'The Wet Nurse's Tale': Durham Writer's Progtagonist Has Unusual Occupation
"You should have been a wet nurse," Erica Eisdorfer's husband said to her after she had visited a close friend who had given birth to twins and was distraught because it was too hard to nurse two babies.
"I cried all the way home," she recalls. "She so wanted to nurse them, but her whole family was against it. She was run ragged. She knew she had to say no. I hated for her to feel as if she had done something wrong. I wished I could have helped her. There are a lot of working mothers out there and we need to help each other out," she says. "Wet nursing was basic women's work for millennia! I think it must've been the second oldest profession, you know?"
On Thursday, Aug. 13, at 4 p.m. at The Country Bookshop, Erica Eisdorfer, long-time manager of UNC Bull's Head Bookshop in Chapel Hill, will present her debut novel, "The Wet Nurse's Tale," the story of a young servant-class woman in early Victorian England who seeks her fortune as a professional wet nurse.
Eisdorfer admits she thought people might think the idea of a wet nurse was "sorta, well, icky," but she was proven wrong when her novel won the "A Woman's Write" Good Read Competition in June, 2007, and a year later became one of the top 10 finalists from 5,000 entries in the 2008 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition sponsored by The Penguin Group, one of the country's leading publishers.
Literary agent Eric Simonoff, one of the judges, said "The Wet Nurse's Tale" is a "good neo-Victorian novel" that reminded him of the "grim reality and skewed morality of Thomas Hardy. It vividly evokes the immensity of a mother's love for her child and the giant yawning chasms between the ruling and serving classes in early Victorian England." Wet nurse Susan Rose "is far from an idealized heroine. She is overweight, promiscuous, and deceitful. And yet I found myself rooting for her at every turn. She is admirable, self-sufficient, resourceful, hardworking, and basically decent. I won't soon forget her."
The reviewer for Publishers Weekly agrees that the "entertaining and surprising protagonist could easily have walked off the pages of 'The Canterbury Tales.'"
ABNA judge Elizabeth Gilbert, author of "Eat, Pray, Love," said, "Eisdorfer is a gifted author who totally pulled off the feat of completely vanishing into the voice of her appealing narrator -- the plucky, somewhat randy, always sympathetic, and certainly never boring -- professional wet nurse. When you find a character this lovable, with a manner of speaking so delightfully real and fresh, you'd be happy to spend all day in her company."
When asked how she was able to capture Susan's Victorian and British voice, Eisdorfer admits that she is "a great Anglophile, I'm a sucker for all that stuff. I don't know, it was just in me. You know how you feel like you were born in the wrong time and place? I felt like a peasant woman with a bunch of kids hanging off my skirts."
Eisdorfer, who worked on her novel for almost two years, describes Susan Rose as a "plain-faced, too-big, illiterate servant girl. When she becomes pregnant out of wedlock, her father forces her out to wet nurse, whereupon her baby dies for want of her. Susan vows to avoid this unfortunate end when she again finds herself with child and embarks on a harrowing journey of rescue."
The author did "a lot of research, lots and lots," at the library at UNC where she "lived in the stacks."
"There aren't many books about wet nursing," she says. "Women's work was not as important as men's work, so who wanted to write about it? It's all that could mean. I look at it in a feminist way. It's been ignored because it's woman's work and it has to do with the body, and with the bosom."
To her surprise, she discovered that "so many wet nurses' babies died for want of their mothers (their mothers having gone out to nurse in order to feed their other children) that the French parliament actually passed a law to keep the new mothers home until the babies were 'set.'"
One of her favorite scenes in the novel comes directly from her experience with her frustrated friend with the twins. "Susan, the wet nurse, takes a coach ride with a lady who has two infants -- an older one and a tiny infant. She sees the lady's need and jumps in to help. I like the sisterhood aspect of that. I cross-nursed an adopted baby for a bit," she says. "It was a lovely thing to be able to do."
Eisdorfer says she is looking forward to coming to The Country Bookshop tomorrow.
"I've attended enough readings to want to make mine the charming, not-too-long, not-too-serious sort of them," she says. "I'm all about trying for amusing. I'm not afraid of a little well-placed coarseness. My novel is about a wet nurse. A little coarseness is going to be hard to avoid. I may as well embrace it."
Erica Eisdorfer was born and raised in Durham, and graduated from Duke. She was the book reviewer for WUNC for eight years, and has managed the Bull's Head Bookshop for 20 years. She lives in Carrboro with her husband and their two daughters.
For information about the final Meet the Author event of the summer, call (910) 692-3211.
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