanting to copy passages for every modern history student I have taught. The personal trials that Carles underwent towards modernization defy imagination. In the early part of the century her pregnant sister refused to allow a doctor to examine her out of puritan prudishness. She died. Carles describes inexplicably astounding stories about the people that live in her valley - drunkenness and abuse and lack of care and love. That is not to suggest that the people were horrid. Instead Carles attempts to show how small and insular her world was and how removed from modern life. Much of her book revolved around her attempts to educate not just her school children but her society.

Whether you agree with Carles' socialist-leaning political ideology or not, her passion for her world make for a fascinating read. Near the end of the book, Carles does begin to preach to the reader about the problems that she sees with the France of her era. While it is interesting to see her perspective, it does not add to the strength of the story.

Chronicling the life of a rural French mountain peasant from pre-World War I until the late-1970s, this book encompasses so much. I will definitely keep A Life of Her Own on my shelf and can imagine using anecdotes if not excerpts in my classes in the future.

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