Artist profile: Rosina Lippi shares new ‘Wilderness’ novel

Bellingham author Rosina Lippi, writing as Sara Donati, talks about "The Gilded Age” Sept. 1 at Village Books.
Bellingham author Rosina Lippi, writing as Sara Donati, talks about "The Gilded Age” Sept. 1 at Village Books. The Bellingham Herald

Bellingham writer Rosina Lippi’s book “The Gilded Hour,” the newest in her “Wilderness” series, which she writes using her pen name of Sara Donati, delves into the lives of two descendants of her famous characters Nathaniel and Elizabeth Bonner from the series.

Set in New York City in 1883, physicians (and cousins) Anna and Sophie Savard are caught up in tumultuous social and political upheavals — the wave of immigrants, Anthony Comstock’s anti-vice crusade, and women’s rights.

Lippi will talk about the book at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 1, at Village Books, 1200 11th St. More on her: rosinalippi.com.

Question: What inspired this novel?

Answer: I got the idea for the novel from my grandmother’s story, which was something like the story of the Russo children that launches the novel. Reading about Italian immigrants in that period, I ran across other bits and pieces, including the juxtaposition of tenements teeming with disease (my great-grandparents seem to have died of smallpox, which could have been prevented by vaccination) and the huge fortunes being consolidated in a dozen families on the backs of the Chinese and Irish building the railroads.

The Vanderbilts were especially guilty of conspicuous consumption. The party described in the novel did take place, to celebrate the building of an ostentatious house, one of many owned by the Vanderbilts. During this same period, some 35 percent of all children died before their fifth birthday. There were an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 homeless children on the streets on Manhattan.

Q: What were some other issues that you wove into the story?

A: This was also a time when the patriarchy was getting a stranglehold on woman’s health issues. Anthony Comstock really did pursue physicians who prescribed birth control and put some of them in jail. A poor woman, Irish or Italian, was stuck: her church was telling her to have as many children as possible (whether she could feed them or not), but social theory was developing in the direction of what would become eugenics. She had the church on the one hand, and on the other hand she was made to feel dirty and unwelcome and unworthy. Stuck in the middle were female physicians, who were starting to come into their own. But it was slow going.

So this is how various threads came together — the fate of immigrants, especially children, public health issues, the role of female physicians in carrying things forward, reproductive rights, technological advances. And New York City was just incredibly interesting at this point — between wars, still dominated by horse-drawn vehicles and gaslight, but electricity and the telephone coming on fast.

Q: How did you think of the metaphoric title?

A: The gilded hour is a reference to the gloaming or the fleeting period before sundown, when everything glows. Whether it should or not.

Q: What surprised you as you conducted research for the novel?

A: I suppose on some level I must have known this, but it still shocked me: Surgeons operated with their bare hands. With the eventual, and in some quarters, ridiculously slow acknowledgment that antisepsis was essential, doctors had to sterilize their hands and forearms many times every day with a 5 percent carbolic acid solution. Yikes.

In 1883 they started experimenting with rubber gloves, but it took another 15 years before they could come up with something that could be used in surgery.

Reach Margaret Bikman at 360-715-2273 or margaret.bikman@bellinghamherald.com. Read her columns at bellinghamherald.com/behind-the-scenes.

Rosina Lippi, writing as Sara Donati, shares her new novel, “The Gilded Hour”

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 1

Where: Village Books, 1200 11th St.