The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons, from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder
Erin Blakemore (Facebook) (Twitter) (Blog)
Harper (2010), Hardcover (ISBN 006195876X / 9780061958762)
Nonfiction/literary criticism/biography, 224 pages
Source: personal copy
Reason for reading: Participation in TLC Book Tour to support the paperback release*
Opening lines (from the Introduction): “In times of struggle, there are as many reasons not to read as there are to breathe. Don’t you have better things to do? Reading, let alone REreading, is the terrain of milquetoasts and mopey spinsters. At life’s ugliest junctures, the very act of opening a book can smack of cowardly escapism. Who chooses to read when there’s work to be done?”
Book description, from the publisher’s website: Jo March, Scarlett O’Hara, Scout Finch—the literary canon is brimming with intelligent, feisty, never-say-die heroines and celebrated female authors. They placed a premium on personality, spirituality, career, sisterhood, and family, not unlike women of today. When they were up against the wall, authors like Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott fought back—sometimes with words, sometimes with gritty actions.
Witty, informative, and inspiring—full of beloved heroines and the remarkable writers who created them—The Heroine’s Bookshelf explores how the pluck and dignity of literary characters such as Jane Eyre and Lizzy Bennet can encourage modern women, showing them how to tap into their inner strengths and live life with intelligence and grace. From Zora Neale Hurston to Colette, Laura Ingalls Wilder to Charlotte Brontë, Harper Lee to Alice Walker, here are authors whose spirited stories and characters are more inspiring today than ever.
Each of the dozen chapters in The Heroine’s Bookshelf focuses on a specific trait–self-awareness, happiness, dignity, compassion, fight, ambition, etc.–and features a classic fictional heroine who exemplifies it. Her premise assumes that these characters are already well-known to most readers, but merit consideration in light of the highlighted trait. Blakemore provides more than character analysis, however; she also talks about the author who created that character and her story. The authors she discusses are also women, and she explores how their own backgrounds and experiences informed the characters they created, although this did not necessarily mean the characters were based on them. Blakemore’s underlying theme is that we are the heroines of our own stories, and she returns to it in each chapter with specific examples of how both author and character exhibit the mindsets and behaviors of heroines. Each chapter concludes with a short list of the circumstances in which a reader might consider revisiting that particular heroine, and some suggested “literary sisters” who might also be worth knowing.
The heroines Blakemore highlights come from both older classics—Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice), Jane Eyre, Jo March (Little Women)—and more recent ones–Scout Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), Celie (The Color Purple). Some are expected choices and others are more surprising, and sometimes Blakemore brings out an element we may not have considered before. However, I was at least as interested in the author biographies as I was in the characters–sometimes, particularly with books I haven’t read, even more so (Margaret Mitchell pretty much rocked). I didn’t expect there to be so much attention given to the creators of the characters featured in The Heroine’s Bookshelf, but I appreciate that there was, and I enjoyed the book more because of it.
One reason that classics are classics is that they continue to be meaningful to readers over time. Although many of the novels we call classics could be considered “historical fiction” now–and some actually do fall into that category–some were utterly contemporary at the time they were written. However, one thing they have in common is that they’re not dated–the themes that frame them are timeless, and perhaps more importantly, so are the characters that their stories are built around. The Heroine’s Bookshelf is a reminder of the continuing value and relevance of some of those characters, and made me want to visit with some of them again.
*Additional disclosure: The publisher provided copies of this book to tour participants to facilitate their reviews. I already owned the book (received as a Christmas gift in 2010) and declined the review copy offered. I was not paid or otherwise compensated for this review.