Corrections or additions?
This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the December 6, 2000
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Those McPhee Girls, In Words & Images
Back in the 1970s, Pryde Brown recruited several of
her young daughters to help her on some consciousness-raising
Looking at dozens of children’s readers, she asked them to count and
classify images of girls. How many images could they find that
girls as active players in their own lives? How many showed girls
as passive custodians of hearth and home? This was back in the days
when Dick would likely be the one running, jumping, and exploring,
while Jane kept herself clean, the passive custodian of home and
"That was a seed planted in all of us for this book," says
grown-up Martha McPhee today.
Now three of those former girls — sisters Jenny, Laura, and Martha
McPhee — have collaborated on a word and image book of their own.
And the picture they paint of girls as active captains of their own
lives is dazzling in its depth and variety.
Daughters of photographer Pryde Brown and Pulitzer Prize-winning
author John McPhee, the sisters are co-authors of "Girls: Ordinary
Girls and Their Extraordinary Pursuits" (Random House; $30). All
three sisters host a book signing at the Princeton U-Store, 36
Place, on Saturday, December 9, at 2 p.m.
"Girls" is comprised of original photographs and life stories
— both their own and those of the many strong girls around the
country who they interviewed. The three sisters criss-crossed America
for two years discovering the spirit, hopes, and heartfelt pursuits
of girls today. Their book introduces female wrestlers, investors,
social activists, barrel racers, chess players, painters, and
offing insights and photographs that reveal the energy of young women
today and tomorrow.
"We drove across America to talk with girls," Martha explains,
"girls from a variety of landscapes and communities and ethnic
backgrounds — ordinary girls pursuing passions and dreams. It
was our desire to look at average girls — not prodigies, not
— and to make a record of the extraordinary things girls do, and
of the drives and desires that lead them to do those things."
Spokane, Washington, Phoenix, Arizona, Minneapolis,
Minnesota, Sacramento, California, and Newark, New Jersey, are among
the locations where they met and interviewed today’s girls, ranging
in age from 6 to 19. The result is an intimate account of American
girls told in their own words and through Laura McPhee’s eloquent
Although photographer Laura McPhee is known for her environmental
color landscape work that she painstakingly creates on a big view
camera, Martha explains that she has always done a lot of
portraiture" of the family, which she calls her "family
This new book about today’s girls has provided the framework for many
much older family images of the authors and their families of
"We are a family of girls — five sisters, a strong-minded
mother, and an even stronger-minded grandmother, Thelma, who would
have you believe that our family was made only of women," says
Martha McPhee, in an interview from her home in New York City.
Catherine Brown [Pryde Brown’s mother] was a great storyteller with
a huge imagination. She thought of herself as the matriarch in a
Laura’s portrait of Thelma Brown, with granddaughters Martha and Joan,
taken — to judge by the fishnet stockings — in the 1970s,
gives a powerful sense of this woman’s love and strength and the
she brought to her flock of girls.
"There were five sisters in the family, not to mention a mom,
step-mom, and four stepsisters," says Martha, a graduate of
High School and Bowdoin College, with an MFA from Columbia University.
Martha McPhee, whose first novel "Bright Angel Time," was
published in 1997, lives in New York where she and her husband, Mark
Svenvold, both work full time as writers. Svenvold is a poet and
currently working on a non-fiction work about the afterlife of a
turn-of-the-century outlaw whose body was preserved in arsenic and
sold to a traveling side show. "It’s a quirky history of the 20th
century, a history of the underside of American entertainment,"
she says of the work in progress that is due to be published in about
a year. She is close to completing her own second novel, tentatively
titled "Farther India," with plans in her head for both her
third and fourth novels.
Collaborating on the project were Laura McPhee, 42, mother of a
daughter, a photography professor at the Massachusetts College of
Art. Her most recent publication, in collaboration with Virginia
is "No Ordinary Land." Jenny McPhee, 38, is a writer and
from Italian who just completed her first novel, "The Center of
Things." She is also the mother of two young sons. Martha is the
fourth youngest of the sisters, followed only by Joan Sullivan, whose
photograph at various ages also appears in "Girls." Sarah
McPhee, second oldest and the other non-collaborating sister, works
as an architectural historian in Atlanta.
As they traveled and talked to girls, the McPhees encountered girls
with strong ambitions who take for granted that they have the same
opportunities as boys. They met girls whose passions became a tool
for self-discovery, generating the self-confidence and discipline
to follow their dreams.
More akin to memoir than straight non-fiction, "Girls" is
divided into five sections, each with a different theme, and each
introduced with a story from one of the sister’s own family memories.
"Imagination" profiles girls with solitary pursuits like
writing, and composing, and includes a pageant of New York City girls
dressed in their Halloween fantasies. "Performers" focuses
on girls who act, dance, sing, and rap, like Tiffany Jones.
explores today’s female athletes, from an ice skater and a Greco-Roman
wrestler to a Navajo long-distance runner. "Unity" profiles
girls who are working in groups to make a difference in their
and their worlds. And "Savvy" recognizes girls who have
in math and science.
"Jennifer Williams, a brain tumor researcher, is probably one
of the most extraordinary girls we met," says McPhee, speaking
of one of the young women featured in "Savvy." "She was
12 years old, living in rural Weatherford, Texas, with parents whose
ambition for her did not go beyond marriage and kids. Then she saw
a television show about the human brain. She announced this was the
most beautiful thing she’d ever seen and she wanted to learn about
it. Within a couple of years she had gone live with her aunt in
where she knew she could get a better education. When we interviewed
her she was 18 years old, and already working on brain tumor
The sisters began work on the book in fall, 1997, and
spent two years together working on it.
"We started collaborating when we were children," says Martha,
"and since then we had always wanted to collaborate again. All
of us are artists and we had always wanted to look for something that
"We were impressed by the negative image of girlhood that was
presented in the media, with its constant references to anorexia,
bulimia, self-mutilation. Our perception — from girls we knew
and from our own girlhood — was different. And we wanted to look
at what was right with girlhood, rather than what was wrong with
"These are completely ordinary girls, with ordinary problems in
their lives, who simply have a passion that they pursue. It’s just
the focus where we’re shining the light."
Some girls are represented by pictures and essays, others simply by
Laura McPhee’s photo portraits.
"It was an exploration. We didn’t really understand what we were
going to find. We were hoping to find something positive, but the
experience just started to open up our vision of girlhood and the
lives of girls. However hard it is to pursue an interest intensely,
these girls are doing it. These girls may not end up doing what
doing now, but they gain so much confidence along the way."
"It’s not all rosy, but I feel strongly that they have a much
better shot at it than people who don’t pursue their passion,"
"When I was a girl I couldn’t even think about being a writer.
I wasn’t very good in school because I was always so distracted. And
I never allowed myself to believe writing was something I could
Mixing professional and family matters is always a challenge, but
a three-way collaboration among sisters sounds like a serious stretch.
McPhee says there are ups and downs when you’re working in a
partnership for the first time with two older sisters whom you know
only too well.
"There were lots of fights," she admits, somewhat reluctantly,
when we fell into our 20-year-old roles.
"I was the youngest, and so I’d be accused of acting like the
youngest. Sometimes we’d accuse each other of being just like mom
or just like dad. But the oldest are just bossy. For most of my life
I’ve been trying to do everything for the bosses."
The book closes with images redolent with the promise of new life:
a picture of Martha’s belly, hugely pregnant; a portrait of baby
McPhee; and finally a portrait by Pryde Brown of Martha McPhee’s first
child. This image of daughter Livia Svenvold McPhee, born in February,
closes the circle — for the time being.
— Nicole Plett
Place, 609-921-8500. A book signing by Jenny, Laura, and Martha McPhee
co-authors of "Girls: Ordinary Girls and Their Extraordinary
Free. Saturday, December 9, 2 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
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