Review: School of Hard Knocks by Theresa Crater

Crater tells hard truths with beautiful language, in voices unique to each of the two narrators: Maggie, a black woman who came of age in the late nineteenth century, and Caroline, a white woman who was a child in the 1950s. The reader is given Maggie’s spoken voice as heard by Caroline in spirit and memory, and Caroline’s written voice, her story told for a very personal audience.

This is not light reading, but there’s no heavy-handed message, either. Just the truth. Without a shred of nostalgic illusion about the Old South or about the fifties, Crater explores the reality of women’s lives in those times. This book travels through history on the inside, from the post-slavery years when its shadow hung heavy on society and the Klan could rampage through the night, to the civil rights years, when it took courage to confront the segregationist norms, and when women’s rights were barely on the horizon. Caroline is speaking of delusions about love when she says, “We still sleepwalked under the sway of romantic myths, even though we were the victims of them.” But this line also speaks to me about the way Americans sometimes cling to romanticized views of the “good old days” and underestimate their legacy.

The unpleasant things in the back of our country’s closet are aired out in this book, but so are the strengths of ordinary people. I never found the story depressing. The darker events the characters endure are woven through with a sustaining breath of love and occasional flashes of humor. Communities and friendships keep the women going when life hits them with the unbearable.

If you’re in a book club, your book club should read this. The discussions will be deep. And despite the serious subject matter, it’s fluid, effortless reading, hard to put down. Some people might class this as “women’s fiction” since it is about women’s experience, but a male audience will find it just as profound with its insights into the traumas some women survive, and the historical context of being an American woman.

An image that stayed with me was Caroline’s fascinated childhood observation of the outfits her mother wore to work—once her mother managed to convince her husband and in-laws that she should be allowed to work: the armor of undergarments, the layer of make-up, and the high-heeled shoes that constituted looking properly feminine. The author doesn’t say anything critical about this, simply describes it through a child’s eyes, but I couldn’t help seeing all this uncomfortable accoutrement as a symbolic little prison a woman carried with her, right next to her skin.

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