Menu Bar

Home           Calendar           Topics          Just Charlestown          About Us

Sunday, September 4, 2016

“I dream that women in the future will not depend on the rules made by others”

BOOK REVIEW: Penelope’s Song by Dr. Lois A. Cuddy
By Anne Wingfield

I turned the last page of “Penelope’s Song” and read the epilogue in which Penelope is dreaming of what life might be like some day.  “I dream that women in the future will not depend on the rules made by others but will be free to create rules for themselves. I have difficulty imagining what such freedom would be.”

This particular Penelope is the wife of the great Greek King and warrior Odysseus, who, according to Homer, went to war against the Trojans and didn’t come home for 20 years. 

Although much has been written about Odysseus, there are very few stories about Penelope. One is that since Odysseus had seemingly disappeared, suitors besieged the castle all begging for Penelope’s hand in marriage. 

She declared that when she had finished weaving the burial shroud for her mother-in-law she would indeed marry one of them. So she wove all day and then unwove at night so that the shroud would never be finished.

The second tale reveals that when Odysseus does come back he tests her and she tests him in order to determine that after all this time he is who he says he is.

Up until I read this lyrical reimagining of her life, I knew nothing more than those scraps. Lois Cuddy’s novel presents a fascinating story. Although it took place about 3,000 years ago, it shook me to realize how little some things have changed in some places in our 21st century world.  And how long it has taken the changes that have occurred to occur.

The island that Odysseus ruled is named Ithaka. It is by all accounts one of the rockiest, unkempt, and uncivilized of the Greek Islands of that time period. 

From almost the moment Penelope was whisked away by Odysseus from the cultured island of Sikelia, where her father was king, she began her long journey into loneliness, heartache and almost barbaric physical discomfort. 

I think it would be as if I had been plucked out of my comfortable life and dumped in the middle of a bombed-out city in Afghanistan.  And then married to a man who had the right to beat me or rape me, a mother-in-law who didn’t know me, yet didn’t like me and had a veil plunked down on my head covering even my eyes. And because I was a woman I had no rights. I might as well have been a slave!

Ah, but wait, as the Queen, I had slaves. Slaves who were barely considered human, their lives were as expendable as any animal, or possibly less so, because at least you could eat the animals, but you could only toss the slaves into the ocean, or throw a bit of dirt on them if you had the time and a shovel.   Oh my Heavens! I thought. Poor Penelope, what will she do? Plenty!

Penelope had two things going for her, her reputation as a wonderful and wondrous weaver, and a friend named Cadmus.  He was from Sikelia, a friend of her family who had taught her how to read and write. Because she could write, she could pour out her story (which always makes one feel better) on the beaten leather that was used for writing in her day.

Cadmus was a merchant seaman going from island to island trading goods from one to another. He was in love with her and explained to Ulysses how her weaving was in great demand, and could be traded at a great price.  Now she was worth something to her husband.  Every time Cadmus came to Ithaka to trade, he praised Penelope’s weaving as highly as he could. And that wasn’t hard to do because she wove the most beautiful cloth the Greek Islands had to offer. 

When Cadmus came to Ithaka he also brought with him healing herbs that she knew how to use from the time she was a young girl. Her value kept growing.  Even her wicked mother-in-law had to admit that she was useful. And the more useful she became, the more things she could ask for and the more chance she had of receiving them.

Image result for Penelope at her loom
Penelope at her loom (Greek pot, circa 440 BC)
Penelope had joined the women who were already weaving on Ithaka.  Their conditions were terrible. They spent about twelve hours a day, in a dark, damp, dimly lit room. They were women of all ages and physical conditions.  

Even though she was the Queen, this was where she was expected to do her weaving too. 

So, Penelope wrote and thought about the things she was missing. She wanted light, which meant windows, she wanted comfort, which meant changing the positions of the looms and she wanted to go outside. 

As her value grew, she was able to have the weavers moved to a lighter room. She had them served the same meals that she was served.  She took them outside and down to the river where they could get some fresh air and bathe (nobody seemed to bathe on Ithaka).  She planted an herb garden and peach and olive trees outside her rooms.

She was cunning and sneaky and so could accomplish many things that the Ithakaians had never thought of doing to improve their lot in life. She seems to be, according to Dr. Cuddy’s story the first feminist we know of. 

Even so her life wasn’t an easy one. Ulysses came back after twenty years, but he didn’t stay very long and went away again for more wars and then never came back again. Her evil mother-in-law took Telemachos, her only child, a son, from her soon after he was born and instead of learning how to be a good man, he took after his warmongering father. 

Telemachos stayed at home but managed to start a war with all the other Islands. The Ithakaians lost battle after battle, and, without Penelope’s knowledge and organizational skills, the whole island would have been destroyed. 

And it meant that she rarely saw Cadmus anymore.  It would have been too dangerous for him to bring his ship to Ithaka.   So she had to do without the news he brought her of her family and homeland and she missed seeing the man she had always loved.   As the story goes, she ages as do we all, but still longs to go home and live out her final days with Cadmus. Dr. Cuddy leaves us wondering if that happens. 

As we finish the book, we are totally wrapped up in the story of a little known heroine. The author tells the story in Penelope’s voice using a style that brings us into a time not our own. For instance, she never uses contractions. Perhaps it’s a small thing but it brings us far back into the past and also seems to emphasize Penelope’s innocence and strengths.   

Penelope was not a character who belonged only to her time, but one who would be a leader at any time in history.  Her strength and elegance would have advanced any society she happened to be born into.

Dr. Cuddy presents her to us and dazzles us with her luminous prose and her admiration for her character.  No one who finishes this book and does not want to know even more about this woman, and does not want to be her friend, is not someone I want as mine.

Penelope’s Song author Lois A. Cuddy has a Ph.D. in English from Brown University and is Professor Emerita of English, Women¹s Studies, and Comparative Literature at the University of Rhode Island. She has published T.S. Eliot and the Poetics of Evolution, as well as other books. Long fascinated by the Homeric tradition, Lois felt it was time to turn to fiction in order to tell the story of Penelope and her world. 

Reviewer Anne Wingfield writes with the Tuesdays@Ten group at the Carolina Fiber and Fiction Center in Richmond.  Her poetry has been published in Pathfinder magazine and was featured in this year’s Wickford Art Association’s “Poetry and Art Exhibition,” an exhibition of contemporary art and responsive poetry. Her writer friends describe her voice as whimsically straight-talking.