In the essay “Some Names and What They Mean” from the collection Ladies Night at the Dreamland, Sonja Livingston imagines rescuing three girls who were kidnapped and killed in Rochester, New York, between 1971 and 1973. She imagines stopping her car for the first victim, Carmen, who escaped her captor and ran half-naked through rush-hour traffic only to be recaptured when no one came to her aid. She longs to drive with Carmen into the city to retrieve the other victims, Wanda and Michelle, from the neighborhoods where they were last seen alive.
“I never met them but was of them,” Livingston writes of the girls who were killed. The murders were part of her environment as a child in Rochester in the early 1970s. Like all three girls, Livingston lived with a single mother and several siblings in a working-class Catholic home. (That childhood is the subject of Livingston’s award-winning memoir Ghostbread). She ran errands for her mother just blocks from where the other girls disappeared. Reviving Carmen, Wanda, and Michelle is a personal undertaking for Livingston.
But she is not content when her imaginary car is full. The impulse to rescue and revive propels every essay in Livingston’s collection and demands a larger space—a dance hall she calls the Dreamland, “constructed of memory and imagination,” where “daredevil and poet, singer, slave and social reformer, misfits and models, and girls snatched away in broad daylight” take their turns in the spotlight.
The Dreamland is expansive, and you get the sense that Livingston would give every woman in history her moment on the stage if we lingered long enough to watch. In “A Thousand Mary Doyles,” she resurrects boatloads of eighteenth-century Irish immigrant women in a mere five hundred words. In “Manuela, with a Hip,” she gives voice to a Depression-era woman known only through a letter tucked inside an old book. In “A Girl Called Memory,” she muses over the bearer of a name etched into a headstone.
Livingston writes as well about women who were famous in their lifetimes: Maria Spelterini, the first woman to cross Niagara Falls by tightrope; artists’ model Audrey Munson, whose figure graces municipal buildings around the country; and African-American jazz trumpeter Valaida Snow, imprisoned by Nazis while touring Europe. In these essays, the spotlight probes the woman behind the image. How did Maria Spelterini overcome fear? Who was Audrey Munson when she wasn’t being looked at? What did a young Valaida Snow dream about as a black girl in Tennessee?
We are unlikely to forget the women we encounter at the Dreamland. Livingston is concerned with names and their meanings, and her meditation on the women’s names becomes like a spell for remembrance. But it’s more than repetition that mesmerizes. Livingston’s language enchants us like lyrics crooned by a dance hall chanteuse. From an essay about Adelaide Crapsey, the originator of American cinquain poetry who died of tuberculosis: “Look at you, teasing death into five lines, working it into a string of black beads—even as it consumes you—you know what strength is and hold it and bend it to your will with the work of your hands.”
Form, too, embeds these essays in our memory. There are flash essays, braided essays, an essay in the form of a concordance. “The Goddess of Ogdensburg,” the essay about model Audrey Munson, is arranged as a series of poses.
Livingston’s own presence at the Dreamland makes her subjects feel like people we have always known. The compulsion to save women from obscurity is common in fiction, from historical novels about the wives of famous men to short-story collections like Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women. In nonfiction, women’s histories typically appear as straightforward biography. Working in the creative nonfiction genre allows Livingston to situate her experience of womanhood amidst the lives of other women from other times and places.
The statement “I was of them” identifies Livingston with the murdered girls of Rochester, but it could as easily declare her sisterhood with all of the women in her book. Writing about tightrope walker Maria Spelterini in “The Opposite of Fear,” Livingston examines her own “tendency toward caution” and her habit of “wanting too much from this life.” In “Sly Foxes,” she interweaves the story of nineteenth-century spiritualists Maggie and Kate Fox with her personal memories of adolescent friendship.
And then there are moments when Livingston enlarges the spotlight, and women readers find themselves dancing at the Dreamland, too. From “The Opposite of Fear”: “What about the rest of us? Those of us who stick to crosswalks and curfews and submit to regular cholesterol testing. How to keep from the numbing lull of comfort? How to fly, just for a time, no matter the various bodies of water swirling beneath our feet?”
The Dreamland, after all, is as much a place for flying as for dancing. Livingston resists pinning her subjects to the ground, speculating without presuming to define. In her final essay, “Return to the Dreamland,” the women of the book float and tumble and slip back onto the scene “the way one slips into the undertow of a dream.” They assemble before a photographer, who takes a portrait for posterity—“Best to make that lens wide”—and then they disperse, spilling beyond the page and into eternity.
About the Reviewer
Kim Kankiewicz has written essays and reviews for the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Washington Post, Full Grown People, the Toast, and other publications.