My Notorious Life (Manning)

My Notorious Life
Kate Manning, 2013
448 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781451698060

A brilliant rendering of a scandalous historical figure, Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life is an ambitious, thrilling novel introducing Axie Muldoon, a fiery heroine for the ages.

Axie’s story begins on the streets of 1860s New York. The impoverished child of Irish immigrants, she grows up to become one of the wealthiest and most controversial women of her day.

In vivid prose, Axie recounts how she is forcibly separated from her mother and siblings, apprenticed to a doctor, and how she and her husband parlay the sale of a few bottles of "Lunar Tablets for Female Complaint" into a thriving midwifery business. Flouting convention and defying the law in the name of women’s reproductive rights, Axie rises from grim tenement rooms to the splendor of a mansion on Fifth Avenue, amassing wealth while learning over and over never to trust a man who says "trust me."

When her services attract outraged headlines, Axie finds herself on a collision course with a crusading official—Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. It will take all of Axie’s cunning and power to outwit him in the fight to preserve her freedom and everything she holds dear.

Inspired by the true history of an infamous female physician who was once called "the Wickedest Woman in New York," My Notorious Life is a mys­tery, a family saga, a love story, and an exquisitely detailed portrait of nineteenth-century America. Axie Muldoon’s inimitable voice brings the past alive, and her story haunts and enlightens the present. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Syracuse, New York, USA
Awards—two Emmy Awards
Currently—lives in New York City, New York

Kate Manning is the author of Whitegirl, a novel (2002) and My Notorious Life (2013). A former documentary television producer for public television, she has won two New York Emmy Awards, and also written for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times Book Review, among others. She has taught creative writing at Bard High School Early College in Manhattan, where she lives with her boisterous family, including a dog named Moon, who walks her regularly. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
[I]ts historical setting and language [are] densely and effectively styled. Manning is best when writing about the wretched squalor of 19th-century urban childhood and the orphan trains that transported children from city streets to willing foster homes across the country. In places, you can even squint and pretend you're reading Angela's Ashes.
Alex Kuczynski - New York Times Book Review

Manning’s sophisticated, intelligent novel is brought to life by the vivid voice in which her central character tells her own story.
Sunday Times (London)

Paint[s] a landscape of old New York that’s both quaint and terrifying, where love can be bartered over a back-stoop picnic and slander awaits around cobblestoned corners. Come for the notoriety, stay for the sympathy.
Daily Beast

(Starred review.) Loosely based on the life of Ann Trow Lohman (aka Madame Restell), the infamous abortionist who became known as "the Wickedest Woman in New York," Manning’s second rags-to-riches novel (after Whitegirl) nimbly resurrects the bold woman behind the scandalous headlines.... [T]he details of Madame X’s private life, told in her thick Irish brogue—about the search for her long-lost siblings, her fiery relationship with her devoted husband, and her growth as a mother...lend a human face to a this sensational figure.
Publishers Weekly

[A] compelling and tragic (in its way) success story. Manning convincingly presents willful nineteenth-century child Axie Muldoon, based on an actual person.... [W]itnessing her mother’s unnecessary death inflamed a coal in Axie’s heart that burned for every woman she encountered who faced uniquely feminine perils. Manning’s fascinating dramatization of the hazards of her protagonist’s pillar-to-post childhood and slave-labor apprenticeship...vividly and movingly portray an unsympathetic world for women. —Donna Chavez

A rollicking romp through 19th-century American contraception inspired by the true story of a Manhattan midwife.... The ensuing events highlight controversies regarding "reproductive health" that are still raging today. Axie's profane Irish brogue is vividly recreated with virtually no anachronistic slips, and though a certain degree of polemical crusading is unavoidable given Axie's proclivities, her voice never fails to entertain.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Discuss the structure of My Notorious Life. Why do you think the author chose to present the story as long lost memoir, discovered by Axie’s great-great-granddaughter, Teresa Smithhurst-O’Rourke? How does Teresa’s introduction to the memoir help frame the story? Did it influence the way that you read it? If so, how?

2. Axie’s narration in My Notorious Life begins with the description of a suicide. When you finally learned whose body is in the tub, were you surprised? Why or why not? What did you think of Axie’s decision to switch identities with the deceased?

3. Compare the experiences of Axie, Dutch, and Joe after their journy on the Orphan Train. How do you imagine Joe’s and Dutchie’s stories differed from Axie’s experience with Mrs. Temple? Discuss ninteenth century attitudes toward children as illustrated by My Notorious Life.

4. When Axie returns to 127 Cherry Street, she says, "I was home, with a taste of dread like chalk in my mouth." (p. 54). Why do you think Axie is worried about coming home? How do the changes at 127 Cherry Street while Axie has been away also change Axie?

5. When Adelaide, one of Mrs. Evans’ patients, tells Axie, "Don’t ever trust a man who says trust me" (p. 89) Axie takes her advice as a personal motto. Discuss instances in Axie’s life where the motto is proven to be sound–or fails her. Why is the question of trust so important to Axie? What moral values does she live by?

6. When Axie is a child, her mother corrects her "savage grammar." Axie says, "We children had poor mouths, she was forever telling us." (p. 14) Later, when Axie is older, Charlie also corrects Axie, telling her, "ISn’t not AIN’T. Listen to me, Student, speak like the upper crust." (p. 121) How does Axie’s language change as she recounts her story? What does language mean to Axie and Charlie in terms of social class and American self-invention?

7. Mrs. Browder says of the adult Charlie, "He’s a bounder…. Once a man of the streets, always a man of the streets," (p. 170) and Greta says he’s "He’s one of those danglers and he’ll dangle you." (p. 119) Do you agree with Mrs. Browder and Greta about Charlie’s character? What are your initial impressions of him? Do they change during the course of My Notorious Life?

8. Mrs. Evans tells Axie "till you have a child of your own, no woman will accept you for a midwife." (p. 157) How do Axie’s own experiences as a woman and mother inform her work and attitudes toward the women she helps?

9. When Axie and Charlie are first married, she says, "Before we had wanted the same thing, to not be orphans no more." (p. 169) Discuss their relationship. How does their shared background affect the way they relate to each other?

10. During an argument, Axie tells Charlie, "Free Love?... For sure, it’s not free at all." (p. 171) What are the costs of love, as illustrated by Adelaide, Frances, Beatrice, Greta and Cordelia?

11. When Axie is put on trial, Dr. Gunning testifies against her. (p. 324) What are his motivations? How is his testimony indicative of the medical profession’s attitude toward midwifery?

12. Axie notes that the majority of the women who order Madame DeBeausacq’s Female Remedy "seemed to be married, mothers already, anxious to prevent another confinement. They was all of them desperate." (p. 202). Were you surprised to learn that many of Axie’s clients were married? Why? Discuss the letters that Axie receives from these women.

13. Mrs. Evans tells Axie, "a midwife must also keep comfortable with the complexities. What I call the lesser evil. You will learn not to judge too harsh on others. If you don’t learn this, you’re not suited to the work." (p. 153) What does Mrs. Evans mean by "complexities"? What are her reasons for assisting with "premature deliveries" and why does she call them the "lesser evil"?

14. Axie says, "What is a name? It’s nothing," (p. 412). But is it? During the course of My Notorious Life, Axie is also called Annie, Mrs. Jones, "Chickenheart," Mother, Mme. DeBeausacq, Madame X. "Hag of Misery," and "Modern Thug of Civilized Society." What do each of these names indicate about Axie and how she is seen by others, and by herself?

15. Anthony Comstock is a crusader against "vice." Is Axie a crusader? Discuss and compare their apparent motivations. Comstock invites reporters along when he arrests Axie, and the press is also involved in organizing a riot against her, as well as policing that protest. How does Axie respond to the press? What was the role of the press in her life?

16. Mrs. Browder tells Axie, "Men have war to bring them their sorrows and pain…we females have our own physiology." (p. 137) Explain what Mrs. Browder means by this statement. Do you think that Mrs. Browder’s statement helps Axie to understand Mrs. Evans’s work?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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