Sunday Books & Culture

Reviews of Stephanie Dray’s “Becoming Madame Secretary,” the story of Frances Perkins, the first woman United States Cabinet Secretary, and “Nightwatching,” a debut thriller by Tracy Sierra.

by Stephanie Dray

Published by Berkeley (March 12, 2024)

Hardcover $26.08
Audiobook $14.99

Reviewed by Penny A Parrish  

New York City in the early 1900s was a place of tenements and poverty. Men, women, and children toiled in brutal conditions seven days a week making garments in places like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. On March 25, 1911, that building caught fire, and 146 workers died in the flames or by leaping to their deaths. 123 were women and girls.

Frances Perkins witnessed that event, and it motivated her to help the downtrodden. She lobbied legislators in Albany and politicians in Tammany Hall to install fire safety devices and sanitize the food industry.  

During this period, she met several people who would become important in her life. Mary Averell Rumsey was a socialite who became her best friend and a financial supporter for Frances and her causes. Another was Paul Wilson, who began as a legislative guide but ended up as her husband. Al Smith, four-time Governor of New York was a cohort.

She was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt. And most important, she met Franklin Roosevelt in June 1910. They worked together at the state level in New York and continued their relationship when he was elected President and named her Secretary of Labor in 1933. She was the first woman to be a Cabinet Secretary in United States history. She served in that position for twelve years, making her the longest serving Secretary of Labor.

It was not an easy road. She faced constant scrutiny and humiliation from her male cohorts. Yet she was not afraid to assert her power, even physically going to threatening labor strike sites where she negotiated peaceful settlements.

During the depression, she traversed the country setting up FDR’s programs under the New Deal, providing jobs and food for thousands of Americans.  She kept hearing from people that what they wanted and needed was “security.” Frances, her legal assistants, and FDR fought many battles before winning over Congress and creating what we now know as Social Security.

While serving her country, Frances faced near-overwhelming difficulties in her marriage. Her beloved husband Paul fought mental illness, and her determination to be a mother came at an enormous cost.

Until I read this book, I had never heard of Frances Perkins. The woman’s professional life is well-documented, but she left little information on a personal level. The author fleshed out the life of this remarkable woman in novel form, and it works well. It’s a long book but a great read. 

Penny A Parrish is a long-time book reviewer and artist. Learn more about her by visiting her page at Brush Strokes Gallery, which is in downtown Fredericksburg.

By Tracey Sierra

Published by Pamela Dorman Books (February 6, 2024)

Hardcover $24.98
Audiobook $14.99

By Ashley Riggleson 

Tracy Sierra’s debut novel Nightwatching is a nightmare in a book that is sure to keep readers’ spines tingling.  

Nightwatching follows a mother with two young children, and this creepy story starts with a bang. She is in her child’s room when she realizes there is an intruder in the house. She must protect her children, but how? She has no weapons, and her phone is across the house where the intruder lurks.

Then it hits her—she can use the secret room. Stealthily, she takes the children and heads downstairs. Sierra offers a blow-by-blow account, proving that this novel is scary from the outset. They make it to the secret room, but there is a lot more fear in store.

The mother can hear the intruder looking for them, and she soon realizes that this is no random incident. This intruder knows her family. She struggles to decide what to do and how to keep her young children quiet, and after what seems like hours, she makes the risky decision to venture outside and get help.

To make things even more challenging, they are in the middle of a blizzard, and the mother must venture forth without all the proper clothing. And, although many novels could end here, Sierra’s whip-smart novel is just getting started. 

One of my favorite crime novels is A.J Finn’s The Woman in the Window, and I have been on the lookout for similar novels ever since. Tracy Sierra’s Nightwatching is the best fit I have come across. This novel explores many of the same themes, and both authors’ books comment on the way women are perceived, especially in the aftermath of significant trauma. While Nightwatching is, above all, a page turner, readers will also certainly find themselves enraged at the way the outside world treats Sierra’s protagonist. 

My one critique about this novel is that there is a minor plot hole. I will not say more for fear of spoilers, but it was enough to pull me out of the story to question why this element was, to my knowledge, not addressed. Sierra’s novel is quite ambitious for a debut, and ultimately, I chose to forgive this minor error. 

I finished reading Nightwatching a few weeks ago, and the novel, with its fast pace and well-drawn characters, has stayed with me. It is one of the most visceral, edge-of-your-seat thrillers I have read in some time. So much so that I am sure that even seasoned thriller readers will be impressed by Sierra’s auspicious debut, and I cannot wait to see what she does next. Nightwatching marks the beginning of an illustrious career. 

Ashley Riggleson is a free-lance book reviewer from Rappahannock County. When she is not reading or writing book reviews, she can usually be found playing with her pets, listening to podcasts, or watching television with friends and family.

by Martin Davis