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In brief

‘Suspicion Nation,’ ‘The Scarlet Sisters,’ ‘The Fishing Fleet’

SUSPICION NATION: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It

By Lisa Bloom

Counterpoint, 318 pp., illulstrated, $25

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The 2013 trial of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin lasted only a little over a month. But its legacy will be considerably longer and, to many, deeply discouraging. For attorney and author Lisa Bloom, one thing is crystal clear: The prosecution bungled things by mismanaging witnesses, failing to present key evidence, and allowing the jury to deliberate without ever hearing a clear state’s version of what happened “that dark, wet night in that small Southern town.” Prosecutors represent the state, not the victim; still, Bloom writes, they can and should be his voice. In this case, she argues, “Trayvon Martin did not get a fair trial. Not even close.”

The first half of Bloom’s book, in which she dissects the trial itself, is riveting and quick-paced in the manner of all courtroom dramas. She proposes alternative ways of handling key witnesses and invents a far, far better closing argument than the one prosecutors used. By the time Bloom has taken us through her second theme — the violence and destruction that occur when fear and prejudice meet guns and overly broad self-defense laws — it’s hard not to despair as it seems certain there will be more Trayvon Martins in a “culture where guns blaze and our children fall.”

THE SCARLET SISTERS:Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age

By Myra MacPherson

Twelve, 432 pp., $28

When Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin arrived on Wall Street in 1870 to open their own brokerage firm — the first owned and operated by women — the groundbreaking event announced the arrival of “the most dazzling and flamboyant sisters in American history.” Self-invented and brilliantly self-promoting, the two young women each sported a gold pen behind one ear; within a few months they launched a second venture, publishing Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, a journal that cloaked “radical text in a circumspect format.” There they promoted causes including women’s suffrage and free love, with a few nods to their beloved (and profitable) old occupation, Spiritualism.

In this sweeping, engaging new biography of the sisters, Myra MacPherson chronicles lives that intersected with nearly all of the era’s great themes and famous figures — from a grim childhood in thrall to their father, a “one-eyed snake oil salesman,” to Victoria’s career as a feminist upstart and head of a “quixotic and symbolic” presidential ticket in 1872, to Tennessee’s eventual marriage to a titled English gentleman, one of the country’s wealthiest. The sisters spent a lot of time in court, including defending their Weekly from obscenity charges brought by anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock, as well as testifying in an adultery scandal involving the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe). For their outspoken opinions about women’s rights, abortion, religion, and prostitution, both women were frequently derided as prostitutes, or worse: cartoonist Thomas Nast portrayed Victoria as “Mrs. Satan.” Both moderated their views (sometimes disavowing them entirely) after moving to England and marrying rich men. Still, MacPherson argues, they were ahead of their time. “Victoria and Tennessee said that one’s private life was none of anyone’s business, especially the clergy and lawmakers. Activists say the same today, but the fight goes on.”

THE FISHING FLEET:Husband-Hunting in the Raj

By Anne De Courcy

Harper, 352 pp., illustrated, $26.99

It began with a demographic mismatch: too many unmarried young women in England, a glut of “eligible, financially secure bachelors” serving the British Empire in India. Thus was born the fishing fleet — thousands of well-born women (some as young as 16) sailing from England to India in search of husbands during the years of the British Raj (1858-1947). For some, it was a return trip — generations of colonizers sent their children to be educated in England — to a beautiful land they loved, but also one in which luxury and hardship co-existed. Courtships amid an endless round of “dances, concerts, polo matches, picnics” gave way to marriage and motherhood in sometimes lonely outposts; fever and other illnesses were epidemic, perhaps unsurprising among expats who clung to familiar ways, including corsets and flannel undergarments in 120-degree heat.

Quoting abundantly from letters and diaries, De Courcy vividly sketches the lives lived in this strange limbo, where “[t]o stay English, in a land so alien to English culture, required the cultivation of some of the most English of virtues.” While the book is richly entertaining throughout, one can’t help noticing the glaring absence of Indian voices; they are not heard from, nor (with tiny exceptions) are Eurasians, born of mixed English and Indian parentage to face lifelong proscriptions on their educational, professional, and social status. This sympathy with “the idealism that inspired the best of the Raj,” as the author puts it, limits her ability to address the ugly realities of empire — those experienced not by an aristocratic smart set of Englishwomen, but by the Indians themselves. Ultimately, the book feels like gorgeous wrapping meant to distract from an irredeemably awful gift.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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