Book Bag: ‘Legal Tender: Women & the Secret of Money’ by Christian McEwen; ‘Walking in the Dark: Poems’ by Michael Miller

Published: 5/9/2019 4:11:02 PM
Modified: 5/9/2019 4:10:52 PM


By Christian McEwen

Bauhan Publishing

If money is one of the big taboos when it comes to conversation topics, it might be even more so for women. As Christian McEwen observes in her new book, “Legal Tender: Women & The Secret Life Of Money,” societal traditions and prejudices have long kept many women feeling they don’t “understand” money or can’t deal with it, at least in the way men are expected to.

McEwen, a writer, editor, teacher and workshop leader who lives in Williamsburg, is also a poet and playwright. Her new book is actually an adaptation of her play, “Legal Tender,” in which women talk about their understanding of money and how financial decisions and family history of money — including the lack of it — affected their lives.

The book, like the play, is based on more than 50 interviews McEwen did with women from a wide variety of ethnic and economic backgrounds about their experience with money: what they learned about it as children, how their parents dealt with it, how it’s affected their relationships with spouses and partners. McEwen says talking openly about the subject is crucial for women, “banishing the shame and ignorance from which so many of us have suffered [and] drawing us forward to a new place of ease and self-forgiveness.”

She notes that as a child growing up in her native Scotland, in a family of limited means, she had minimal understanding of money, a condition that persisted into adulthood when her father died young and her mother had to declare bankruptcy. McEwen, by then living “far away in the United States,” did what she could to help, even though she struggled just “to keep a roof over my head. I had the financial skills of an earnest eight-year-old, able to add and subtract, but only barely to calculate a tip.”

Her book offers engaging, first-person accounts from women (just first names in most cases) who describe their own financial journeys, revelations and misadventures. Esther, who calls herself middle class, developed a taste for gambling as a kid, when she’d go to horse races with her father and uncles. Success and excitement with that led her to make gambling, whether at the track or poker tables, a regular part of her income as an adult. “It was like being a kid again, ‘cause it’s all about numbers and percentages,” she says.

Unfortunately, Esther later got hooked by online poker and started losing big time, and before long she’d wracked up serious debts that she had to hide from her husband, an artist. She eventually comes clean to her husband, pays off her debts and stops gambling, leaving her feeling like the whole experience has been a valuable lesson in truth, trust and self-realization.

Another woman, Suzanne, an academic administrator, talks about something many married or committed women can relate to: how household chores and childcare are divided between men and women, and how that division of labor can reflect personal income. When her husband earned more than her, Suzanne says, she ended up saddled with almost all the household duties. “I was mad at him for ten years. Ten years!” But when she gets a new job whose salary surpasses her husband’s, he volunteers to do 50 percent of the household work.

If that feels like less than he should offer, Suzanne isn’t fazed. Why? “I can’t tell you how deliciously satisfying it feels to be making more money,” she says. “I’m just delighted.”

Christian McEwen will read from and discuss “Legal Tender” Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley and Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Meekins Library in Williamsburg.



By Michael Miller

Pinyon Publishing

Does a man look for his mother in women he dates or marries? Amherst poet Michael Miller suggests there could be a connection in “Points of Reference,” in which the poem’s narrator recalls crawling into his mother’s bed on Sunday mornings when he was young.

“Turning away, Mother left me / Her exposed back, / Allowing me to count / The moles I wanted to touch, / This map of beauty / With points of reference / I would seek in each woman / I began to love.”

Miller, who has published several volumes of poetry in the last half-dozen years, examines a range of topics — childhood memories, love, military service, aging, the natural world — in his newest collection, “Waking in the Dark.” Most though not all of his poems are short, spare and tightly written. There’s sadness here but also a sense of acceptance and peace with what life has provided and still offers.

“Guides,” for instance, is a portrait of an elderly man who has no pressing need to get things done, who pays no attention to what time the clock on his dresser is displaying. Instead, he finds his itinerary in nature’ s rhythms.

“But the sun lifting over the hill, / the thrush singing on / a sumac branch / Become his guides / To welcome each new day. / If death arrives in / An hour or ten years / He hopes to be surprised, / Like the red fox appearing / At the fork in the road, /Its left foreleg raised, / A blaze of indecision.”

And in the end, there is love, the “Mortar,” as one poem title puts it, that ultimately forms the foundation of life and happiness. As Miller writes in “In Sleep My Hand Finds Its Way,” love comes in many forms, as it does for a sleeping couple, with the narrator’s hand reaching instinctively for his companion’s: “fingers touching, / Palm over palm with the space / Between for love’s place, / Love remaining intact, / Love unshaken by anger, / By words never forgotten, / Words slowly forgiven.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at









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