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A Victorian Woman's Inability to Catch Her Breath - an Editorial Review of "My Search for Air"

Book Blurb:

Plainsville, Pennsylvania, is a town as dull as it sounds, and for high-spirited Lilith Brown, it is a torturous existence. Coming of age during the late Victorian Era, Lilith finds herself questioning the prevailing ideology of social stratification and its resulting inequities.

Thirteen-year-old Lilith is lucky to have two like-minded women in her life who, unlike her parents, encourage the young girl to reach her full potential.

But although their minds may be strong, the injustice they must fight against is stronger still. Lilith's ideals are thwarted when a ruthless businessman, Gregory Wentworth, takes an interest in the coal mining industry, and she is forced to learn the hard truths of greed, intimidation, and harassment.

As she fights against injustice, she, and those around her, suffer serious consequences. Lilith questions whether there is any justice in a world where the rich and powerful can prey on the weak without suffering any consequences. Is there any winning a battle where the enemy controls all the resources and weaponry?

"My Search for Air" examines the subjectivity of morality, the concept of sin, and the meaning of forgiveness. Are those in power today still reaping the rewards at the expense of the vulnerable?

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Editorial Review:

I knew right away this was one of the solid parts of the house – solid but eerie – dungeon-like. Thick, velvet curtains covered the windows attempting to bar any hint of light, but small slits of sunshine managed to creep through, and dust motes reveled in the small gift of light they had been granted. Oh, those imprisoned dust motes needed air, along with me and the rest of the room.

My Search for Air by Jeanne K. Johnson is a curious coming-of-age story set in the early 20th century at the cusp of new enlightenment for women and the suffrage movement. Lilith Brown is indeed a butterfly emerging from a cocoon and bursting forth with wings outstretched upon the world scene. From her birth onward, her mind is fixed on breaking free from the norms of societal restraints with a mind of her own and a strong will which leads her down a very confusing path to begin with.

The book echoes tones of “Miss Potter” or “Little Women” where the main character is desperate for their voice to be heard under the stringent rules corseted upon the women of the day. Lilith grows to maturity within the strict moral and Christian upbringing of her parents, with a mother whose stiff-upper-lip and restricted emotions clash with her willful daughter, yet Lilith finds solace in the similar personality of her spinster Aunt who has her own story to tell about daring to 'buck the system'.

Yet, as Lilith blossoms into womanhood, and as was often the case in those “Victoriana” days in rural Pennsylvanian society, she meets the epitome of an affluent Victorian man with his thirst for money, power, and his narrow-minded ideas about a woman's place in the world – Gregory Wentworth. The man is deplorable, and as the community rallies around him like some otherworldly god, he wields his power over them all as he takes over the local coal mining business, as well as the lives of all the workers who depend on him during a very trying time in American and world history. His attitude and actions toward Lilith transform her idealistic innocence into the stark reality of the world in which she lives and realizes that her father and mother support the monster because of their own need for acceptance and a paycheck.

Some people aren't worth forgiving, especially those who seem to prosper and grow more potent despite their evil nature. I felt that familiar tightening in my chest. Breathe, Lilith, breathe.

Yet Lilith is determined to push back and expose the man for who he really is by aligning herself with another local woman deemed an 'outcast' because of her feminist ideals. Fannie Outbright runs a newspaper in town and together they slowly infiltrate Wentworth's business dealings and attempt to expose the atrocities of not only how he runs the coal mines but also the lack of decorum in personal matters. But Lilith underestimates the monster's reach... and again, must deal with not only the consequences of her own actions but how life sometimes is not fair. Sometimes things do not always work out how you imagine as a child.

I was back to being a loathsome creature. I had done nothing; I was nothing, precisely the woman I did not want to become, living with my parents under their rule, making no contribution to anything, a clump of dirt. I returned to books. There must be some author who could explain why I had failed. The problem was, all women in literature seemed to be failures unless tied to a man, and most of the books were written by men, so a woman's thoughts and feelings were portrayed through men's eyes.

The themes of this book are quite strong – dealing with very human issues such as injustice and inequality – all told from the point of view of this equally strong young woman. Lilith is ahead of her time, and the author does an excellent job of creating a very likable and well-rounded character – one who readers will connect with on a very deep level. The underlying thread of the 'air', of Lilith's “search for air” is quite evident, as well as the historical aspect and the research done to write about not only the coal mining history and the abhorrent conditions but also about this time period when many women were searching for 'air', for their corset ties to be un-cinched.

These stories portrayed strong, passionate women. In Wuthering Heights, Catherine chose the proper life over her love for Heathcliff. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester eventually lived according to her heart, but at a high cost. And like Eve and Lot's wife, there would be consequences for their choices. It made me start to think more about men and women – and love. What was all the fuss about? Was this love? If so, it seemed like an awful lot of work. And yet, there was something intriguing about it – something you had to have, couldn't live without, even if you knew it was full of danger.

The element of romance is melded nicely into the storyline, giving another layer to Lilith's moral questionings as her 'Dream Man' turns out to be someone quite unexpected, and the results of their romance develop into her obtaining a measure of 'breath', even in a way she did not expect. Lilith's legacy and her story is one which she passes on, and something she prays her progeny will learn from... yet we get a sense that this is not the end of the story as the author tantalizes us with a prospect of more to come, that this is not the end of Lilith's story.

For the most part, My Search for Air is an enjoyable read, a book where the reader finds themselves constantly rooting for the main character and a sincere distaste for the abhorrent antagonist, all enmeshed in the sometimes languishing details of the coal mining community which, only at times, slowed the narrative down. This, however, did not diminish the storyline as a whole and leaves the reader anticipating how Lilith's life turns out... if she indeed finds air to breathe.


“My Search for Air” by Jeanne K. Johnson receives 4.5 stars from The Historical Fiction Company

Author Bio:

Jeanne was raised in Upstate New York, and she must have been born a storyteller, since by the age of six she was already concocting fantastical stories: horses lived in the family's basement, some of which were blue; she had a cousin by the name of MauKunna who lived in Hawaii and sent her exotic clothing; and she owned a pet dragon named Puffer who lived in the land of Honeylee, undoubtedly taken from Puff the Magic Dragon who lived in the land of Honahlee.

In third grade she won first prize for her story, The Lonely Christmas Tree, and was sure she would be a writer when she grew up. But life takes many turns and she wound up in the world of biotechnology but never gave up on her dream of becoming a writer.

Growing up she loved to hear stories about her family history and became an amateur genealogist, which led her to question the meaning of people's lives and their deaths. Being somewhat "death obsessed" she earned a master's degree in Thanatology.

She is proof that it is never too late to reach your dreams. Her first novel, My Search for Air, is the sum of her experiences, with a little help from her ancestors.


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