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Almost Famous Women, Megan Mayhew Bergman


Highlights: “The Siege at Whale Cay” has Marlene Dietrich visiting Joe Carstairs, a larger-than-life heiress who owned a Caribbean island. “Saving Butterfly McQueen” remembers the Gone With the Wind actress’s determination to donate her body to science.
Synopsis: Each of these 13 stories is inspired by the life of a historical woman. Some are virtually unknown, others only by association, and many break racial or sexual taboos.



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There’s a great mixture of past and present tense, and first- and third-person perspectives. This is a rich, wonderful collection full of in-depth character analysis.


“The Lottery, Redux,” the only story that couldn’t be classed as historical fiction, is an odd one out. The shorter stories (several are 3–5 pages) don’t add much to the whole.

Posted December 8, 2014 by

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Megan Mayhew BergmanMegan Mayhew Bergman is the author of two short story collections, Birds of a Lesser Paradise (2012) and the forthcoming Almost Famous Women, which I had the chance to read early. Each of the stories in her new collection takes up the life of a historical woman who is either virtually unknown or only known through association with a more famous figure. As Bergman puts it in her author’s note at the end of the text, the stories “are born of fascination with real women whose remarkable lives were reduced to footnotes.”

Some of our ‘almost famous’ heroines are Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter, Allegra; Oscar Wilde’s niece, Dolly; Edna St. Vincent Millay’s acting sister, Norma; and James Joyce’s unstable dancer daughter, Lucia. There are also historical figures you may have heard of but likely know little about: painter Romaine Brooks, actress Butterfly McQueen (one of the maids in Gone With the Wind), and early aviatrix Beryl Markham. There is such variety in this baker’s dozen of stories: they are split almost equally between the past and present tense, and between first- and third-person perspectives, although the latter wins out a bit more often.

Two stories even use the first-person plural, a viewpoint of which I’m particularly fond. “The Internees” is a story in miniature, just one and a half pages, depicting the female residents of Bergen-Belsen in 1945. When liberation comes and they are able to wear lipstick again, it restores their identity: “We were human again. We were women.” This perspective also has an intriguing use in the first story, “The Pretty, Grown-Together Children,” about conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Although Daisy is the chief narrator, she sometimes lapses into first-person plural: “We were somewhere between singular and plural.”

If the Hilton twins were beyond the pale because of their physical uniqueness, other heroines are so because of their sexuality. For instance, “The Siege at Whale Cay” is about Marlene Dietrich’s visit to lesbian couple Georgie and Joe – M. B. “Joe” Carstairs, a larger-than-life heiress who owned a Caribbean island and held sway over the locals. Dolly Wilde was also a lesbian; in two subtle connections with previous stories, she once shared a lover of Romaine Brooks’s, and corresponded with Joe Carstairs (both were ambulance drivers during World War I).

Almost Famous WomenThe main characters of the final story, “Hell-Diving Women,” are doubly unconventional: black and lesbian, they were members of the first integrated female swing band. Whether they break racial or sexual taboos or (like Romaine) are so old the world no longer remembers them, all of these women are outsiders. Yet they are such vibrant individuals they simply cannot blend into the crowd; “You don’t have the luxury of being mediocre,” the Millay girls’ mother chides them.

Most of the stories are set in the 1910s-40s, but a couple of notable ones break that mold. “The Autobiography of Allegra Byron,” narrated by the little girl’s nurse at the Italian convent where she lived the last two years of her short life, is set in the 1820s. “The Lottery, Redux” is set in an unspecified near future and has dystopian elements. It’s the odd one out in that it does not contain any historical figures. Rather, it is inspired by Shirley Jackson’s most famous short story. A second generation of exiles on the island of Timothy, banished for “environmental crimes,” must reduce their population one by one through a ritualized ceremony.

My favorite story of all is “Saving Butterfly McQueen.” The narrator, Elizabeth, is about to cut into a cadaver as part of her medical training in Baltimore. Suddenly her mind jumps back to the moment when, as a teen on a door-to-door evangelism mission in Georgia, she met Butterfly McQueen on her doorstep. McQueen was an avowed atheist and told Elizabeth not to waste her time; she was going to be donating her body to science. Especially when Elizabeth’s mother became ill with cancer, she came to realize how, for McQueen, dedicating her body to research “was about taking control of the thing that was undeniably hers.” Although the framework is fictional, McQueen’s story is historical. It reminded me of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, one of my favorite recent books.

Indeed, many of these stories could lead readers directly into longer works. Here are a few of my related recommendations:

This is a rich, wonderful collection. If I have one point of criticism, it is that the shorter stories (several in the range of 3–5 pages) don’t add much to the whole. The in-depth character analysis you get in the longer stories is where Bergman shines. I can see this book fulfilling a dual gateway function: inviting those who normally read non-fiction, especially biographies, to attempt some fiction; and luring historical fiction lovers to give both short stories and non-fiction a chance. Bergman’s author’s note gives her sources and initial inspirations for each of the stories, so readers can follow up on anything of particular interest.

As the narrator of “Who Killed Dolly Wilde?” muses, “Maybe the world had been bad to its great and unusual women. Maybe there wasn’t a worthy place for the female hero to live out her golden years, to be celebrated as the men had.” That is, until Bergman’s terrific book gave these almost famous women the perfect showcase.


Almost Famous Women releases on January 6, 2015. With thanks to Maya Lang and Kara Watson at Scribner for arranging my free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Rebecca Foster

American transplant to England. Former library assistant turned full-time freelance writer and book reviewer. Check out all my articles.


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