Hooray! It's Women's History Month! I love historical fiction. I write historical fiction. These two facts are something of a miracle, considering that I grew up disliking historical fiction.
OK, let's back up a little bit here. As I have said in (way too many) other posts, I am a compulsive
reader. I have always loved history, although not the kind that in my social studies books. According to those texts, the only important women in American history were Molly Pitcher (who may not have been a real person), Betsy Ross and Dolly Madison. Their contributions to history were (maybe) bringing water to soldiers, sewing a flag, and rescuing George Washington's portrait in the burning of the White House during the War of 1812.
There had to be some other women who were famous for somewhat less domestic feats. Lots of us of "a certain age" fell in love with biography reading those Childhood of Famous Americans books, which I just discovered are still being published. Ah ha! Here were the female role models I was looking for; astronomer Maria Mitchell, Mary Lyons who founded Mount Holyoke College, Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female American physician, Annie Oakley, Olympian Babe Didrickson, choreographer Martha Graham. My all time favorites are still Clara Barton and Amelia Earhart. These women broke the rules, stood up to society, danced their own dance, went where no woman had ever gone before (sorry Star Trek fans.)
But what does all this have to do with historical fiction? A lot. When I was in elementary school, female characters in historical novels were far and few between. Granted, the very nature of society before the mid-20th century relegated women to the most passive of roles in both life and fiction.
Fictional boys tamed wild animals, survived in the wilderness, rode the Pony Express. Girls sewed samplers, looked after siblings and were pretty much under domestic house arrest. Not only that, but girls were rarely the main characters. Finding a female character who didn't spend the whole story dipping candles and churning butter was a true treasure. I still own The Cabin Faced West by Jean Fritz (autographed, too!). The main character, Ann, appealed to me because she missed her old home when her family moved to the Pennsylvania frontier. My family moved a lot, too. Also, Ann was the first character I encountered who kept a diary! The minute I returned Ann's story to my third grade "class library shelf," I was off to Woolworth's to buy my first diary. (A side note here; not only is The Cabin Faced West still in print, it's also an e-book! Not to shabby for a book published in 1958.)
There was Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, who roughhoused with her brothers, and played pranks on her sissy girl cousins. In one memorable episode, she wins a logrolling contest. Caddie was my kind of girl!
Like every other girl I knew I worked my way through Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series. I learned a lot about hog-skinning, sewing samplers (again!) and making molasses candy. OK. Fine. Laura was a tough minded girl who frequently got in trouble for her "boyish" ways. As far as I could tell, the only "boyish" thing about Laura was her determination to what she wanted and not always as she was told. The series seemed awfully predictable to me; Mary, the good sister, Laura, the "naughty one", stern Ma, fun-loving Pa (who I never once imagined to look like Michael Landon) and lots of bad crops, insect plagues and unfortunate weather.)
I had just about given up on the Ingalls when I came at last to The Long Winter. At long last, Laura's strong mind and sturdy body took front and center as she and her father kept the family alive during an endless winter of blizzards in the Dakota Territory. I was right there when Laura and Pa twisted straw "sticks" to burn when the fuel ran out; when scraped together a family Christmas celebration out of nearly nothing. And I really was there when Laura just loses it after weeks and weeks of being trapped in the house with her family.
Things seemed to be looking up on the historical fictional heroine front. For awhile.
There were still gutsy girls aplenty, ploughing the prairie, disguising as boys to join the Army, surviving every kind of disease, plague and catastrophe imaginable. But slowly, these girls did not so much seem to be girls of their own time, but rather 20th century girls dressed in quaint clothes.
I am not going to "name names" here. Many of these books are hugely popular, award-winning books written by authors far better known than I. However, it chaps my hide to read a book that supposedly takes place in the Middle Ages...and the main character not only knows how to read and write (something very few people of either sex could do), but talks to her parents in a manner of a sitcom teen. Or educated women in the American wilderness, don men's clothing and work along side them. I know that women did work in the fields (although they wore dresses), but these women were considered to be lower class, because the family couldn't afford field hands. They were pitied rather than admired for their ability to pull a plough.
This "modernization" of historical fiction is one of my pet peeves. In fact, I wrote my master's thesis on the subject. I've had many a debate with classroom teachers over the validity of these very popular "historical" books that are anachronistic in spirit. Teachers tell me they love these books because they make history "accessible" to their students. I contend that these books are not history at all. What students are learning is that for thousands of years people have always thought and believed in the manner of 20th century middle class Americans. Not true! (Stop me before I start ranting.)
Perhaps the tide is turning again. Here are some of my favorite books that I believe to be true to the time of which they were written; true in detail, speech and most importantly, societal attitudes. (And yes, sometimes those attitudes are not political correct, but historically accurate nevertheless.)
The best book I have read in the last five years is Ruta Septys' Between Shades of Gray. I cannot even begin to describe it other than to say that it pulls no punches, and that I never once felt that I was anywhere other than WWII Russia.
Here are some other gutsy girls whose authors felt that telling the truth was more important than dumbing down history for the sake of accessibility: Nory Ryan's Song by Patricia Reilly Giff, Prairie Songs by Pam Conrad, Anya's War by Andrea Alban, Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson, One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams, Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher, What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell, Lyddie by Katherine Patterson, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, Francie by Karen English, So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins, My Louisiana Sky by Kimberly Willis Holt,
I hope you will send us your favorite historical fiction females. You know me. I'm always looking for that next great book!
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman