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Biography 24.4 (2001) 959-963

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Suzanne Bunkers, ed. Diaries of Girls and Women: A Midwestern American Sampler. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2001. 457 pp. ISBN 0-299-17220-1, $60.00 cloth; ISBN 0-299-17224-4, $24.95 paper.

Having recently completed an edition of a mid-nineteenth-century working-class woman's travel diary, I have come to appreciate both the diversity and complexity of this apparently naïve and straightforward form. As Bunkers acknowledges in her introduction, "the diary crosses the often-blurred (and sometimes imaginary) border between the public and the private, the literary and the historical. The diary also crosses generic boundaries and . . . provides an especially congenial form of narrative for girls and women" (29). Beyond possessing a complexity and variety that readers unfamiliar with the form might not expect, diaries possess the potential to evoke a wide range of emotional responses in the reader: "the voices of individual diarists may delight, move, puzzle, and/or exasperate you" (32). The diverse voices in this substantial collection, which reflects the care and hard work the editor conducted over fifteen years, will doubtless spark all these responses and more.

Effectively synthesizing personal, analytical, scholarly, and explanatory approaches, the introduction aims "to explore the ways in which diaries can document the diverse experiences of individual and families, and to understand the ways in which diaries have functioned as forms of life writing" (11). Bunkers begins with an engaging consideration of her and her sister's girlhood diaries that leads into a discussion of the multiple meanings of "sampler" in the title. The third section offers a more scholarly look at the [End Page 959] diary as a form, and identifies the principal themes that emerge in the Midwestern diaries that follow: "1. The need to view the use of one's time and energy as worthwhile"; "2. The need for meaningful connections with other human beings"; "3. The need for an outlet for intense emotions like grief and anger, emotions not usually deemed appropriate for public expression, particularly by a female"; "4. The need for a forum for commentary on religion, politics, and world events"; "5. The need to launch a quest that may involve leaving the home or the homeland, going out into the larger world, and making one's way there"; and "6. The need for a vehicle for sending specific messages to one's audience, especially when the diarist expects others to read her diary" (15, 16, 17). In the fourth section of the introduction the editor explains her choice of focus on a three-state area and the significance of that choice; then she continues with "Thoughts on Theory," which explores the connections between diaries and other forms of life writing. Writing in an accessible prose that will appeal to a wide range of readers, Bunkers thus offers materials to interest both new readers of diaries and specialists in the field.

Bunkers organizes the anthology into four sections--"American Girls," "Coming of Age," "Journeys," and "Home, Work, Family"--framing each with a brief introduction to what follows. She also precedes selections by individual authors with a short biography that situates the reader in the writer's life (and sometimes in United States history), that highlights or explains noteworthy thematic or structural features of the diary, and that identifies the means by which the diary has been preserved. This structure offers readers a helpful interpretive purchase that enables us to see both similarities and differences. Indeed, the collection represents a diverse group of women and girls from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including women from all classes, ages, and educational levels, and African American as well as European American. We hear the voices of farm daughters and wives, teachers, writers, administrators, nuns, social and community activists, missionaries, immigrants, and nurses, among others. These girls and women write about a dazzling array of subjects that include the deaths of family and friends, the violence of men and boys, mother-daughter relations, Native Americans, hatred of housekeeping, religious devotion, reading, racism, recipes, local scandal, the...