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Reading Adoption

Marianne Novy travels 700 miles and takes two planes to the quiet hamlet of Prairie du Chien, Wis., to meet a stranger—her birth mom.

The friendly woman on the other side of the living room gave up Novy for adoption almost 30 years ago. This is their first meeting since the separation. They discover that, despite sharing blood, they’re very different. Novy’s hair is dark while her birth mom, Geraldine, has fair hair. Novy is active, but Geraldine, who has osteoporosis and anemia, has trouble walking around the block. Novy is a liberal Catholic feminist, while Geraldine is a Christian fundamentalist who attends a church where the congregation speaks in tongues.

During this meeting, Novy, a Pitt English professor, feels a complex stir of emotions that influences the path of her academic work. She goes on to write Reading Adoption: Family and Difference in Fiction and Drama (University of Michigan Press) to probe ideas about the various ways literature portrays adoption. She also teaches one of the nation’s first courses on literature and adoption, and this year she organized an international conference at Pitt on adoption and culture.

In addition to appreciating her adoptive mother even more fully, Novy continued her calls and visits to her birth mom. The two have discovered a renewed connection: They enjoy sharing news about their grown children. Through motherhood, they’ve found a common link. —Andy Medici

Coming of Age Around the World: A Multicultural Anthology

Sitting in her grandparents’ closet, a youngster flips through photos, searching for a face that resembles her own. All she sees are sepia-colored images of pale Finnish descendants with thin lips. No one in the photographs has brown skin or curly hair, features she inherited from her Nigerian father. Examining each photo, she wonders where she fits within her mother’s Nordic-American family. Amid the closet’s board games and jigsaw puzzles, she realizes she’ll have to forge her own identity.

Pitt’s Faith Adiele, an English professor, writes about this—her own coming-of-age moment—in the anthology Coming of Age Around the World (The New Press). She says that the “coming of age” of an individual is considered to be a Western idea. In other communal-based societies, coming of age “heralds entry into group identity.” As co-editor of the anthology, she selected 24 global stories to show that the phenomenon is not bound by culture or geography.

Adiele’s own search for self includes aspects of her life as a Harvard graduate, a Buddhist nun in Thailand, an accomplished writer, and someone who is intrigued by the notion of identity across cultures. —Sam Ginsburg

James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years

A young Yale student silently feeds a rag into the keyhole of a quarrelsome classmate’s dormitory door. He pours gunpowder into the rag, lights the end, and backs up. The explosion accomplishes its mission, disrupting the classmate’s tranquility. It also gets the prankster expelled.

The 19th-century hellion, James Fenimore Cooper, eventually turned his energy to the written page. He penned many novels, including The Last of the Mohicans, as well as the first American Western, sea tale, and even espionage story, laying the foundation of American popular fiction.

For more than a century, Cooper profiles have been incomplete; the famously private author ordered that his personal documents be sealed upon his death. In 1990, the Cooper family finally opened its archive. Wayne Franklin (A&S ’68G, ’72G), an English professor and director of American studies at the University of Connecticut, spent 10 years pouring through Cooper’s journals, correspondence, and business receipts to shed light on the notoriously misunderstood writer.

What emerged is a surprisingly big story. “One of the things that a biography can do is re-create a period,” says Franklin, a 2004 Guggenheim Fellow who grew up in Cooper’s native upstate New York. James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years (Yale University Press) follows the formative decades of young Cooper in his young republic. —Paul Ruggiero


The reporter steps out of the cold night and into a tent. Inside, he’s startled by an array of snakeheads, potions, and feathers, all owned by his host—a witch. The reporter, Dennis James Bartel (A&S ’84G), is chasing a story. He’s spending a week on a pagan farm in central Pennsylvania, watching druids beat drums and dance around bonfires. During his tent visit, he slowly takes his seat across from the witch-host and conducts an interview, one that turns out to be among the best of his journalistic career.
This is just one example of what reporter and radio personality Bartel does to get his stories. Whether it’s hanging out with motorcycle gangs, staring down murderers, or chanting with religious zealots, Bartel goes beyond first impressions, separating truth from flash.

In his short-story collection Voyeurs (PublishAmerica), Bartel taps into his experiences as a reporter, infusing raw emotions and real-life desires into his fictional characters. He follows six characters, from a sexually frustrated high school teacher to a morally conflicted Ashram woman, using their tales to examine hidden sides of the human condition. In the process, he conjures his own magic. —SG

The War Against Miss Winter

Struggling actress Rosie Winter enters a dance hall. She is surprised by all the laughter and dazzle, while outside the specter of blackouts and rationing hovers over New York City. With so many men abroad at war, including her ex-boyfriend, daily life is far different than it once was. But inside the hall, it seems as though no one remembers that the nation is in the midst of World War II. Instead, she’s surrounded by platinum blondes in sparkling 1940s dresses and their gangster dates wearing cheap cologne.

Out of this vivid 1940s wartime setting, author Kathryn Miller Haines (A&S ’98G)—who is also associate director at Pitt’s Center for American Music—spins a mystery novel that’s full of twists and turns. To pay her rent, Rosie takes a job at a seamy detective agency. Before long, her boss is murdered, and the young woman puts all of her acting skills to good use in solving the crime, which involves a missing script for a play.

The War Against Miss Winter (HarperCollins) offers a feminine perspective on the domestic effects of war, while also introducing a feisty woman and amateur sleuth who is determined to unravel the mystery of her boss’ untimely fate. —Lauren Mylo

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