Biography 26.4 (2003) 760-762
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In Monuments and Memory, Martha Norkunas traces the intersections of personal and public history, space, and memory. Drawing upon her family's roots in Lowell, Massachusetts, Norkunas explores her own connections to a city that has used public history and space as vehicles of its reincarnation in post-industrial America. As she examines the ways in which events and people are memorialized in Lowell, Norkunas also raises questions about the ways in which personal and public narratives preserve memories for individuals and communities, considering the implications for both when those narratives are lost or broken.
Norkunas opens with a chapter entitled "Asking Questions," in which she provides background on Lowell, including its ethnic diversity, a subject she continues to address throughout the text. She also explains her rather unique position within the community, for from 1989 to 1994, she served as the cultural affairs director for the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission, [End Page 760] thus interweaving her professional life and responsibilities with her personal understanding of Lowell and its people. From this perspective, Norkunas asks the questions that shape the content of her book: How and why were people and events memorialized in the city? How did ethnic groups use monuments to express pride and signify their status within the community? How did gender expectations influence decisions about whom to remember publicly and for what reasons?
These questions govern the chapters that follow, as Norkunas divides her study into sections labeled "Inside the Memory of Class and Ethnicity," "The Gender of Memory," "Relocating the Memory of the Dead," and "The Changing Relationship of Memory and Place." In each, Norkunas interpolates family stories and personal recollections with the more objective study of public monuments and spaces. Her cataloguing of monuments and memorials confirms Norkunas's sense that women were seldom remembered in public spaces, despite their importance to the city's history, development, and public life. She uses stories from her own family to compensate as a "gendered form of memorializing women," suggesting that the family stories "are an alternative kind of monument" (10). By presenting these stories and analyzing their implications, Norkunas attempts to bridge the division created by the gendered public-private dichotomy that existed in Lowell well into the twentieth century, one that reflected the continuing influence of a separate-spheres ideology that informed personal as well as public decisions.
The gender expectations that defined men's and women's worlds in Lowell also influenced the stories that were told within her family, and Norkunas asserts that "these stories, the ones that were told openly and the ones that were told in hushed tones, were the real history of Lowell, the history that mattered, and that only the women knew it" (75). Norkunas relates the experiences of her grandmother Catherine Barrett Cleary (1892-1968), her mother Kathleen Cleary Norkunas (1914-1993), and her aunt Dorothy Cleary Dempsey (1916-1999), creating a form of ethnography as she places the women within the contexts of their families and the community at large. Their lives become representative "texts" for the lives of Irish-American, Catholic women who lived in Lowell for much of the twentieth century, during which the city underwent a prolonged period of economic and physical decline before it experienced a renaissance in the 1980s and 90s. When Norkunas visits some of the buildings where her grandmother and other family members lived, she finds it hard to reconcile the cramped quarters of working-class housing with the lively family stories she has heard. The stories also reveal the hard decisions made by women who had to leave school to care for younger siblings, who worked in the mills or at other jobs while [End Page 761] raising their own families, and who had to draw upon their family networks and connections as sources of sustenance and support...