Lately the books I’ve been reading have been all about the strong female lead. Last fall I lined my book shelf with some of Indigo’s Heather’s Picks, which usually suit my taste, and other ‘hot’ books of the season. What a pleasant surprise then, when I get through the winter – and a few of my books – to discover a common thread lining each of the books I’ve read in the past few months. These stories were written around some of the strongest, unconventional female characters I remember encountering.
Often, fiction I consume takes the point of view of a woman, but the roles women take in fiction set in the past and present aren’t always in celebration of what we as women are capable of. Having just given birth, the most empowering trial I have ever accomplished, I recognize and admire strength in women unlike ever before. Which is why devouring these stories of the adventures of women in past times and exotic places suits me so well right now.
In the reading of these stories, I paused and wondered about the women and the challenges they face. Each took a crisis and approached it in a way that went against the social mores and behaviours expected of women during the time of the novel — or even today. In reading these stories I am struck by the quandary of how to navigate gender roles and social norms with my children. How can I be sure that my children aren’t felled by the limits of social constructs and the expectations and judgements of others? This will be my life’s pursuit in raising my children, but in the meantime there’s nothing like a good book, and the sharing of the stories of others (while I call these books fiction, two of these books are based on true stories and real lives).
What is the benefit of my children being exposed to stories of strong women? So that daughters know that women can choose roles for work and leisure outside of that traditionally regarded women’s work. So that sons know women too can venture to exotic lands and lead extraordinary, adventuresome lives. I want for them to be nurtured in a world where women are seen as strong, and capable.
My children will know the stories of their aunt, who visited many far away and dangerous places before she came home to cultivate a simple life as a farmer’s wife. She rode elephants and camels, saw pyramids and great walls. She evaded danger in the Serengeti and sought riotous celebrations on the beaches of Thailand. I hope that they know how brave she was then and that she continues to be so regardless of the setting she finds herself in.
Here’s to the strong females in books and in our lives.
The first book you will recognize from my Winter Reading post. Please forgive me the repetition, but it’s worth revisiting. If you haven’t yet done so, add these book to your reading list.
The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah:
This novel captivated me from the start and I found myself enjoying long winter naps with Finn for more reading time. Entertaining, to be sure, The Nightingale is meaningful in that it calls to mind how the experiences of a generation come to shape it. Set in German-occupied France during World War II, this novel follows the hardship, sacrifices and survival of two sisters in wartime.
I found myself ashamed at the comparative extravagances we enjoy today as I read of mothers going without food — year after year during wartime — so that their children might eat instead. Of women who stuffed newspapers between the layers of clothing and endless cold in winter. Of loss and courage and endurance. I easily empathized with the sisters in this novel as I thought of my own sister. And her daughter. Oh, my heart ached as I imagined us in place of these characters. This novel provides many insights into the ways that women participate in wartime – participation I never learned of when I first began studying history.
“Men tell stories … Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.”
Kristen Hannah in The Nightingale
In a story saturated in bravery, the character this novel was named for has a difficult time staying within the limitations of gender roles during wartime. The younger sister in this tale is dismissed by her youth and the outrage she feels at France’s occupation. Rather than submit, this woman fought back with bravery – and some recklessness – but ended up contributing to the war efforts in an incalculable way at a time when women were expected not to participate. She among others in this story are inspiring to read about.
Other recommendations:A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead (non-fiction), Sarah’s Key by Tatiana De Rosnay (also a film)
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman:
The Marriage of Opposites takes place during the early 1800s in tropical St. Thomas, where a community of Jewish families have settled in escape of persecution in Europe. Reading this novel in the midst of winter was made all the easier by its tropical setting. The story follows the perspective of Rachel, and later her strong-willed son who lives outside of social conventions in the image of his mother. Rachel is regarded as a son by her father, who educates her in family business matters and whose rich collection of books inspires in Rachel a dream of returning to the streets of Paris depicted in the beautiful maps she pours over with him. Her father’s favouritism, her strong-willed nature, and her free-willed, unladylike behaviour strains Rachel’s relationship with her mother. Really, though, it’s through the different loves in this novel that Rachel shines as a woman living contrary to the customs of her time. It’s not only romantic love in which Rachel bends social acceptability, but also the love shared with her children, friends and parents. Through each of these relationships, Rachel navigates obligation and duty, expectation and custom, and forges a story and a life of her own making.
Other recommendations: The Dovekeepers and The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman
Circling the Sun by Paula McLain
As usual with the best of books I read, when I finished this one, the world of the story remained in my head. That the main character, Beryl, lived these experiences makes this story so fascinating. When I was a child, I had this reoccurring dream about a cat person standing on two hind legs like humans under the street light. So I had an image ready in my head for Beryl who is described as cat-like in her walk, which speaks of her close affiliation with nature. Wild, and animal-like in even her mannerisms, this character fascinates me. She lived one of those rare lives that had her sitting for dinner alongside British princes in one moment and living in poverty, sleeping in stalls amongst the horses, and fleeing ex-husbands in another. Beryl was the first woman derby horse trainer, the first woman pilot, and she bravely flew across the Atlantic at a time when it was an enormous risk to do so. She was extraordinary. With little formal education – life was her tutor – she wrote the events of her life in a book that barely sold, mainly because no one gave her credit for her accomplishments, a tendency that played out time and again in a world that wasn’t ready for a woman to push social code and dare to behave like a man. Meanwhile, Beryl was simply in search of a world in which to be herself.
Other recommendations: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
Often when I finish a really compelling book, I have to give it a few days for the vividness of the world the book created in my mind to fade enough to allow another to take it’s place. When I finish a book as good as these, it usually takes more time than usual to put aside the characters and storyline I was swept up in. Sometimes I wonder whether I’ll come across other characters as compelling as the ones I’ve found in these books recently, but I usually do. Do you find it hard to let go of a really good read? What are some books you’ve been loving on lately?