Tonawanda News

May 19, 2013

BOOK NOOK: 'Remarkable Women' an encyclopedic look at N.Y. history

By Paul Lane
The Tonawanda News

— Often lost in the quagmire that is the Empire State’s current state of affairs is what a rich history our home has.

New York has been settled for nearly half a millennium — by Europeans, at least — and has either given birth or refuge to a good number of our nation’s greatest people. Around 100 of those people are highlighted in “Remarkable Women in New York State History,” a book whose title literally needs no further explanation.

The book is a collection of vignettes written by members of the American Association of University Women in New York State, Helen Engel and Marilynn Smiley, who did a good job of trying to maintain a narrative while keeping the book informative. 

But the format inherently prohibits a natural flow, and a menagerie of stories allows for egregious sins such as Muriel Jodst Allerton (a former mayor of Fulton) getting more ink than Susan B. Anthony and Lucille Ball combined. And far too many of the entrants didn’t have their actual birth years listed, simply a 19?? to indicate they either forgot to ask or opted not to.

All in all, though, the book is a worthwhile read. The entries are listed alphabetically and truly do cover every location and era of the state. Covered are everyone from residents of the White House (Eleanor Roosevelt) to the sick house (Clara Barton) and the Erie County Courthouse (Joan Bozer, former county legislator).

Far more of the names will probably be unfamiliar to readers, but that’s where the book is at its best. Most readers have already heard of Harriet Tubman, which may be why the write-ups of her and other prominent names seem like poorly constructed Wikipedia pages.

Far more informative are narratives on relative unknowns like Martha Van Rensselaer, the Cattaraugus County native who became a presidential adviser to Herbert Hoover.

She’s not with us anymore, but many of the entrants are. And while some of them were interviewed for this book, it might have been better served with some accompanying quotes or interview excerpts to take away from the encyclopedic feel of the book that can become overwhelming at over more than 300 pages. 

A book of this format, despite the previously mentioned deficiencies, does come with its advantages. Achieving expert status on the history of so many women would be nearly impossible. Spreading the writing duties around allows for more insight into the women, most of who were written about by local historian near where those women live or lived. This allows for a hometown sort of glimpse into these lives that’s often lacking when a work is written by one author.

This book is not great. But it’s good. And it’s a worthwhile addition to the libraries of people who have an interest in the past of this great state.

Contact Paul Lane at pjlnews@ymail.com.

•••

• WHAT: "Remarkable Women in New York State History"

• BY: Edited by Helen Engel and Marilynn Smiley

• GRADE: B