Great literary heroines are strong, smart and often sassy
Great literary heroines are strong, smart and often sassy. Remember Jo March in "Little Women," Elizabeth Bennet in "Pride and Prejudice" or Janie Crawford in "Their Eyes Were Watching God"? These are characters who resonate, to whom we can return over and over, gleaning life lessons from their stories.
"The Heroine's Bookshelf," by Erin Blakemore, is a tribute to literature's kick-butt ladies and the authors who created them. It is an adorable little book that combines author biographies, a bit of memoir and a collection of essays examining popular literary characters and why we love them.
While I found the analyses of the characters insightful and engaging, I especially enjoyed the background on the authors. When I was a kid, I loved "Anne of Green Gables" and "The Little House" series, but I knew nothing about Lucy Maude Montgomery or Laura Ingalls Wilder. I liked learning how the authors' own lives inspired their writing and the heroines who made them famous.
Every chapter is named for a character trait, such as dignity, compassion, steadfastness or ambition. In each, Blakemore explores a character who she feels exemplifies this trait, and offers parallels from her own life and the author's life. At the end of the chapter, she lists "literary sisters," books with similar themes or heroines.
Jane Eyre's literary sisters include Mrs. De Winter in "Rebecca" and Catherine Earnshaw in "Wuthering Heights." Blakemore also identifies life events for which the novel may come in handy. After the "Steadfastness" chapter, in which she discusses Jane Eyre, she suggests revisiting the novel after a breakup or when you are not sure whether you can handle another bombshell. I'd add that it is also the perfect thing to read if you find out the man you love is already married and storing his insane wife in the attic of his mansion.
The chapter "Faith" looks at Zorah Neal Hurston and her character Janie Crawford in "Their Eyes Were Watching God." Blakemore gives a brief biography of Hurston that illustrates Hurston's own faith in God and in herself. She describes Hurston's childhood of poor health and neglect, as well as later years of poverty, racism and brutal physical abuse. However, Hurston's faith and perseverance led her to becoming the only black student enrolled at Barnard College in 1925, as well as a rising star during the Harlem Renaissance.
Hurston was both a cultural anthropologist and a storyteller with interests in religions, superstitions and the struggles of the poorest blacks, particularly women. Blakemore describes "Their Eyes Were Watching God" as a testament to the beliefs that drive a heroine to rise above herself and survive everything the universe can throw at her.
Throughout Hurston's book, Janie finds strength and confidence in her faith. That faith helps her face emotional starvation, heartbreaking loss and a hurricane with quiet dignity. Blakemore makes connections between this literary heroine and the lives of modern women. She describes the strength she herself finds in Janie and suggests ways for readers to see a bit of Janie in themselves.
"The Heroine's Bookshelf" is a fun and interesting read. Readers don't have to be familiar with all the books or authors in the collection to enjoy it. I enjoyed the essays on books I hadn't read just as much as I enjoyed hearing Blakemore's take on my old favorites. This is a great book for teenage girls as well. In a world of Brittanys, Lindsays and that needy girl from the "Twilight" series, it is good to remember that inspiring role models exist in classic literary heroines and their creators. Blakemore's book is a new favorite for me, and one I think I will revisit on occasion, just as I often find myself returning to visit old friends such as Scout Finch and Jane Eyre.
Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.