Following the Pun’s Lead
By Gwen S. Clarke
Does obsessively reading books with strong female protagonists make you a heroine addict?
Before I shine some light on the subject of heroines, I hereby plead guilty to a pun addition. Some of the best – and worst – are on a Facebook page called: Punmanship: A Salute to Bennett Cerf and other inveterate punsters. Easy to join; you just have to be comfortable knowing that when a quip is referred to as “a groaner”, it’s a good thing.
Back to the original question, which might cause me to wonder if I am politically correct in my reading material. Present day, adding the suffix “ism”, to the always popular word “sex”, has rendered the root word as inflammatory as it was in the Victorian era. I started looking back at my track record as a reader to be sure I was giving women their due.
Where better to begin, than in our own figurative back yard? I can’t imagine a stronger protagonist than Orlean Puckett, who was the subject of Karen Cecil Smith’s 2003 biography, THE LIFE OF A MOUNTAIN MIDWIFE. No sterner stuff could be expected from any one of any gender than this Carroll County resident, who lived to the age of 95, traveling throughout the rugged reaches of the area around what is now Mile Marker 189.9 on our Blue Ridge Parkway to deliver more than 1,000 babies . Before she became a midwife at age 45, she gave birth to and buried 24 babies of her own. The book’s window into life around 1937 also looks at the construction of the Parkway, and Fred Handy, one of its workers, who walked backward from Deep Gap to Cumberland Knob, planting stakes every 15 feet to denote the road edge for the pavers who would follow. Stern stuff, across any gender barrier.
In a Deep South version of the Lizzie Borden story, Virginia writer Sharyn McCrumb’s beloved fictional heroine, Nora Bonesteel carries the day in THE DEVIL AMONGST THE LAWYERS. In the same mid-thirties time period, Nora takes her Gift of Sight to a Wise, Virginia trial, in hopes of giving an advantage to a cousin who is covering the trial as a fledgling reporter. The true story of the Kingsport, Tennessee hanging of a rogue elephant is blended into McCrumb’s parade of “familiars”.
Neither fiction nor real-life has produced a stronger female character than that of Eleanor Roosevelt, as told by Doris Kearns Goodwin in the Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography, aptly titled NO ORDINARY TIME. Though the character of her husband as president carries the book, throughout it, the First Lady is often the eyes, ears, and most definitely, the legs of FDR. Her innovations, crisis intervention, and public persona, including her newspaper column, “My Day”, leave little doubt that she could have seamlessly stepped into the role of president when he died, mid-term, at a crucial time in America’s history. Her public life, happily for the nation, did not end with the president’s death, further evidence of her intelligence and drive.
Based on actual events, author Amy Stewart pens a fictional take on a real-life heroine, in the form of a pioneering female police officer aptly named Constance Kopp. Within its pages are reproductions of actual Ithica, New York newspaper clippings from pre-war years ( pre-World War One, that is!) that give Constance true credibility. Happily for the reader, GIRL WAITS WITH GUN is followed by LADY COP MAKES TROUBLE and MISS KOPP’S MIDNIGHT CONFESSIONS with witty writing as icing on the cake. A disapproving maid in the sheriff’s household had “a little pursed mouth that looked like it hadn’t found much to say”. Reading doesn’t get much more fun than Ms. Stewart’s historical fiction.
Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey’s enduring A WOMAN OF INDEPENDENT MEANS has been inspiring readers since 1978. The tale of heroine, Bess Steed Gardiner, born into privilege in the last decade of the nineteenth century is told via letters. Though Bess may have become a bit imperious in her old age, the details of her assuming command of her own destiny place her on the bow wave of gender equality.
Obviously, it’s quite easy to get a heroine addiction. Pun intended.