Book Bag: “Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis” by Jeannine Atkins; “The Shell: Memoirs of a Hidden Observer” by Mustafa Khalifa

Friday, February 03, 2017

by Steve Pfarrer


By Jeannine Atkins

Atheneum Books for Young Readers


Edmonia Lewis became one of the most famous and successful female American artists of the 19th century, and perhaps the most famous African American/Native American artist of her era. The daughter of a Haitian-African man and a mother of Ojibwe descent, Lewis, born in New York State in 1844, gained international recognition for her sculpture; she spent much of her adult life in Rome.

Yet relatively few details are known about Lewis’ life, at least from her own standpoint, because Lewis rarely spoke or wrote about her past. With “Stone Warriors,” Whately author Jeannine Atkins has stepped in to fill that void with an imaginative novel for younger readers.

Atkins has published several books on young women who became scientists and professionals in fields typically dominated by men; in her most recent one, “Finding Wonders,” she also experimented with form, using prose poems to tell the story. She’s done that again with “Stone Warriors,” while also mixing in some dialogue, creating a hybrid of novel and extended prose poem.

Edmonia Lewis gives Atkins a good topic to work with. When she was about 15, Lewis entered Oberlin College in Ohio, one of the few American schools to admit women or minorities, and it’s here Lewis first develops an interest in art.

But as in real life, the Edmonia of “Stone Mirrors” also finds controversy and prejudice at Oberlin. She’s accused at one point of poisoning two white classmates, then of stealing paints. She’s also beaten by a group of vigilantes outside the college, and she later stands trial on the poisoning accusation, though she’s acquitted. Her attackers are never punished.

But Lewis survives these crises and goes on to study sculpting in Boston, then in Rome, forging work that explores the experiences of African Americans but which also incorporates classical European influences, such as in her monumental statue, “The Death of Cleopatra,” displayed at the first official World’s Fair in the United States, the 1876 Centennial Exposition of Philadelphia. 

As Atkins writes, sculpture enables Lewis to overcome some of the sorrow and losses of her earlier life: “Clay reminds her of how much can change. / She prods it, pushes it in, forgets, remembers, / one motion as necessary as the other.”

“Atkins creates a memorable, poetic tale that offers a fictional account of what life may have been like for Edmonia, backgrounding this with solid research into the era,” writes Kirkus Reivews. “A fascinating, tantalizing glimpse.”

Jeannine Atkins reads from “Stone Mirrors” on Saturday at 4 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley.



By Mustafa Khalifa

Translated by Paul Starkey

Interlink Publishing Group


Mustafa Khalifa, a native of Syria now living in exile, spent over a dozen years in a notorious Syrian military prison, Tadmur, after being arrested in 1982. In his debut novel, “The Shell,” Khalifa has drawn on his experience to fashion a story of a Syrian film student, Musa, who returns to Syria after living in Paris for several years and is arrested at the airport, though his alleged crimes are not described to him.

In “The Shell,” published by Interlink Publishing Group of Northampton, Khalifa offers a straightforward, first-person narration that reflects Musa’s confusion, fear and disbelief in being sent to Tadmur, where he and other prisoners are often beaten. He eventually learns he’s been jailed for supposedly being a member of an outlawed separatist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, even though he was raised a Christian and considers himself an atheist.

Written in the form of a diary, the novel wastes no time in describing horrific beatings and torture. Shortly after he’s arrested, Musa is blindfolded, pressed headfirst into a giant tire on the ground so that his bare feet stick out, after which a guard beats his feet so severely he cannot stand for days afterward.

On another occasion, Musa and other prisoners are lined up outside on a cold night, stripped naked and doused with water. One by one the freezing men fall to the ground, after which a sergeant shouts “Warm him up!” and the stricken prisoner is whipped by several guards.

Suffice it to say that “The Shell” does not make for easy reading. Musa must live within his head at most times (he compiles his diary by memory), and when he’s finally released from prison, he finds his ordeal has made him deeply withdrawn from people.

Yet like a “modern day Solzhenitsyn,” Khalifa’s stoical account of prison life “shows that art may be proof of humanity,” as one reviewer says. “The reader will eagerly follow the narrator’s footsteps until the end.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.