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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