For Women’s History Month this year, I’d like to highlight the way fiction can take a real person’s life and help fill in the gaps about what we historically know, using imagination in order to bring that person’s story back. In particular, since the historical register generally focuses on men, women’s full lives were often elided or ignored in the historical record, and thus in history class and history books. Here, then, is a small sampling of novels by women writers bringing back to full, bright life women from history.
Jubilee by Margaret Walker
Grounded in decades of research, Walker tells the story of her great-grandmother Vyry, the child of a white plantation owner and an enslaved woman on his plantation. Through Vyry’s experiences the reader sees life in pre-Civil War Georgia, wartime deprivation, and the promise and hard reality of Reconstruction.
Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel is based on the life of China’s Empress Wu (624-705), China’s only, and often vilified, ruling female emperor. Randal takes us from Mei’s childhood, when it is prophesied that she will be the mother of emperors, through her father’s death and her introduction to the intrigues of the royal court. The story concludes with a second novel, Empress of Bright Moon.
Crossing the Horizon by Laurie Notaro
After Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight but before Amelia Earhart, three women were each determined to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. English heiress Elsie Mackay, wealthy widow Mabel Boll, and Southern beauty queen Ruth Elder’s stories have all but been forgotten, but here Notaro brings them back to life. She also weaves in the thrill of early flight with details of a decade in transition, as the 1920s saw women get the vote and battles raged over hemlines.
Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister tells the story of Kate Warne, the first female private detective. In the 1850s, widowed Warne was hired by Allan Pinkerton as the first female agent at Pinkerton Detective Agency. Macallister treats the reader to a series of Kate’s cases, including successes and mistakes, as she proves herself and becomes responsible for a department of lady detectives.
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman
Hoffman imagines the life of Rachel Pomié, mother of impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, as she grows up the headstrong daughter of Jewish refugees on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas in the 19th century. We see her struggles for autonomy; her marriages, first out of duty and then out of love; and the way her life and actions shaped Pissarro’s artistic drive.
Looking for more? Becoming Madame Mao by Anchee Min recreates the life of Mao’s wife Jiang Chang. Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg tells of Mazie Phillips, who helped New York City’s poor and homeless during the Great Depression. Michelle Moran writes the gripping story of infamous spy Mata Hari in Mata Hari’s Last Dance. Inés of My Soul by Isabel Allende follows Ines Suarez from Spain to Chile in the 16th century. Hild by Nicola Griffith imagines the 7th century life of St. Hilda of Whitby.
~ posted by Andrea G.