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Three authors share path to resistance in new books

Harvard Book Store holds talks with Drew Gilpin Faust, Zadie Smith, Tiya Miles

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

Three authors share path to resistance in new books
Tiya Miles, author of “Wild Girls: How the Outdoors Shaped the Women Who Challenged a Nation” at Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. PHOTO: SUSAN SACCOCCIA

Fall is a season of book releases, and the Harvard Book Store, an independent shop  in Harvard Square, recently hosted three authors whose new books, already bestsellers, explore the lives of women who become changemakers.

On a Thursday evening last month, Drew Gilpin Faust, now 76, historian and formerly 28th president of Harvard University, spoke with Henry Louis Gates Jr. at the Brattle Theatre about her new memoir, “Necessary Trouble: Growing Up at Midcentury.”  Coming of age in a conservative family in Virginia, Faust resisted what she described as “a set of embedded expectations” that empowered men and entrenched her region’s racism.

Gates, a Harvard professor whose PBS series “Finding Your Roots” often probes the heritage of famous guests, began by saying, “I loved your book, and loved it even more the second time.”

He asked Faust how she felt about the fraught scene in which, at age 19, at her mother’s funeral, a neighbor says, “You killed her.” Faust thought, “At least I didn’t kill me.”

Faust also read a letter she wrote as a 9-year-old to President Eisenhower protesting the closure of public schools that refused to serve students of color. Reflecting on her fight to “escape Virginia,” Faust described her experience at Bryn Mawr College and her activism that was inspired by civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King.

Zadie Smith, playwright, novelist, and New York University writing professor discussed her new novel, “The Fraud,” with Amanda Claybaugh, a Harvard humanities professor, at Cambridge’s First Parish, a 19th-century meetinghouse built in the same era as her story. A satire of the pathological populism fanned by former president Donald Trump, her novel reimagines a famous trial that polarized Victorian London. Smith told the audience that her interest was less about politics than about an investigation of “how change happens,” including the success of her biracial family’s multicultural London borough. The borough is also the setting of her recent play, “The Wife of Willesden,” an adaptation of “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” by Chaucer. Once a jazz singer, Smith read from her novel with an actor’s limber voice, recreating its characters’ diverse accents.   

On Monday evening, Tiya Miles, 53, a Harvard history professor, described her new book “Wild Girls: How the Outdoors Shaped the Women Who Challenged a Nation” as “a little book about girls who dream big.”

She noted its “bittersweet” stories, in which trailblazing American women honed their changemaking power through outdoors experiences — from Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman and Colonial-era tomboy Louisa May Alcott to the undefeated Indigenous women’s basketball team of Fort Shaw, Montana and Afrofuturist Octavia E. Butler.

Miles’ work “All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake” won the National Book Award, and she is a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Award.”

She said Tubman anchors the book. Born into slavery, Tubman grew up doing rugged chores and learned outdoor survival skills – all of which were instrumental in helping her hide and navigate to freedom in the North.

authors, books, Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard Book Store, Tiya Miles, Zadie Smith