Although all novels are fictitious, many are based in full or part on real facts. They often detail genuine historic times and the lives of real people. I find I often enjoy novels more than true autobiographies or biographies about famous people. They weave the history of remarkable lives into story—which is often more engaging and enjoyable to read. As a woman, my favorites are about other women. I like reading about how they became the heroine of their own lives and not the victim, of how they juggled the problems of multiple roles and the minority status of being a woman to reach for more and to accomplish more. Audre Lord once wrote: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” Books about women who have overcome obstacles, made their way in the world against unusual odds, or bravely chosen an untraditional route for their lives inspire and empower other women to also reach for more.
For my November blog I wanted to spotlight some books and novels that tell the stories of some remarkable women. The ones below are contemporary books, some set in the past, some more biographical than others, but each tells the story of a woman who followed a different drummer to a unique destiny. It should be remembered that this is never an easy road for any woman to follow and the success of any woman who makes a difference and leaves a legacy should always be celebrated.
The first book I remember reading about a remarkable woman was actually about a young girl on the brink of womanhood. Her name was Anne Frank and the book I read was a diary Anne kept—which of course was not planned as a book to be published. Annelies Frank, called Anne (1929-1945), gained fame after her death through the publication of her diary in ANNE FRANK: THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL. As a Jewish girl, thirteen-year-old Anne penned her thoughts in a dark time of hiding during the German occupation of her Amsterdam hometown. After two years Anne’s family was found, arrested, and sent to Auschwitz, and later to another concentration camp where Anne died. Anne’s diary was found, given to her father after the war, and eventually published. … Most know this story as the book became a classic and was made into a film. But to me as a young girl reading Anne’s dairy brought a time of history alive to me in a painful, personal way. For Anne’s private account made me “feel” and imagine that time in a way history book accounts never did. In addition, Anne’s incredible optimism in a harsh, cruel time, her desire to “think of all the beauty still left” and her belief, in spite of the evil and cruelties she saw, that “people are really good at heart” stayed tucked deep into my spirit and still influences my thinking.
From the serious to the humorous, I also loved Ree Drummond’s book THE PIONEER WOMAN: BLACK HEELS TO TRACTOR WHEELS. I discovered and enjoyed this light-hearted novel long before Ree Drummond’s fame rose as high as it is today. The book is a fun and delightful love story of how Anne Marie (“Ree”) Drummond, a city girl, heading to Chicago to pursue a law degree, unexpectedly meets, falls in love with, and marries an Oklahoma rancher. She called Ladd Drummond The Marboro Man throughout the book, making you laugh at the unlikely match Ree makes to a fourth-generation rancher on a remote, 430,000 acre spread. The book shares the hard transition Ree faced in settling in to this new life, the teasing, the adjustments, and the difficulties –all in a warm-hearted story … The book doesn’t share the story that follows, though—and I’ve always wished Ree would write another. Extroverted and hungry for company, Ree started a blog later in her life, around raising four kids, feeding cowboys, and living on her Oklahoma ranch. Amazingly, it took off like gangbusters. The blog’s popularity soon morphed into a TV show and a stack of cookbooks, all filled with Ree’s own recipes and personal photographs of her home and life on the ranch. Today, more success has followed, and Ree and her family have a restaurant, hotel, retail store, and bakery in Oklahoma along with a huge fan base. Although many people have seen Ree’s TV shows or picked up one of her cookbooks, I’ve found that few people have read her personal novel and how it all began… so look for this book and expect a lot of laughs and smiles!
Another humorous novel I very much enjoyed is by Peggilene Bartels, who is the reigning chief of the town or Tantum (or Otaum) in Ghana, Africa. As a young woman in her twenties, Peggy moved to the United States to work as a secretary at the Embassy of Ghana in Washington DC. Amazingly after she had worked at the embassy for nearly thirty years, she got a letter one day, and then a phone call, telling her that due to a death in her family that she’d become “king” of her hometown village of 7,000 people in West Africa. “You are now the new king of Otaum!” the caller told her. The novel tells Peggy’s story of returning to her village and taking up the difficult job of becoming a ruler in what she soon learns is a very problematic situation. This is a wonderful story about what one woman with courage and determination can do. Be sure to read this one for a peek into a very different culture from ours in America. You’ll love it.
Stepping back into the past again, I also greatly enjoyed a novel celebrating the life of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a Black woman who was President Abraham Lincoln’s wife’s dressmaker. The book MRS. LINCOLN’S DRESSMAKER is written by Jennifer Chiaverini, a New York Times Bestseller. The story dips into the very private life of Mary Lincoln, and her family, from the fictional perspective of her dressmaker and trusted friend. It’s a marvelous story, spanning a lengthy period of history, and following the relationship of these two women into the White House, through the trials of the Civil War, and almost to Mrs. Lincoln’s death. Other books have been written about the unlikely friendship of Elizabeth and Mary but this was my first to discover. Elizabeth, a former slave, who endured great hardship in her earlier life, became not only a skilled seamstress and friend to Mary Todd Lincoln, but established a successful dressmaking business, became a civil activist, an author, and served on faculty at Wilberforce University in Ohio. For a glimpse into a slice of history you might not know much about, this is an interesting, well researched and well-written book.
Another novel about a remarkable woman I enjoyed reading was THE AVIATOR’S WIFE, by Melanie Benjamin, about the early life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. In my review of the book on Goodreads I wrote: “A really interesting fiction and history mix about Anne Morrow Lindbergh – Charles Lindbergh’s wife – and the daughter of the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. After they married, many do not know that Anne learned to fly like Charles, traveled with him on many flights, and became the first licensed female glider pilot in the U.S. I liked learning more about the Lindberg’s lives … and about Anne’s life. Her book GIFT FROM THE SEA has always been a favorite of mine … but I learned a new side of her in this novel. I loved her spunk in learning to fly with Charles and in being his navigator on many harrowing trips.” The book uncovered aspects of this prominent woman I knew little of. We often assume women of great prominence and wealth enjoy only happiness but they also have their personal trials to battle. Although much of Anne’s life is well known, like the kidnapping of her son, the truths given in this novel were new to me. After reading this book I can more easily understand why Anne wrote: “I would like to achieve a state of inner spiritual grace from which I could function and give as I was meant to in the eye of God. …Woman must come of age by herself … She must find her true center alone.”
When I read GRANDMA GATEWOOD’S WALK I had never heard of Emma Rowena Gatewood (1887-1973). In 1955, she told her Ohio family she was going on a walk but didn’t mention where she planned to go or how long she might stay. She wore sneakers, simple clothes and packed her extra clothing, supplies, an army blanket, an old shower curtain and some money into a pillowsack tote and set off to walk the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail (AT). “I thought it would be a nice lark,” she told reporters later. She was 67 years old, the mother of 11 children and 23 grandchildren, and she became the first woman to hike the AT alone in one season. Emma survived many perils and problems, which the book details beautifully, but the book also delves into the hardships of Emma’s life before she set out on her hike, helping you to see the courage she displayed as a younger woman that she, undeniably, drew on to later hike the AT. I was privileged to meet the book’s author Ben Montgomery, the journalist who gathered all Emma’s story and then wrote it. As a hiker myself, the book was truly humbling to me. I hike and walk only maintained park trails and would never brave, at midlife, the overnights and hardships of hiking the full length of the Appalachian Trail as Emma did. This book is a great read about a heroic woman. Don’t miss it!
I read the book KISSES FOR KATIE with my Book Club group, my first time to learn about Katie Davis Majors. A Nashville Tennessee girl, Katie, with every advantage, was senior class president and homecoming queen, ready to head away to college, when she went on a short mission trip to Uganda. In Jinga, Uganda, the orphan children touched her heart. Against her parents’ judgment and all her friends’ advice, Katie returned to Uganda at the end of her senior year to work teaching with the orphans. Life in Uganda was not easy and the way was hard – and you can’t help but think of Katie’s youth, as you read her story, and that she traveled to Africa alone and without family or friends. But she persevered and in time founded Amazina ministries and fostered thirteen children. “Courage is not about knowing the path,” she wrote. “it’s about taking the first step.” This is a beautiful story of one young girl’s courage to do what she feels God is calling her to do. Katie is now married, has adopted the thirteen children and has a child of her own, and is still working in Uganda. She has also written a second book about her work in Africa called DARING TO HOPE. You will find some beautiful YouTubes of the work of Katie’s ministry on the amazima.org website. This book will really touch your heart.
Another heart-touching book, and a better-known story than Katie’s, is Malala Yousafzai’s in the bestselling book I AM MALALA. When the Taliban came into Pakistan, Malala courageously continued to attend school and to speak out in ways women under the Taliban, were not to do. In 2012, at fifteen Malala almost paid with her life for refusing to be silenced and for continuing to study and learn. On the bus home from school, she was shot in the head at point blank range and wasn’t expected to live. But ten days later she woke up in a hospital in England and after months of surgeries and rehab, Malala made a new home in the UK. She has continued since to vie for women’s rights and in 2014 won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. Every day Malala works and fights for girls to receive safe and quality educations. She wrote, “We realize the importance of our voices only when we are silenced.” Recently, she attained a college degree to better prepare her for more work ahead. “I tell my story not because it is unique,” she says, “but because it is the story of many girls…. Do not wait for someone else to come and speak for you. It’s you who can change the world.”
To close this blog, I want to mention a sweet warm-hearted novel by Richard Maltby, Jr, called MISS POTTER about the life of Beatrix Potter. This book was also made into a movie also titled MISS POTTER and was a total delight, if you haven’t seen the movie, I encourage to find it and to look for Maltry’s book about Potter’s life. Helen Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) was born into a well to do family in South Kensington outside of London, England. Beatrix was smart and industrious and studied under a number of governesses. She and her younger brother Bertram both loved to draw and spent hours out of doors making sketches of their many pets and of the animals around the family’s property. Her parents hired art teachers and Beatrix became an adept scientific illustrator and greeting card designer. In a time when women of her class usually simply married and stayed at home, and when working “in trade” was frowned upon by British society, Beatrix was unusual. Maltby’s book tells all of this story in a captivating way and how Beatrix went on to become as well known and beloved author of children’s books. I loved the special insights in this story of how Beatrix envisioned her book characters as so real that she conversed and talked with them and felt she could even visually see them as she worked. The movie story tweaks a few facts in Potter’s real life, but both book and movie are a delightful look at a talented, unusual, and independent young woman of her time. I love Beatrix’s quote: “I hold that a strongly marked personality can influence descendants for generations” and her more humble comment: “If I have done anything, even a little, to help small children enjoy honest, simple pleasures, I have done a bit of good.”
Happy Reading everyone. I hope you enjoy these and many other books out there about remarkable women who have made a difference in their worlds.
Note: All photos my own, from royalty free sites, or used only as a part of my author repurposed storyboards shown only for educational and illustrative purposes, acc to the Fair Use Copyright law, Section 107 of the Copyright Act.