When I want to engage with an inventive mix of realities and possibilities, what we are touched with what we might have been or what we might become, I look to fantasy and science fiction. But when I want to engage with the realities of where we are now through the lens of where we have been, I look to historical fiction and, very occasionally, nonfiction. Women’s place in history has always fascinated me — how they impacted it, how they coped with and/or defied restrictions placed on them. Women have always been complex individuals with lives worth exploring, even if their times and places haven’t been willing to recognize them as such. As another March draws to a close, I’d like to share some recommendations to help readers who share my interests keep the spirit of Women’s History Month alive in their minds and hearts.
Caleb’s Crossing (Geraldine Brooks)
Set in mid-17th century Martha’s Vineyard, this novel tells the story of the observant and insatiably curious Bethia, whose hungry mind keeps trying to escape the bonds set by the well-intentioned men whom her world grants authority over her. The “Caleb” of the title is a young Native American man with whom Bethia forges a friendship, who chooses to “cross” the racial/ethnic divide and embrace the Anglo-European culture he realizes will prevail in his land. Brooks’s quiet and well-crafted narrative shows how Bethia and Caleb sacrifice vital parts of themselves in order to survive in the world in which their “places” are rigidly defined. The prose gracefully evokes both the confining strictures and pastoral beauty of its setting.
Bitter Greens and The Wild Girl (Kate Forsyth)
These excellent novels mark Forsyth’s move away from the traditional fantasy style of The Witches of Eileanan and Rhiannon’s Ride series and toward an examination of the fairy tales that provide much of the genre’s foundation — how the stories were preserved and set down, and how they exert an ongoing influence. Bitter Greens is a blend of fantasy and historical fiction, a retelling of “Rapunzel” set in Renaissance Italy and the story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the delightfully unorthodox 17th century French aristocrat who composed her own retelling of the tale. The Wild Girl is straight up historical fiction, the story of Dortchen Wild, who contributed stories to the Brothers Grimm’s Nursery and Household Tales and later married Wilhelm Grimm. Both depict the value and the vitality of stories, and offer portraits of vibrant, creative women who played a crucial role in preserving those stories for posterity.
Hild (Nicola Griffith)
Some books contain prose so beautiful you almost ache when you read it. One such book is this portrait of a young woman in early medieval England both blessed and cursed by the Sight, valued as a well-born daughter who might make an advantageous “peace-bonding” match and suspected as a woman who knows more than she should and never quite manages to fit in. We see through the eyes of the brilliant, introspective, and often confused Hild as she confronts the responsibilities her visions give her and her own burgeoning sexuality. Because of the Sight, this book skirts the line between fantasy and historical fiction, but since less emphasis is placed on the supernatural elements than on the very detailed evocation of time and place, I would class it as the latter.
The Golem and the Jinni (Helene Wecker)
Even though the heroine and hero are a golem and a jinni, bookstores never shelve this beautiful novel in the fantasy section. The fantasy elements are a bit stronger here than in Hild, but the historical fiction fan will find much to enjoy in the vivid picture of two neighborhoods in turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York: the Jewish corner where the golem makes her home and the “Little Syria” the jinni inhabits. Along with our supernatural stars we get to know a dying rabbi and his social activist son, a socialite with dreams too big for the fate in store for her, an ice-cream seller who once glimpsed something forbidden and has suffered for it ever since, and a host of others. Though Chava the golem is a fascinating figure, for my money the novel’s real heroine is Wecker herself, whose prose will take a reader’s breath away. Well worth the time, in both print and audiobook.
Founding Mothers: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation (Cokie Roberts)
This engrossing nonfiction work offers a look at the lives of a number of prominent women of Colonial and Revolutionary America. Roberts gets things rolling with a description of the life of Eliza Pinckney of South Carolina, that shows us how far from passive and uninvolved her life was and how vitally women like her contributed to the life and culture of their country. In the course of the book we spend time with a number of remarkable women, among them Abigail Adams (a personal heroine of mine, an advocate for an education that would have allowed girls like Bethia to develop their intellect to its full potential), Mercy Otis Warren, Martha Washington, Deborah Franklin, Sally Knox, and Catharine “Kitty” Greene, each of whom proves a capable and courageous woman in exciting and challenging times.
Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales (Valerie Paradiz)
I read this piece of nonfiction before The Wild Girl came into my hands, and I was delighted to see Kate Forsyth cite Paradiz’s work as a source of inspiration as well as detail for her novel. Not only did Dortchen Wild tell stories for the famous brothers to set down in writing; all her sisters did as well, along with many other women from different social strata in early nineteenth-century Germany. Here again we see women whom the “bigger” history books ignore leaving an indelible mark on the culture not only of their own time but of countless generations that have followed.
Lastly, take a look at Kameron Hurley’s essay “We Have Always Fought: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle, and Slaves’ Narrative,” which shows in compelling, persuasive detail that women’s roles in history are far more varied and complicated than some might prefer to think. It’s a well-known essay. You may have read it before. It’s worth a re-read.
Happy Women’s History Month.