As I constructed this, my newest book, I wove my way through the handwritten letters of my great-grandmother, my grandmother and my grandmother, whose lives span the last half of the nineteenth century through the last years of the twentieth.
I soon realized that my narrative would not only quote these letters and supply the historical context. It would also depend on my ability to read between the lines.
Decorum and denial united to suppress some vital elements of personal and historical truth for these three women. My great-grandmother Sallie (for whom I am named) and my grandmother Helena could never mention or even refer obliquely to the facts of their femaleness, the crises of puberty, childbirth and weaning, the eternal questions about the meaning of sex.
This blanking out is, in my mind, related to the blanking out of inconvenient historical facts: slavery, for Sallie, the African-Americans slaves who waited on the family in their Richmond house and on their two plantations were devoted servants, members of the white family; for Helena, the descendants of these slaves were grotesques, nearly useless as helpers because of their ignorance and what she would have called their shiftlessness; for my mother, in the era of integration, these essential figures were not mentioned at all.
So the heart and soul of my book lies in the vibrant silences I heard between the lines, silences that translated themselves into words as I wrote. The Blue Box does not share the soft glow that softens the details of so many family histories; its light approaches a glare. For, when I chose to write about upper-white women in Virginia, I knew I was making a choice in many ways alien for me; I have always been more interested in the lives of the people, largely women, who according to our culture do not count.
Sallie, Helena and especially my mother Mary believed devoutly that they did count, in their families, and in their communities. Perhaps they could only maintain the stance of privilege by ignoring much of what was happening around them during decades of violence and injustice; perhaps denial seemed worth it or even essential to their social survival.
Now I invite my readers to read what I found between the lines, where I believe the truth exists.
— Sallie Bingham, July 2014
Praise for The Blue Box:
The Blue Box is more than a memoir; it’s an historical account of the legacies, heritages and travails of three generations of Southern women. Contemporary readers may be unable to identify with the attitudes and mores of the women in Bingham’s book (and may, at times, find those beliefs uncomfortable), but in the women’s minds, they were obeying a long-standing system that had been effective for centuries. While the “system” was all they knew, they attempted rebellion through the written word. They were resilient, strong and keenly protective of their families, yet they took liberties prohibited for their class at that time – writing essays and opinions outside the norm. Bingham has woven these words into an accurate portrayal of historical events that encumbered many women of this time and presented them to us in the living language of complex and exquisitely-preserved letters. Sallie Bingham’s meticulous and comprehensive work gives us a glimpse into another world – previously frozen in a “cornflower blue” time capsule.
“Fiction-writer Bingham (Mending, 2011) made waves in her earlier family memoir, Passion and Prejudice (1989). Here she explores the lives and letters of three previous generations of women in less tell-all mode than tribute. She makes wonderful use of primary sources to piece together the lives of her great-grandmother Sallie, born during the Civil War in Virginia; Sallie’s daughter, Helena, who raised numerous daughters herself; and, finally, Mary, whose Radcliffe education and long courtship reflect the changing times of the 1920s. Although this chronicle gets weighed down in detail, Bingham’s fine sentences move the reader along. It is her admiration for the writing of her forebears—and the link that a love of letters provides between generations—that drives this tribute. She also takes time to stress the effects of southern patriarchy on these women, and it’s interesting to see the progression out of those constraints after several long generations. Bingham also appropriately acknowledges the racial and class injustices that these privileged, white women represent or, more likely, espoused. Her mindfulness is further proof of that progress.”
“In the modern world of emails, Skype and a decided lack of handwritten correspondence, Bingham’s box of documents traverses time, offering insights into a world of women who knew their own minds long before the word feminist was ever considered.”
“…replete with domestic detail and provides insight into what hard work it was to be a Southern belle. The author’s family history is easy to read but not frivolous. Issues of race, privilege, and class arise, as does the ugly topic of money (or lack thereof) in this colorful snapshot of Bingham’s family. Fans of women’s history and devotees of Southern family sagas will enjoy taking this detour into nonfiction territory.”
“What if we all opened these hidden ‘blue boxes,’ as Bingham has so expertly done, and read women’s stories not as trivialities but as vital pieces of our country’s history?”
“Sallie Bingham’s newest book, The Blue Box: Three Lives in Letters… is a treasure in every respect.”
3.5 rating based on 13 ratings (all editions)
Author(s): Publisher: Sarabande Books
This family history centered around three women from three generations spans the Civil War through the Jazz Age. Fans of Sallie Bingham's work will especially appreciate her parents Mary and Barry's romance that unfolds in letters and finally results in marriage. Bingham beautifully demonstrates an inheritance of emotion, morality, ideology, and most lasting of all, irreverence.
Sallie Bingham has published four short story collections, four novels, a memoir, and several plays. Bingham was a director of the National Book Critics Circle, and founded the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Sallie Bingham Archive for Women's Papers and Culture at Duke University.