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On The 'Wisdom Trail,' Platitudes Prevail

When Alice Dieter was an Idaho housewife, her local newspaper contained a women's page. All it had were "Heloise's Household Hints." Furious, Dieter made a list of 25 local women whose lives offered more than household advice, then wrote a profile on one of them and marched it down to the editor's office. Thus began her long career in journalism.

At age 52, Sister Madonna Buder decided to run the Boston Marathon to raise money for MS research. Since then, she's participated in over 300 triathlons. When she was 75, the nun became the oldest woman to compete in the Hawaii Ironman, breaking the record for her age group.

As a Japanese-American, Elaine Ishikawa Hayes was interned at a camp during World War II. Taking advantage of a program that allowed her to attend college in the Midwest, she eventually landed a job with President Johnson's poverty program and went on to pioneer the first federally funded day care centers in America.

These women are just three of the 22 chronicled in The Wisdom Trail: In the Footsteps of Remarkable Women. Co-authored by Janet Lieberman and Julie Hungar, this book documents the lives of the ordinary, extraordinary women of "the silent generation."

Now in their 70s and 80s, these women grew up in the epicenter of the 20th century. Born just after women won the vote, they came of age during the Great Depression and WWII, then found themselves thrust into the sexual revolution, women's liberation and the civil rights movement.

Having lived through arguably the greatest period of change for women in history, these matriarchs should have a lot to say. The Wisdom Trailaims to give them a microphone.

To my great sadness and frustration, however, it doesn't. When the book arrived, I couldn't wait to read it. Yet I was hugely disappointed.

This unsung generation has a mother lode of experience. Each woman's story begs to be told in-depth with the eye of a historian and the sensitivity of a novelist.

Instead, the authors serve up a hodgepodge of vacuous anecdotes that read like self-help parables. And instead of letting subjects speak for themselves, the authors summarize with insipid platitudes. Repeatedly, readers are treated to sentences like: "Perseverance was another vital characteristic of the Wisdom Trail women. They faced plenty of obstacles, but they refused to accept discouragement."

Yes, there's some insight. Many found that low expectations placed on women actually benefited them. Without pressure to succeed, they felt free to take risks and make their own way. And being financially dependent on husbands enabled them to find their calling regardless of how little it paid.

Yet overall, this book is long on generalities and short on real wisdom. And it's a crime, because these remarkable women deserve better.

I wanted so badly to love The Wisdom Trail. Instead, I found myself feeling a little like Alice Dieter must have back in Idaho, like I was being served something half-baked for women that underestimates our intelligence.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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