Sunday, May 14, 2017

Book Review: Cameos

Happy Mothers Day, Gentle Readers. I didn't write this book review with Mothers Day in mind, but it does occur to me that some of your mothers may remember the women profiled in this book...

A Fair Trade Book (hurrah!)

Title: Cameos

Author: Helen Kooiman (Hosier)

Date: 1968

Publisher: Tyndale

ISBN: none

Length: 163 pages

Illustrations: black-and-white photos

Quote: “In her fervor [Regina Ramsay] spoke to everyone she kenw and met. but, disappointed with their responses, she sought out…the wise elder of the Bible class. ‘Every time I mention the name Jesus Christ I lose a friend!’ Joyfully he replied, ‘Praise the Lord…Every time you lose a friend, or are persecuted for Jesus’ sake, you will be blessed’.”

…With a story to tell that will raise a sympathetic chuckle, anyway.

Helen Kooiman interviewed fifteen women who were well known in evangelical Christian circles in 1968. Much of the pleasure of reading her book, almost fifty years later, comes from hindsight, knowing what they went on to accomplish. This book presents golden memories of Olivia Plummer, Regina Ramsay, Ruth Dix, Joyce Landorf, Dale Evans, Wanda Jones, Marianna Slocum, Millie Dienert, Charlyne Haden, Marj Saint, Thelma Elfstrom, Lila Trotman, Darlene Swanson, Betty Truxton, and Vonette Bright.

Kooiman ended with an evangelical appeal packaged as a “Cameo” of “You, the Reader, Plain Jane,” who she assumes is not a Christian. It seems unlikely that many non-Christians would have wanted to read a book like this, but perhaps a few did.

I’d like to take this opportunity, though, to remind Christian readers that in real life, if you assume that anyone you meet outside of your church is not a Christian, and needs to hear about the “Four Spiritual Laws,” two types of people are likely to be offended: (1) people who belong to other religions and would have told you if they’d wanted to become Christians, and (2) people who are Christians and think that that should have been obvious to you. In a book it’s pardonable for an author to assume that people are not Christians when, in fact, they probably are. Writers never know who may pick up a book. People who know how to read English, have not yet been persuaded to become Christians, and would like to be so persuaded, probably do exist. In a long and active life I’ve never actually met one, but it’s always possible that a book might fall into the hands of one. But in real life we should try to avoid making assumptions about the religious identity of people we don’t know well.

Next question: Would reading these ladies’ “cameo” testimonies be likely to make anyone want to become a Christian?

I really have no idea. Some of the ladies were young and pretty enough that men might have wanted to  join the churches they attended, if they hadn’t been married, but they were. As I read Cameos I did not feel these stories having much effect on my Inner Child from 1968.

Books, as well as family influence, did have some effect on the development of a “spirituality center” in my adolescent brain: I’d been reading The Living Bible shortly before contemplating the beauty of springtime and having the falling-in-love-with-God moment at thirteen, and at fourteen, when I’d felt tried and needed to reaffirm the commitment I’d made, a popular novel that didn’t impress literary critics (I don’t think even the movie version of The Silver Chalice impressed Christian-phobic Hollywood much) was just what I needed to read. If The Living Bible and The Silver Chalice can contribute to the “making” of a Christian, probably anything can.

Nevertheless, Cameos went against the cultural tide of its day. If it appealed to any young woman in 1968, before she’d had time to see where the hippie and left-wing-feminist movements were going, she must have had an awfully off-putting experience with those and probably other social movements that appealed to Bright Young Things who wanted to be “free to be me.” Churches, for their part, tended to be hotbeds of the same censorious conformism that “Help Wanted—Female” jobs and left-wing-feminist groups tended to foster. It took considerable fortitude to “dare to be square.”

I’m not even sure that Cameos would have helped encourage that hypothetical young lady of 1968. Olivia Plummer comes across as having married beneath her, and being resigned—not a message likely tohave appealed to the would-be free spirits of 1968. (Her type of message did much to reinforce a message I was getting primarily from my mother’s illness: a woman was better off single.)

Ruth Dix, the missionary doctor, had an exciting life but in 1968 her story could only be told with a heavy wrapping of “Of course no ordinary woman should even think about training to be a doctor, so whether you’re a Christian or not, this is a very exceptional woman. Your life won’t be like hers at all.”

Joyce Landorf had a long, inspiring career as a Christian singer before writing one book, Irregular People, that was good enough even to be read outside the denominational publishing ghetto—in the 1980s—but her missionary effectiveness was always undercut by her focus on Emotional Problems. One thing I did appreciate, in Cameos, was its glimpse into Landorf’s and her first husband’s early lives and the experiences that caused them to focus on Emotional Problems—they had had them. In 1968 their testimony was about surviving a marriage so disastrous that, unbeknownst to each other, both of them had been seriously plotting suicides or “suicide attempts” for which they hoped their mates would be blamed, at the same time. It’s a lively story, and illuminates where they got that emphasis on Positive Thinking; it does not lend nearly so much credibility to Positive Thinking as Landorf seems to have hoped.

And then, Dale Evans, the superstar of that era…Wanda Jones, at least a star of considerable magnitude… no "Plain Jane" reader could have expected her life to have much in common with theirs...

And so it goes. With hindsight, as a Christian who’s enjoyed some of the later work of some of the younger women in this book for a long time, I enjoyed these Cameos of the way they were when I was too young to read their work. Without that hindsight, without years of thinking of them as foresisters and teachers and role models, I’m not sure that I would have been interested in “meeting” them through this book.

But now, in 2017, I can say that this book represents a tiny baby step toward the liberation of a few individual women, back when American society had agreed that women ought to have education and civil rights, but many women remained unsure what to do with their rights. Some of what these ladies were saying, at the time when non-Christian women were “consciousness-raising” about whether any woman could or should even try to sustain any marriage to any man, still tends to make my flesh creep. “If that’s what being a Christian wife and mother is all about, heavenforbidandfend—it may not be enough to avoid ever becoming a wife or mother; I may want to avoid ever becoming a Christian! Breathing oxygen may be more than I want to have in common with Olivia Plummer!” Times have changed. These Cameos show what the younger, more successful Christian ladies profiled in this book succeeded in changing about what’s expected of Christian women and what Christian women have to expect.

We've come a long way and I'm glad to report that Helen Kooiman, now Hosier, is still alive--and on Facebook!--to see it. I wish some of the women profiled for this book were, too.

Cameos is a Fair Trade Book. To buy it here, send $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment to the appropriate address from the bottom of the screen, from which I'll send $1 to Helen Kooiman Hosier or a charity of her choice. Six books of this size would probably fit into one package and if you ordered six copies the price would be $35, or $36 online. You can order books by different authors, as many as will fit into the package, for one $5 shipping charge; feel free to browse around this web site, which has been featuring a book review almost every day for years.