December 2002

Jessa Crispin

fiction

The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits: Stories by Emma Donoghue

There are strange bits of history that have been mostly forgotten. The back story is lost, or perhaps you sense that the truly interesting perspective is the one not saved. Over the last ten years or so, Emma Donoghue has come across some of these small snippets of history and felt inspired to fill in the blank spaces with a short story followed by the true story and her sources.

These sources of her inspiration span five centuries of British, Irish, and Scottish history and come from engravings, medical journals, ballads, trial records. Some of the stories stem from just a sentence in another person's history. She attempts to unearth these buried lives of women, cripples, slaves, and other undesirables who were so infrequently able to tell their own tales.

The stories are written so perfectly and with such authority that you want to take Donoghue's word for it. We'll never know if her versions of what happened are close to the truth, but it doesn't matter. If only high school history classes were this entertaining. The stories taken by themselves are fantastic; they stand alone from the premise quite nicely. Taken in context, however, they light up. If only it were not so difficult to wait until the end of the story to hear the history of it. I snuck a peak more than once.

All sorts of nastiness are addressed. The woman in the remarkable "Cured" - based on brief notes in a medical book about clitoridectomy - went to a doctor for back pain and left mutilated and "cured". "I have performed an operation to prevent you from harming yourself, from making yourself gravely ill to the point of epilepsy, lunacy, and death," he tells her. It's a difficult story to read, one that makes you want to buy the poor girl a vibrator and do all kinds of horrible things to the doctor.

While stories like "Cured" and "The Fox on the Line" - a story about two anti-vivisection crusaders - are political in nature, there is also "Acts of Union", a slightly racy story about consummation of marriage and the lack thereof. The collection is fairly balanced between feminist and light, serious and playful which shows maturity on Donoghue's part.

Emma Donoghue has written a great collection of short stories, and I wish she would write another volume of these forgotten histories.


The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits: Stories by Emma Donoghue
Harcourt
ISBN: 0151009376
272 pages