The Germans called them the Night Witches. In World War II they flew planes made mostly of wood and canvas at night, without parachutes or radios.
They were a Russian regiment, a few hundred women as young as 17. In 1941, the Soviet air force became the first in the world to allow women to fly. With bare months of training, in handed-down uniforms, they flew thousands of bombing runs against the Nazis, stalling their engines in the air and gliding in silently.
Novelist Julia Pierpont wonders now why she had never heard of them.
She got to know them as she she researched her newest project, The Little Book of Feminist Saints, she said by phone from New York City. On May 3, she will come to Edith Wharton’s historic home at The Mount with her editor, Caitlin McKenna, to talk about the book illustrated by Manjit Thapp and released in March.
The talk is part of ArtWeek, a festival encompassing 540 events from the North Shore to the New York border, from April 27 to May 6 — a celebration that has gone statewide this year for the first time.
The festival launched in Boston in 2013, through the Boch Center, the nonprofit that manages the historic Wang and Schubert theaters in Boston. They began it to meet artists and communities they might not reach through their stages, said chief of staff Sue Dahling Sullivan, by phone from Boston.
She and her colleagues were mulling over the phenomenon of restaurant weeks, she said, and an NEA study that suggested people are looking for ways to experience the arts directly, to get covered in paint and slip clay and talk with artists. And they created a network of events with local organizations, all hands-on, learning and social — and almost all free.
Over the years, nearby towns and restaurants have gotten involved, lighting up buildings, designing special cocktails and tailoring menus.
By 2017, ArtWeek had spread through 70 communities in Eastern Mass. — and in the last year it has doubled in size. Sullivan has reached out to statewide arts and tourism organizations including the Mass Cultural Council and to regional organizations including 1Berkshire, stretching the network and the events calendar clear to the Taconics.
The Western end of the state has responded, she said. At least 20 organizations across the county will hold more than 30 events, from beekeeping and an open house at the Clark Art institute and an inside look at the collection at Williams College Museum of Art to a walk through Mohican life in the Berkshires at the Bidwell House Museum.
Local organizations have submitted their own events, Sullivan said, and ArtWeek curates lightly.
The full calendar is live on ArtWeek’s website, and in the Berkshires alone it will cover screenwriting, bronze casting, a light show, gallery tours and open studios, plein air painting, and a journaling workshop with illustrator Lisa Cyr at the Norman Rockwell Museum. And more than 70 percent of the events are still free.
Sullivan hopes to encourage people to explore, in their own neighborhoods and across the state, in the late spring, before the full summer season floods in — when the leaves are budding and the ephemeral wildflowers are in bloom, and ostrich ferns are unrolling fiddleheads in Edith Wharton’s gardens.
As their ArtsWeek evening, The Mount will host a behind-the-scenes conversation between a writer and an editor about the publishing world and the process of creating work together.
Pierpont published her first novel, Among the Ten Thousand Things, in summer 2015, to international acclaim. She grew up in a family who talked about women they admire, she said, and one morning she was talking with McKenna about the idea of a book that would tell the stories of women who have loved their lives, done lasting work and changed people and communities, countries … the course of a war.
Feminist Saints is loosely inspired by medieval Catholic manuscripts, Pierpont said. They told the stories of holy men and women as models of strong and beautiful lives.
She went looking for her own models. And she found strong, intelligent women across the world. They are artists and politicians, scientists and revolutionaries.
Looking for ideas, she talked with Thapp, and McKenna, with friends and colleagues. They introduced her to women across space and time, like Barbara Jordan, who became the first black woman in the South, and the first woman from Texas, elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
As she learned about these women and brought their lives together, Pierpont faced a challenge in the form of the book. How should she condense each life into a page and keep it vibrant?
McKenna told her to approach this book the same way she would approach a novel.
So Pierpont introduces each women not in a pocket biography, but with the anecdote she would tell a friend over dinner, a story that brings each women to life for her.
Hypatia of Alexandria, a mathematician and philosopher c. 370 CE, taught advanced geometry and astronomy and built astrolabes to navigate the skies. She opposed the Christian movement to expel the Jews from her city, and she died for it.
“After a day of lectures at the university,” Pierpont writes, “she was abducted by a mob of Christian monks, stripped and beaten in a church, her skin flayed with broken bits of pottery; then her body was dragged outside the city walls and burned. The university and the pagan temples were destroyed soon after.”
Pierpont and Thapp have gathered 100 women who, as she says in the introduction, “made and filled their own spaces — very often, big spaces,” and often when the world they lived in had not allotted them any room to stand.
The book brought her closer to women she thought she knew, she said, and it led her women she had never known. Kanno Sugako, a journalist in Osaka, Japan, in the early 20th century, survived childhood trauma and began a campaign for reform, fighting to end the brothel system. She took over a local newspaper when its editor was imprisoned and survived prison herself, and she was hanged for treason before her 30th birthday.
“Some of these women went through more than others,” Pierpont said, “but in every case they overcame. They kept going. Some were born in places of privilege and had to leave it to lead lives they were proud of.”
Harriet Tubman escaped enslavement in the South and returned more than a dozen times to lead her family and many other men, women and children north on the Underground Railroad. She also led Union troops in battle in the Civil War, in an action that freed more than 700 people.
Sarah and Angelina Grimke, daughters of a plantation owner in South Carolina, moved to Philadelphia and became public speakers in the abolitionist movement. They had worked in the fields, shelling corn and picking cotton, and they had had seen the black men and women around them working and living in harsh conditions.
Some of Pierpont’s secular saints became leaders in their communities, she said. Some did the work they chose and loved.
She is excited to come to the Mount, as a longtime fan of Edith Wharton (who does not appear in the book). Pierpont has loved and re-read Wharton’s novels and stories for years, and felt her influence as native New Yorker writing her first novel about a New York family under intense pressure.
Wharton, writing about family and social pressure, has often been seen as soft, social, delicate , Pierpont said — when in fact she writes with an incredible sharp wit and insight. She looks at the world with humor and honesty that could shrivel pretense and cut to the quick.
She also liked to explore the Berkshire back roads with friends, biking on warm days and telling stories on her terrace in the evenings.
She might share the spirit of wanderers in an art festival that spans the hills — coming across a shoal of painters in a cow pasture, looking at the world with clear and incisive eyes.
This story first ran in the April 2018 edition of the Hill Country Observer. My thanks to editor Fred Daley.