Bringing Women's Work and Women's History to Life: A Conversation with Novelist Kathy Leonard Czepiel

     When they had closed the door behind them, the aunt handed Ida the baby for the first time. He weighed barely more than a bowl of bread dough. Ida tried not to show her surprise. She laid the bundle on the bed and unwrapped the infant from his blanket. Indeed, there was almost nothing to him...
     "Please, you may sit here," Ida said to the aunt, gesturing to the edge of the bed, and the woman sat primly, fingering her skirt as she watched Ida carry the baby to the rocker in the corner.
     "There, there, love," Ida said as she loosened her undergarments to release her breasts, already dripping at the sound of the baby's cry...
     The baby lay beside her that night, and Ida slept lightly, waking often to see that he was breathing. What had seemed a manageable challenge that afternoon haunted her in the night hours, when worries lay their ceiling low over her. He must nurse some more, he must gain weight at once. What if he were to perish in her care? At the slightest whimper, she pulled him close, and he suckled briefly before falling again into his own fitful sleep.
                     --Kathy Leonard Czepiel, A Violet Season

The spontaneous, embodied response to an infant's call. The drowsy, sometimes exhausting, intimacy of night-time nursing. The watchfulness and worry over a child's breathing and growing and living. For many women who have nursed a child, these vivid details evoke recollections of our own complex experiences.

According to author Kathy Leonard Czepiel, "historical fiction is at its best when it turns us back on ourselves, when something that happened in 1898 resonates with us today" (Guest blog post, The True Book Addict). In her acclaimed debut novel set on a Hudson Valley violet farm at the close of the 19th century, Czepiel excels at drawing a vibrant picture of women's work -- whether it be picking violets or doing the weekly laundry or nursing a baby -- that reverberates in the present.

A Violet Season tells the heart-rending and thought-provoking story of Ida Fletcher and her daughter, Alice, as they confront each other and the devastating restrictions faced by women in their cultural and historical context. For Ida, the practice of nursing extends beyond her own children to encompass a form of female labor that has become far less common since the dissemination of infant formulas and bottle-feeding technologies. Ida turns to wet nursing to supplement her family's income as she and her husband struggle to retain their share of the family farm. At sixteen, Alice must leave school so that she, too, can work for her family's sustenance. I had the opportunity to ask Kathy about the inspiration behind her story and how she brought this history to life in a way that feels relevant to readers today.

Kathy, who grew up in New York's Hudson Valley, became interested in writing about wet nursing because the profession, much like violet farming, has all but disappeared in the United States.  She noted that the few prior novels about wet nurses tended to take a sexualized approach. "I wanted to write more seriously and truthfully about what nursing a baby is like, and to explore what is must have been like for a woman to nurse someone else's baby for a living," she explained. "For example, would she be able to treat it as 'just a job,' or would she 'bond' to some extend with the infant she was feeding?" Of the many topics she researched for the book, Kathy found wet nursing to be the easiest because she was able to draw on her own experience nursing her children.

In depicting Ida's experience, Kathy did not shy away from describing the physical and emotional challenges of nursing. "I was a little bit wary of making breastfeeding seem like too much hard work because I'm well aware that many women find the idea daunting and choose to bottle feed their babies instead. I didn't want to contribute to their reluctance," Kathy acknowledged. "At the same time, I felt I had to be honest; nursing a baby is hard work, and it's especially difficult if you are expected to be carrying on other work--paid or unpaid--at the same time, as Ida is."

Through characters like Mrs. Schreiber "who had seven grown children and never seemed surprised by anything," the novel also demonstrates the invaluable support that other people can lend a nursing mother. "Women do need support in order to be successful at breastfeeding and many of them are in circumstances not unlike Ida's: no close family or friends nearby, an unsupportive spouse," Kathy shared. "I went back to work full-time 13 weeks after my first baby was born, and it was really tough to keep breastfeeding after that. I managed only because I had support in all the right places: my husband, my daycare provider, and my colleagues." Kathy feels strongly that breastfeeding is not just a women's issue. "In this country, and I would imagine globally as well, most of the education about breastfeeding is aimed at women," she observed, "but it sure would be helpful to extend that education more to men."

I asked Kathy if she believes that historical fiction like A Violet Season can contribute to conversations about women's contemporary realities in a world in which so many continue to face back-breaking labor, the unrelenting demands of caring for family members, and the constraints of economic and family systems that offer them limited options. While she was writing, Kathy stated, her priority was to tell a good story. However, in visiting book groups and talking with readers, she has come to see how pertinent the story feels to many women.

"Even I am surprised at how powerfully some women readers identify with the struggles Ida and her daughter, Alice, faced in the novel," she commented. "Our struggles [in the US] today are often different physically (readers often comment on the labor involved in doing the laundry in 1898 and say that they have a newfound appreciation for their washing machines!) but in many ways they are similar emotionally (feeling trapped in a situation, being controlled by someone with more power, and so on), and I think that's what strikes a chord with readers."

Historical fiction can also help illuminate what has not changed for women and communities across the globe. "The novel also deals with prostitution and the sex trade," Kathy noted, "and sometimes readers say things like 'wasn't it terrible back then.' But these things are still going on today, I tell them, and not just in the developing world....We have a long way to go in terms of educating the world about the global sex trade and what we can do to stop it." Creative writing like Kathy's novel may be among the vivid sparks that bring the emotional and physical realities of female labor to life in a manner that shapes our thinking about women's lives past and present.

About Kathy Leonard Czepiel: Kathy Leonard Czepiel is the recipient of a creative writing fellowship from the National Endownment for the Arts and teaches writing at Quinnipiac University. Her short fiction has been published in numerous journalsFor more information, please see her websiteA Violet Season was selected as one of the 100 best fiction books of 2012 by Kirkus Reviews