Rise Above it, Darling: The Story of Joan White—Actor, Director, Teacher, Producer and (Sometimes) MotherJudy White Staber
Troy Book Makers, 2022, $21.95
Joan White, who died in 1999, was a consummate professional. On stage, her comedic chops earned her a lifelong harvest of rave reviews; behind the scenes, her directing and producing were likewise lauded, and the erudition and generosity of spirit she displayed as an acting teacher inspired gratitude and devotion throughout the world of trans-Atlantic theater.
Yet Joan White also did something unthinkable to most: As a young, ambitious single mother in post-WWII England, she left her daughters Judy—just shy of four years old—and her sister Susannah, seven, at the Actors Orphanage, a neo-Georgian mansion in Surrey housing “children made destitute by the profession,” and never retrieved them.
Staber spent 12-and-a-half years there, the first few under a harsh administration employing the classic British boarding school terror tactics of rigid hierarchy and corporal punishment. Later on, saner souls took over, and the mansion—called Silverlands—became a happier place to live. (Staber’s memoir of the experience, Silverlands: Growing Up at the Actor’s Orphanage, was published in 2010.) White kept in touch, arriving with one gentleman friend or another in sporty cars on visiting Sundays, taking the girls on various cultural expeditions and visits, but her first priority was undeniably her career.
The pain of abandonment in early childhood to unkind strangers is not something a person can simply rationalize away. Staber, a Chatham resident and multiarts professional, wields a rare emotional courage throughout this biography, blending collegial admiration with honest, anguished disillusionment without letting either aspect overwhelm the story of a 20th-century thespian.
What emerges is an insightful backstage view of the ups, downs, and spin cycles experienced by a serious comedic artist often credited with making good productions great and saving lesser ones from being completely unwatchable; a versatile and gifted actor, director, producer, and teacher. Staber remembers visiting her mother at sketchy flats and in splendid settings, and in later life would experience for herself the realities of being on the road with a production company. It’s an open question what kind of childhood the girls would have had if White had kept them with her through those hungrier early years without making entirely different choices.
That was likely a question White asked of herself, yet whatever answers she arrived at weren’t shared with her daughter. Such parenting as she attempted was curiously tone deaf and thoughtless for someone whose lifework was based on interpreting and portraying human emotion, and she refused to explain to the girls anything much about their father, stage manager Archie Moore—who, it later became clear, wanted to be more involved with his children than White ever allowed him to be, post-divorce.
In her later years, White took to writing her daughter regular letters, and the two would work together more than once on theater productions. It was, of course, too little too late. Staber experienced outright shock when she learned years later that her mother had confided vast shame and regret to a former student turned co-worker; it was not something White ever shared with her. Her devotion to the creative nurturance of other young people, both in the theater and with her grandchildren, stood in stark contrast to her complete lack of any discernible effort to step back into the role of maternal nest-builder during her daughters’ childhood, or offer any coherent explanation after the fact.
Staber’s unsparing honesty, coupled with her unfailing fairness, come together in a deftly and generously told tale that sheds light on the dramatic arts and the drama of atypical family experience in equal measure. One imagines White would be bursting with pride, refusing more than a crumb of credit—but probably, for all of her fearlessness on stage and in the director’s chair, unable to find the right words to fully communicate that pride to her daughter.
That Staber manages to make art of all this is a gift to mothers and daughters everywhere. “Rise above it,” White’s signature catchphrase, is one that this remarkable book reveals to be far more than an empty slogan on both sides of the generation gap, even when it has widened into a chasm.—Anne Pyburn Craig
When the World Runs Dry[image-6] Nancy Castaldo
Algonquin Young Readers, 2022, $16.95
Award-winning science writer Castaldo takes readers from Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey, to Iran and South Africa to explore the various ways in which water around the world is in danger, why we must act now, and why you’re never too young to make a difference. The book covers topics including pollution, fracking, lead contamination, rising sea levels, climate change and more. The book provides a positive jumping-off point for parents to talk to their kids about some of the most pressing problems facing the planet from the Hudson Valley resident and author of many STEM books, including Beastly Brains: Exploring How Animals Think, Talk, and Feel.
Generation Disaster: Coming of Age Post-9/11
Oxford University Press, 2021, $65
Vermeulen, deputy director of the Institute for Disaster Metal Health at SUNY New Paltz, offers an in-depth examination of the multiple stressors that shaped the developmental environment of today’s emerging adults in their youth. Those stressors include all of the societal changes that occurred in the United States after the attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as other threats like the increase in school shootings and other human-caused disasters, worsening natural disasters and concerns about the future due to climate change—and now, a global pandemic. Generation Disaster is chock full of quantitative research, as well as the voices of the emerging adults themselves.
Terra Nova Press, 2022, $26.95
Part thriller, part metaphysical exploration, part screwball comedy, PEN/Faulkner Fiction award winner Zabor’s latest novel is a genre mash-up published by Cold Spring-based Terra Nova Press. Set in the marijuana-growing regions of the Pacific Northwest, Street Legal features a cast of misfits and outcasts. A partial list: a weed dealer who wants to open a cannabis-centric theme park; a frustrated cop who isn’t allowed to collar anyone because the town needs the weed business; a Tibetan Buddhist lama from New Jersey who sounds like Tony Soprano when discoursing on the dharma. Zabor’s characters embody the absurdity and complexity of this mortal coil.
The Hard Sell: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup[image-5]
Doubleday, 2022, $28.95
In the early 2000s, Josh Kapoor developed a novel formulation of fentanyl, the most potent opioid on the market. A brilliant scientist with relentless business instincts, Kapoor was eager to make the most of his innovation and gathered around him an ambitious group of young lieutenants at his startup, Insys Therapeutics. Kapoor’s drug was a niche product, approved only for very ill cancer patients, but the company’s leadership pushed it more widely, deceiving insurance companies and regulators, and together they turned Insys into a Wall Street sensation. In The Hard Sell, Rhinebeck resident Hughes offers a bracing look at how opioids are marketed and sold in the US.
The Broken Tower[image-4] Kelly Braffet
Mira Books, 2022, $27.99
Fantasy veteran and Hudson Valley resident Braffet follows up 2020’s The Unwilling, which told the story of Judah, an orphaned girl with a special gift raised inside Highfall castle along with Gavin, the son and heir to Lord Elban’s vast empire. The Broken Tower begins with Judah having survived her own death, only to find herself in an unknown forest. She is separated from her foster brother, Gavin, with whom she has a mysterious bond that has kept them together—and kept her alive. Judah knows that somewhere, Gavin is in peril. To save him, she not only must learn to use the new power she discovers inside herself, she must survive.