Book Bag: ‘Hidden Powers’ by Jeannine Atkins; ‘A Storm of Horses’ by Ruth Sanderson

Staff Writer
Published: 3/11/2022 12:26:28 PM
Modified: 3/11/2022 12:25:56 PM

Hidden Powers: Lise
Meitner’s Call to Science
by Jeannine Atkins; Simon & Schuster

 

There have been any number of studies that outline the barriers many women still face today in the workplace, from earning less pay than men for comparable work to the struggle in breaking through the glass ceiling to upper-tier positions in business, law and other professions.

A century ago, it was much worse. But some women still overcame enormous hurdles to make their mark in fields long dominated by men.

“Hidden Powers,” the new book by Whately author Jeannine Atkins, examines the life of Lise Meitner, an Austrian-Swedish physicist of the early 20th century who overcame ingrained opposition not just to female scientists but to women even working outside the home — and went on do groundbreaking research in nuclear fission.

Meitner, born in Vienna in 1878 to a Jewish family, became the first woman from the University of Vienna and just the second in the world to earn a doctorate in physics. She worked for many years doing research and teaching in Berlin but was forced to flee Germany for Sweden in 1938 because of the Nazis’ antisemitic policies.

The work Meitner did on radioactivity with her longtime lab partner, chemist Otto Hahn, and another German chemist would form the basis for additional research that led to the development of the atomic bomb in the United States — something that deeply grieved Meitner, who was nominated dozens of times for a Nobel Prize for her work in physics and chemistry.

Atkins, who has written a number of previous books for young readers about memorable women from history, aims “Hidden Powers” at that audience, too, and she does it in verse, as a sort of extended prose poem. Each short chapter gets its own title, and the book takes readers from Meitner’s childhood to her retirement in England in the late 1960s — she died in 1968 — where she lived with her nephew’s family.

From an early age, young Lise is interested in science and in school, even though girls in late 19th-century Austria are expected to become wives and mothers. Lise is disheartened by this strict division of the sexes: “What’s called ‘pride’ in boys / is called ‘bragging’ in girls. / What’s called ‘humble’ in boys / can make a girl disappear.”

Her father, though, encourages her learning, giving her a science book with the periodic table of the elements for her 16th birthday, and her parents support her going to a university when women in Austria are finally allowed to attend in 1900.

At the University of Vienna, where she is “The only woman in a hall of one hundred men / who study physics,” Lise is also buoyed to read about a female physicist in France, Marie Curie, who is receiving much praise and notice for her work.

The story follows Lise’s move to Berlin after she earns her doctorate; there she’ll face more barriers to working in physics, but eventually she wins paying jobs as both a researcher and teacher.

During World War I, she serves as a X-ray nurse technician and soon becomes opposed to war. Back in Berlin, her scientific star continues to rise, and Atkins uses clear, basic language to make Lise’s work understandable to young readers.

But when the Nazis take power in Germany in 1933, things start going downhill: “Professors who once greeted Lise / with a friendly Guten Tag or Guten Morgen / now raise rigid arms and huff Heil Hitler. / She crosses the street to avoid them.” She’s forced to unfurl a Nazi flag at the research institute where she works.

After World War II, Meitner will be deeply hurt as well when Hahn, her longtime lab partner, is awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering nuclear fission, and neither he nor the Nobel committee give her any credit for her part in the discovery.

“Hidden Powers” also offers portraits of many of Meitner’s colleagues such as Hahn, as well as other people from her life, including her nephew, Robert Risch, who became a physicist, too.

In an afterword, Atkins notes that she relied on biographies of Meitner, studies of science, and books on politics and culture of 20th-century Europe to fashion her story, while also using “imagination and historical interpretation” to make Meitner’s life and research engaging for young readers.

“My hope throughout was to honor a brilliant and courageous woman of science,” she says.

There will be a book launch for “Hidden Powers” March 18 at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley. Register for free for the event by visiting odysseybks.com/event and clicking on March 18.

 

A Storm of Horses: The Story of Rosa Bonheur
Text and illustrations by Ruth Sanderson; Crocodile Books/Interlink Publishing

Easthampton artist and children’s book illustrator/author Ruth Sanderson has had a long love affair with horses. She drew them constantly as a kid, and her first oil painting, which she completed at age 14, was also of a horse. Since then she’s written and illustrated many books about the animals.

In her newest book, “A Storm of Horses,” for children ages 6-10, Sanderson offers a variation of sorts on that theme. “Storm” tells the story of 19th-century French painter Rosa Bonheur, who defied conventions of that era by painting animals — horses in particular — and outdoor scenes at a time when female artists were expected to capture domestic images of children and families.

Sanderson, whose richly colored illustrations echo some elements of Romantic-era painting, focuses her book not just on Bonheur’s early interest in art and horses but on how she created what the author calls her masterpiece, “The Horse Fair,” an 8-by-16-foot oil painting of a horse market in Paris in the early 1850s.

As the book shows, Bonheur finalized her painting, which was exhibited to great acclaim at a Paris art salon, after spending countless hours at the horse market creating sketches and later small color studies of the animals.

She also got around the prohibition of women even attending the market — it was considered too dangerous a place for them in their long skirts — by getting the police to give her a special permit to wear pants while she sketched. It was illegal in France in those days, Sanderson notes, for women to wear pants.

She includes some additional biographical information on Bonheur in an afterword, and she also describes the awe she felt when she first saw “The Horse Fair” years ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. That painting and Bonheur’s story became inspirations for own work, she notes.

As she writes in a concluding passage in her book, “Like the horses she loved, Rosa was spirited, too, and untamed by expectations. She proved that a woman artist could achieve success in a time when men dominated the art world and all aspects of public life.”

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


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