Monday, December 12, 2011

Nonfiction Monday: The Thinking Girl's Treasury of Dastardly Dames

A companion set to the Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses, the Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames introduces us to six powerful women with a reputation for dark deeds. 

Each book introduces the subject’s story, with maps and historical information and photographs included. Sections on clothing, food, wealth and other historical segments are also interwoven within the character’s story. 

Cleopatra “Serpent of the Nile” is presented with the well-known facts of her life, but Mary Pack goes deeper to find the true queen behind the legends and presents Cleopatra as a powerful woman who struggled to keep her kingdom alive and independent of Rome. 

Agrippina, daughter of Roman general Germanicus, had a complicated life, but Shirin Yim Bridges does a good job of explaining the convoluted politics of Rome, including the rise and fall of Caligula and Nero, as they affected Agrippina. A final section, “How dastardly was she?” is included that debates which evil deeds Agrippina was really responsible for.

Mary Tudor, known as “Bloody Mary” is given a fresh viewpoint in this account which puts her brief and bloody reign into the context of her miserable childhood and the violent age of the Tudors. Additional information is included on the controversy between Catholics and Protestants and comparisons of Mary’s evil deeds with those of her contemporaries.

Catherine de’ Medici, the “Black Queen” of France, first experienced violence when a rebellion left her as a hostage with a precarious future at the age of eight. She had high hopes of a better life when she was married to Prince Francis at the age of 11, but she was considered an outsider and a commoner at the French court. Although Catherine eventually found acceptance, her popularity for the innovations she introduced and the heirs she bore for the throne was short-lived as rumors of poison and black magic destroyed her reputation. Catherine eventually took power and ruled for her young son, but the infamous massacre of Huguenots that she master-minded set off mob violence across the country which she could not control. She was finally overthrown by her son and ended her days the most hated woman in France.

Marie Antoinette, another foreign-born French queen, had an equally unhappy childhood and introduction to France, but unlike Catherine she was naïve and helpless, thinking that once she had produced an heir, despite her husband’s disinterest, she had done her duty. Her extravangance when France was starving led to her death during the Revolution and her reputation as a hard-hearted, impulsive, and spendthrift queen.

Cixi, “The Dragon Empress,” was happy to become a concubine at the Chinese court, escaping her miserable childhood. Bearing the emperor a son raised her to high status and when the emperor designated her son as heir and she herself as co-regent with Empress Ci’An before his death, she became the first woman to rule the empire in a thousand years. Rumors of poison and intrigues constantly circulated around Empress Cixi, whose cruelty and extravagance fed the unrest of the people. Peasant uprisings gave Western powers a reason to attack and Cixi was forced to flee. She died shortly after the destruction of the massive Summer Palace and Forbidden City. Was Cixi responsible for the deaths of the royal family? No one knows for sure.

Verdict: These stories of powerful women with reputations for bloody and cruel deeds are told with a wealth of historical detail, art, and many fascinating additions on clothing, food, and daily life. I would have liked to see sources or additional information for the sometimes colloquial stories included and I thought it was too bad they didn't pick more obscure characters, as in the Real Princesses, but this is a good introduction to a variety of strong women characters in history. Recommended.

Cleopatra "Serpent of the Nile" by Mary Fisk Pack, illustrated by Peter Malone
ISBN: 978-0983425601

Agrippina "Atrocious and Ferocious" by Shirin Yim Bridges, illustrated by Peter Malone
ISBN: 978-0983425618

Mary Tudor "Bloody Mary" by Gretchen Maurer, illustrated by Peter Malone
ISBN: 978-0983425625

Catherine de'Medici "The Black Queen" by Janie Havemeyer, illustrated by Peter Malone
ISBN: 978-0983425632

Cixi "The Dragon Empress" by Natasha Yim, illustrated by Peter Malone
ISBN: 978-0983425656

Published September 2011 by Goosebottom; Review copies provided by the publisher through Raab Associates

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