Friday, March 13, 2009

a review of "The Mighty Queens of Freeville"

The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Mother, A Daughter, and The People Who Raised Them by Amy Dickinson (Hyperion, ISBN 978-1-4013-2285-4)

I don't believe that I have ever read any of Amy Dickinson's advice columns, although I do vaguely remember when she got the job to replace Ann Landers. Launders was certainly a very famous, very successful columnist and the person chosen would seem to have had very big shoes to fill. To quote the book's description on the back cover, “Bracingly witty and candid, Amy is not your mother's advice columnist. Readers love her for her brutal honesty, her small town values, and the fact that her motto is 'I made the mistakes so you don't have to.' Ask Amy appears daily in more than 450 newspapers nationwide, read by more than 22 million people.” Wow, how does one become the person that is qualified for that do you even get that job? The Mighty Queens is a memoir of sorts, so one would think you would find the answers to those questions in it, in this “tale of Amy and her daughter and the women in her family who helped raise them.” I am disappointed that, at least for me, I didn't find that the book lived up to that promise.

Amy grew up in a small town in upstate New York, on a dairy farm. Well, it was a dairy farm until her father ran off with another woman, leaving his wife and kids, and sold the cows out from under them. After that it was a house that their mother was barely able to hold on to, since everything, they found out, was leverage to the hilt. That was pretty much the last they saw or heard of him, except a few brief reappearances over the years. It was not a terribly hostile divorce, because as Amy says “In order to fight with my father, my mother would have had to locate him first.” Nor is divorce unusual in her family. Her mother, two aunts, two sisters and yes, Amy herself, were left to raise their children alone. They are, she says, a family of women, since a lot of the men seem to sort of disappear, one way or another. Yes, her dashing, upscale, soon to be husband, first seen in the introduction, will leave her with a young daughter, Emily, in London where they were living, and so will begin Amy's adventure of raising her daughter, for the most part on her own.

The book is not so much a chronological memoir as a loose collection of tales about a variety of themes and incidents in her life. Some are quite funny, some are very sad, and my favorite, about their cat Pumpkin, is both. I am not that fond of cats, but he sounds like a winner. “He participated in tea parties and safaris and treasure hunts. Sometimes we tied Emily's old baby blanket around his middle like a skirt, just because we could. He had a high tolerance for humiliation and a fondness for headgear, which is something of a prerequisite for being a member of our family.” Poor Pumpkin..

Obviously, Amy is a good writer and some of her lines are excellent, some of the stories quite good. One of my favorites refers to her trying out for the column. “The Tribune took all of the audition columns and test marketed them for groups of newspaper readers. In every single test market, the result was the same: readers first choice for an advice columnist was to bring Ann Landers back from the dead.”
And she is obviously very fond of her hometown and the people who live there, many related to her, and respects how they live their lives and she respects their values.

But the problem is that a good book is more than just a collection interesting stories and good lines. See, there is the biggest problem, right in the title. We were promised The Mighty Queens of Freeville In her own words again, in the introduction, she tells of looking at boxes of old pictures with her sister, from daguerreotypes up to pictures her mother took. Photos of women in Victorian blouses, and women, cigarettes in hand, leaning on pickups, or showing off their new babies or arms linked with friends and says “These are the women of my world-the Mighty Queens of Freeville- who have led small lives of great consequence in the tiny place that we call home.
But I'm still waiting to really meet them.

Her sisters make a few appearances, an aunt here and there and we learn a bit about her mother, but the theme of these strong women, guiding her life, that she promises never appears. And that is a big loss I think. Take her mother, for example. Here she is, left with these kids and a pile of debt, on a failed dairy farm, in this tiny NY town, tying to eek out a living. But rather than letting that defeat her, we find out that after the kids were out of the house, she went to college, went on to advanced degrees and ended up a college professor. Now, to me, that sounds like an interesting story...that we hear too little about.

The book is a pleasant read, with some good stories, but I just think it's falls short of what it could have been if Dickinson had kept her eye on what should have been the thing that tied it all together, those Mighty Queens.
I would give it a half hearted recommendation, but it left me a bit disappointed. Fans of her column will no doubt enjoy the book to a greater degree.

You might also be interested to check out what these other reviewers think...
The Book Lady's Blog
Bermudaonion's Weblog
A Reader's Respite
S.Krishna's Books
Medieval Bookworn
Wrighty's Reads

The Might Queens of Freeville


  1. I'm with you, Caite. When I reviewed the book, I did give it 3 stars. Oh, I liked the book but it lacked a lot. It seems to me Amy lives passively. Almost too passively. It is as if life just "happens" to her without much effort on her part. Her husband walks out the door and we hardly hear a peep out of Amy. The most interesting woman in the book was her mother as far as I was concerned. Flesh out that character and write a real story.

  2. I didn't read every review out there, but the ones that have passed by my eyes would agree with you I think. The premise is great, but perhaps prompts a question of "where's the beef?"

  3. I enjoyed this book, but none of the stories in it have stuck with me. I love your reviews.

  4. thank you Kathy..
    Kaye, you are right I think, she does come along as rather passive. even getting the just sort of came to her rather than it seeming to be something she pursued.
    no, not enough beef.

  5. I liked this okay while I was reading it but I set it down for some reason and never did get back to it. I love Amy's column, though.

    Someone on the B&N site asked her about the points you made, and her response was something about protecting the privacy of her loved ones and that, basically, they didn't want to be in a book.

  6. really? well, then since she could not write the book she promised maybe she should have written the book she could.

    I am just always happy to find out what I think is not totally off base.

  7. That was my thinking, too. If the Queens don't want to be in a book, let the title reflect the book that got written.

  8. yes, knowing that now, I am just a wee bit miffed.


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