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BOOK REVIEW Tough Mothers
by Liz Baudler
2018-06-12

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By Jason Porath. $24.99; Dey St; 244 pages

First of all, Tough Mothers, which is a charmingly illustrated encyclopedia of exactly what it sounds like, is a book with its content warning system. Even in 2018, that seems unique and incredible and in a book where some of the women's biographies include sexual assault and the Holocaust and murder, like a very sound strategy. Ostensibly the book's organization makes it easier to use for all age groups, but in terms of overall voice and content, probably a smart, mature 11-year-old is the ideal audience.

Jason Porath is both dedicated researcher and witty, sassy writer and anytime he has a footnote it is definitely worth the read, as are the notes on the art that accompanies each entry. The collection is the definition of intersectionality in terms of ethnicity, race, time period and chosen path to historical significance. There are doctors, explorers, stateswomen, and artists. Points of LGBTQ interest will definitely be radical labor organizer Marie Equi, musician and mother of rock 'n' roll Sister Rosetta Tharpe and, of course, Marsha P. Johnson ( who didn't have any biological kids but mothered the trans civil rights movement ).

But there's more to love. Standouts include Angela Jimenez, who was a mining entrepreneur and Mexican rebel spy who adopted more than a dozen kids; Native American doctor Susan La Fleche Picotte, who traveled across the wilderness on horseback to see patients in the early 1900s and secured her Omaha tribe a hospital; and Isabel Godin des Odinas, who got lost in the Amazon trying to reunite with the husband everyone thought was dead for 21 years—and survived. Historical figures whose names are bandied about but seemingly rarely explored include Madame CJ Walker, Benazir Bhutto, Bella Abzug and Fannie Lou Hamer—and it's nice to have a younger generation get to know the last two particularly, as they were pivotal activists in their own unique ways. And of course, there's the Australian lady gangsters. Everyone needs to know about the truly vicious Australian lady gangsters Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine. Who wouldn't want to know about Australian lady gangsters, one of whom sent an undertaker and five firetrucks to break up the other's wedding reception ( in addition to the murders with straight razors )?

Very occasionally, Porath's strong voice distracts rather than edifies—where you might find yourself reading for how he says something rather than what he says, but his subjects and the way he narrates history is definitely never dull. A great classroom resource or gift for a precocious kid who wants to know everything, likes telling stories, and is trying to find their own path.


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