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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

research.

Looking at dozens of children’s readers, she asked them to count and

classify images of girls. How many images could they find that

depicted

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

hearth.

"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

non-fiction

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

University

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

ballerinas,

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

geniuses

— 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

black-and-white photographs.

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

"exquisite

portraiture" of the family, which she calls her "family

work."

This new book about today’s girls has provided the framework for many

much older family images of the authors and their families of

yesterday.

"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.

"Thelma

Catherine Brown [Pryde Brown’s mother] was a great storyteller with

a huge imagination. She thought of herself as the matriarch in a

matriarchy

of granddaughters."

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

continuity

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

Princeton

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

author

currently working on a non-fiction work about the afterlife of a

little-known

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

four-year-old

daughter, a photography professor at the Massachusetts College of

Art. Her most recent publication, in collaboration with Virginia

Beehan,

is "No Ordinary Land." Jenny McPhee, 38, is a writer and

translator

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

painting,

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.

"Game"

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

communities

and their worlds. And "Savvy" recognizes girls who have

excelled

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

Phoenix

where she knew she could get a better education. When we interviewed

her she was 18 years old, and already working on brain tumor

research."

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

was right."

"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

it."

"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

they’re

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,"

says Martha.

"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

pursue,"

she admits.

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

professional

partnership for the first time with two older sisters whom you know

only too well.

"There were lots of fights," she admits, somewhat reluctantly,

"usually

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

Isobel

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

The McPhee Sisters, Princeton U-Store, 36 University

Place, 609-921-8500. A book signing by Jenny, Laura, and Martha McPhee

co-authors of "Girls: Ordinary Girls and Their Extraordinary

Pursuits."

Free. Saturday, December 9, 2 p.m.


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