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Douglass' Women (Rhodes)

Douglass' Women
Jewell Parker Rhodes, 2002
Simon & Schuster
384 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780743278867


Summary
Frederick Douglass, the great African-American abolitionist, was a man who cherished freedom in life and in love. In this ambitious work of historical fiction, Douglass' passions come vividly to life in the form of two women: Anna Murray Douglass and Ottilie Assing.

Douglass' Women is an imaginative rendering of these two women — one black, the other white — in Douglass' life. Anna, his wife, was a free woman of color who helped Douglass escape as a slave. She bore Douglass five children and provided him with a secure, loving home while he traveled the world with his message.

Along the way, Douglass satisfied his intellectual needs in the company of Ottilie Assing, a white woman of German-Jewish descent, who would become his mistress for decades to come. How these two women find solidarity in their shared love for Douglass — and his vision for a free America — is at the heart of Jewell Parker Rhodes' extraordinary, epic novel. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—1954
Where—Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA
Education—B.A. M.A., Ph.D., Carnegie Mellon University
Awards—(see below)
Currently—lives in Scottsdale, Arizona


Jewell Parker Rhodes is professor of Creative Writing and American Literature and former Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Arizona State University.

Born and raised in Manchester, a largely African-American neighborhood on the North Side of Pittsburgh, she received a Bachelor of Arts in Drama Criticism, a Master of Arts in English, and a Doctor of Arts in English (Creative Writing) from Carnegie Mellon University.

She is the author of five novels: Voodoo Dreams, Magic City, Douglass' Women, Voodoo Season, Yellow Moon, and Hurricane Levee Blues; and a memoir, Porch Stories: A Grandmother's Guide to Happiness.

She has also authored two writing guides: Free Within Ourselves: Fiction Lessons for Black Authors, and The African American Guide to Writing and Publishing Non-Fiction. Her play, Voodoo Dreams, was cited as "Most Innovative" Drama in the 2000-2001 Professional Theater Season by the Arizona Republic and she is currently at work on a theatrical version of Douglass' Women.

Her work has been published in Germany, Italy, Canada, Turkey, and the United Kingdom and reproduced in audio and for NPR's "Selected Shorts." Her literary awards include: Yaddo Creative Writing Fellowship, the American Book Award, the National Endowment of the Arts Award in Fiction, the Black Caucus of the American Library Award for Literary Excellence, the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award for Outstanding Writing, two Arizona Book Awards, and a finalist citation for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. She has been a featured speaker at the Runnymeade International Literary Festival (University of London-Royal Holloway), Santa Barbara Writers Conference, Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference, and Warwick University, among others.

Recent fiction and essays have been anthologized in Rise Up Singing: Black Women Writers on Motherhood, (ed., Berry), In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction, (ed. Gutkind), Gumbo, (ed., Golden and Harris) Children of the Night: Best Short Stories By Black Writers, (ed., Naylor) among others.

She has been awarded the California State University Distinguished Teaching Award, ASU's Dean's Quality Teaching Award, Outstanding Thesis Director from the Barrett Honors College, and the Outstanding Faculty Award from the College of Extended Education. She is a member of the Arizona/International Women's Forum and a Renaissance Weekend invitee.

Dr. Jewell Parker Rhodes is the Artistic Director for Global Engagement and the Piper Endowed Chair of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews
Frederick Douglass's love life was nearly as tumultuous as his political career or so Rhodes (Voodoo Dreams; Magic City) posits in this vividly imagined recreation of the romantic triangle formed by the great abolitionist, his black wife and his white mistress. Anna Murray is Douglass's first love, a free Maryland woman of color who falls in love with the young slave and helps him escape the South. Douglass follows through by marrying Murray and moving her to New Bedford, Conn. Marital life begins blissfully enough, but soon Anna finds herself alone raising Douglass's children while he travels to promote the abolitionist cause. Douglass, meanwhile, meets his intellectual match in German beauty Ottilie Assing, and their relationship turns physical when they journey together to England. Anna learns of the affair shortly after their return, but once her temper cools she tolerates Assing's presence, even allowing Douglass to include her in the living arrangements when the family moves to Rochester. The narrative clips along as Rhodes introduces the various romantic angles, but as a character study the book has some noticeable flaws. The uneducated but feisty Anna emerges as a well-drawn, multifaceted character, and Assing is effectively portrayed as she tries to balance her love for Douglass with her desire to be known as something more than the obscure mistress of a powerful, charismatic figure. Douglass, however, remains a shadow figure, mostly because Rhodes never gets beneath the surface of his romantic personality and leaves out elements of his controversial political contributions that would have fleshed out the narrative. This is a solid, well-conceived novel, but by isolating Douglass's passion from his politics, Rhodes creates a book that is as incomplete in its own way as the historical treatments that ignore the personal life of the great orator.
Publishers Weekly


This gorgeously written historical novel by the author of Voodoo Dreams draws a private portrait of Frederick Douglass through the alternating voices of the two women who love him. His wife, Anna, is an illiterate laundress who helps him escape from slavery. His mistress, Ottilie Assing, is a German heiress who travels the world with him, typing and translating his famous manuscripts. Rhodes ennobles both women by "reimagining" their individual accounts of heartbreaking loyalty toward the famous abolitionist and author. Through each woman's perspective, Douglass is in turn brilliant, passionate and as beautiful as a god. He's also self-centered, hypocritical and brutally callous. Though never friends, the two characters form a complex and uneasy partnership that spans the women's rights movement, the raid on Harper's Ferry and the Civil War. The author captures Anna's quiet dignity and explores the desperate reasoning that allows Ottilie to give up her own freedom in order to remain Frederick's "spiritual wife." Unlike her two tragic heroines, Rhodes achieves a true balance of heart and mind in this fully realized book.
Library Journal


This gorgeously written historical novel by the author of Voodoo Dreams draws a private portrait of Frederick Douglass through the alternating voices of the two women who love him. His wife, Anna, is an illiterate laundress who helps him escape from slavery. His mistress, Ottilie Assing, is a German heiress who travels the world with him, typing and translating his famous manuscripts. Rhodes ennobles both women by "reimagining" their individual accounts of heartbreaking loyalty toward the famous abolitionist and author. Through each woman's perspective, Douglass is in turn brilliant, passionate and as beautiful as a god. He's also self-centered, hypocritical and brutally callous. Though never friends, the two characters form a complex and uneasy partnership that spans the women's rights movement, the raid on Harper's Ferry and the Civil War. The author captures Anna's quiet dignity and explores the desperate reasoning that allows Ottilie to give up her own freedom in order to remain Frederick's "spiritual wife." Unlike her two tragic heroines, Rhodes achieves a true balance of heart and mind in this fully realized book.
Book Magazine



Discussion Questions
1. When Anna first sees Frederick in the shipyard, she finds herself drawn to him even though they do not speak during this initial encounter. What is it about Frederick that attracts Anna to him?

2. How would you describe Anna's relationship with Frederick from their days in Baltimore through their decades-long marriage? Why do you think Anna remained with Frederick in spite of his flagrant unfaithfulness? How would you describe Frederick's relationship with Ottilie? Why do you think Ottilie chose to remain with Frederick especially since she, unlike Anna, had the financial means to care for herself?

3. In the author's note at the end of the book, Jewell Parker Rhodes describes Anna and Ottilie as "two brave women." Why do you think she chose to describe them as brave? Do you agree with this assessment? Did you empathize with one woman more than the other?

4. The time period in which the novel takes place was marked by political unrest and social change—the fight against slavery, the coming of the Civil War, and the burgeoning women's movement. To what extent do these political and social circumstances contribute to the individual fates and fortunes of the three main characters— Frederick, Anna, and Ottilie?

5. From the time she first meets Frederick, Anna worries that she "might not be what he wanted" (pg. 22). She believes that he finds her unattractive, uneducated, too old when they marry, and her skin not light enough. Are her fears grounded in reality? How does this belief in part define her relationship with Frederick?

6. The story is constructed in alternating chapters told from Anna and Ottilie's perspectives. How does this narrative structure enhance thestory? Each woman is looking back on the past and telling her story. Does the vantage point of age influence the telling of each one's tale?

7. When she first journeys to America, Ottilie encounters a slave, Oluwand, who commits suicide by jumping over the ship's railing. Throughout her life Ottilie is haunted by visions of Oluwand, in one instance saying that "she'd appear in my bedroom, on the edge of my bed. Her black eyes blinking like an owl's" (pg 219). What does Oluwand represent to her, and why can't she forget her?

8. Why do you think Frederick married Helen Pitts and not Ottilie after Anna's death? Why do you think, in spite of his having forsaken her, that Ottilie left her estate to Frederick?

9. One of Ottilie's diary excerpts refers to Anna by saying, "I shouldn't have hated her. She loved him, just like me." Anna, referring to Ottilie, says the following: "Miss Assing wasn't a Delilah. I see that now." In the end, do you think Anna and Ottilie come to understand one another to some degree?

10. History has remembered Frederick Douglass as a great man and abolitionist. Did reading this novel alter your opinion of Frederick Douglass?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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