Writer Biography Book Review: Lives Like Loaded Guns

Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's FeudsLives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds by Lyndall Gordon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s always hardest for me to review books I loved. But this is one of the best books I’ve read in a while, and I was blown away by how enthralling it was when I’d expected something a bit dry and academic. Lyndall Gordon’s exquisite research allows her to vividly depict all the characters who populate Emily Dickinson’s life, making them so real that I felt compelled to return again and again.

Lyndall Gordon’s most significant contribution is probably the new light she casts on Emily Dickinson in this work, painting her not as the typically “shy”, demure recluse, but as a strong woman in touch with herself and what she wanted, able to stand up against her family’s manipulations, and even pull a lot of the strings herself behind the scenes. Lyndall posits a medical reason for Emily’s reclusiveness, and she makes a strong case for it — although it seems likely that a condition that may have begun as medical could have certainly developed a psychological component over time.

Because Gordon characterized the early lives of Emily’s families and friends so well, the tension that creeps into the family when Austin begins his affair with Mable Todd is heartbreaking. The betrayal made me ill. And although Gordon seems to make an honest attempt at an even-handed telling, she comes across as more sympathetic to Susan’s side of the divide — as was I. I listened to this book on audio, so when I was done I got the hardcover from the library so I could see the photos. And I stared at the one of Mable Todd for a long time — she really was stunning.

The last 1/4 of the book or so, which chronicles the battle for Emily Dickinson’s legacy, was less interesting to me. But the ending still left me feeling incredibly satisfied, so I can give no fewer than five stars to this biography. It even has me investigating the possibility of a trip to Amherst!

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