Title: The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons, from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder
Author: Erin Blakemore
Release date: November 2011
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Genre: Nonfiction; literary criticism
Format: ARC (paperback)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Recently, I’ve been looking back on some of my favorite books from childhood–especially old and new stories about smart, strong women. It’s good to know that I’m not alone in my reminiscing; Erin Blakemore, for one, often returns to her well-worn copies of girlhood classics.
“Our favorite authors and their plucky protagonists have much to teach in times of strife,” she writes. Blakemore proposes that reading a book is the perfect antidote to the hassles life sends your way–and some of the best books to read in those times are the childhood classics that have been faithful friends through the years.
Even those who may not be in Blakemore’s target audience–I, for one, don’t need to be convinced of the healing power of a good read–will still find this slim volume valuable. Blakemore revisits her old favorites in search of the heroic qualities that readers have emulated for centuries.
These traits, and the heroines who exemplify them, include:
- Elizabeth Bennet’s unshakeable sense of self in Jane’s Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
- A fervent faith like Janie Crawford’s in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God
- Anne Shirley’s happiness in Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
- The unbreakable dignity of Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple
- The importance of Francie Nolan’s family ties in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
- Claudine’s unabashed indulgence in Colette’s novels
- Scarlett O’Hara’s fighting spirit in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind
- The unerring compassion of Scout Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
- Laura Ingalls’s simplicity in The Long Winter
- The steadfastness of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre
- Jo March’s unadorned ambition in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
- The power of Mary Lennox’s magic in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden
Blakemore’s survey of books written by women with strong female main characters examines both those authors and their heroines in equal measure. One theme running throughout the book is the adversity faced by these female authors.
For many of the few female authors whose works are considered classics, the road to literary success has been a bumpy and often unhappy one, studded with tarnished reputations, illness and death, poverty, inequality, and strained relationships with family, friends, and loved ones, to name a few. Yet, as Blakemore points out, these women manage to imbue their characters with compassion, joy, faith, and countless other qualities. In that sense, the work they have done is truly heroic, even if they were less than successful in their personal lives.
Sometimes Blakemore goes a little too far in ascribing authorial intent in a work; at times, a chorus of the voices of past English teachers rose up inside me, protesting, Is Harper Lee’s main character Scout really “a stand-in for her mysterious author”? According to whom? In that vein, I would have liked to see a list of references from Blakemore’s research, especially since now I’m much more interested in the lives and motivations of some of my best-loved authors.
That being said, this is a very fun and provocative book that sheds light on how some of our favorite classics came into being, and why they have endured through the decades and centuries. As a writer, I found the short histories of the authors’ lives inspiring. I particularly identified with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s statement, “I can’t write things that are worth reading if I never see things which are worth seeing, or speak to people who are worth hearing.” That precisely mirrors the very reason I began reading in the first place: to learn more about the world around me.
The Heroine’s Bookshelf is guaranteed to return you to times (and bookshelves) past, leaving you to reflect over fond memories of reading and, if you haven’t read some of these titles yet, searching for your own copy of these girlhood classics.
Quotes of Note:
I think I shall come out all right. . . . I will make a battering-ram of my head and make a way through this rough-and-tumble world.
-Louisa May Alcott
November 15: The Lost Entwife
November 17: Bookstack
November 18: Books and Movies
November 22: The 3 R’s
November 23: A Musing Reviews
November 29: Good Girl Gone Redneck
November 30: Book Addiction
December 1: Reviews from the Heart
December 5: Book Drunkard
TBD: Books Like Breathing