It may seem a bit odd to celebrate Women’s History Month by talking about fictional females, but here I am. I’ve noticed that I wind up reading a lot of fiction with males in lead roles; I guess it’s all that wizardry, sword fighting, and space travel going on – apparently lots of testosterone is needed. Needless to say, I always find it refreshing when I come across a woman in a book that I’m reading who can play with the boys, sometimes even beating them at their own game. Whether it’s mental, physical, or emotional, I love the strong ladies of lit. Sometimes things don’t work out well for them at the end of their journeys, but reading their exploits can be a welcome change in perspective from chest-thumping bros or hand-wringing ninnies. Here are some of my favorite female leads for those of you looking for a sassy lass or two:
Mattie Ross – True Grit by Charles Portis. Mattie just might be #1 on my list, so I figure she’s a great place to start. Not long ago, a librarian friend of mine challenged me to name an of-age female protagonist from a book, written for an audience older than age 12, who had no romantic or sexual subplot attached to her. At first you wouldn’t think this type of character would be hard to find, but the only person I could come up with was Miss Ross. Mattie spends much of the story as a teen, so that’s not too difficult to explain, but she also ends the book as a wise old spinster. Aside from settling a bet among librarians, Mattie is great for other reasons. She is undeniably the heroine of the story, and throughout shows cunning, bravery, and determination. I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who have never picked up this book, but I think most readers will enjoy Mattie’s particular brand of pluck.
Beatrice “Tris” Prior – Divergent Trilogy by Veronica Roth. If you liked Katniss Everdeen trust me, you are going to love Tris Prior. Unlike Katniss, Tris made the conscious choice to enter a life of danger and adventure. In a post-apocalyptic Chicago, society is broken down into five factions where individuals live according to a core value that they choose to uphold. At sixteen Tris does the unthinkable and opts to leave her humble faction of service, Abnegation, for the daredevil warrior faction, Dauntless. This choice sets off an avalanche of challenges for Tris as she struggles to prove herself as a Dauntless member and gain acceptance into her new faction. The stakes are high, and failure could be fatal. You don’t want to miss this series.
Mina Harker – Dracula by Bram Stoker. In the opening chapters of Dracula, Mina is a single, orphaned, yet financially-independent woman – no mean feat in the late 19th Century. When I first read Dracula, I had to do a double-take on the date of publication because I was surprised by the strong lead role that Mina played. Clearly Mr. Stoker thought that Mina was exceptional as well; at one point he describes her as having a ‘man’s brain.’ Throughout the book, we learn bits and pieces about Mina’s life by reading excerpts from her correspondences and journals. Mina comes across as a very intelligent person – not only perfecting her stenography skills in order to succeed as a legal assistant for her fiance, but also studying his law texts so that she can better help him in his practice when he becomes established as a solicitor. She is an interesting mixture of the stereotypical gentle, subservient Victorian wife and a brave and intellectual heroine, often leading her vampire-hunting counterparts to important clues about Dracula’s location and plans. This mix of femininity and intellect makes her a very believable and likable protagonist.
Amelia Peabody Emerson –The Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters. Last summer I was quoted as saying that I wanted to be Indiana Jones when I was a kid; that was true, but I think I should have added that I wanted to be Amelia Peabody as well. I was in love with the Amelia Peabody mystery series when I was younger, possibly more than I was with the Indiana Jones movies because I could actually imagine being Peabody. Amelia was everything I wanted to be: mature, insanely smart, funny independent, and above all – an Egyptologist at the turn of the century! This was an intoxicating thought to a nerdy little girl who loved to daydream about digging in the sand in a pith helmet and bloomers, and peering through cracks in ancient stone doors with Howard Carter to discover ‘wonderful things.’ Through the magic of fiction, Amelia got to do all of this for me, and was witty and endearing while she was at it. To be fair, the entire cast in this series is wonderful – from Amelia’s ornery beau to their precocious children who arrive later in the series. I’d highly recommend these stories to anyone who likes both a good mystery and historical fiction.
Kat Potente – Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Let me just say, completely aside from the topic of this post, that I fell hard for this book; what an absolute delight it was to read! Even if you weren’t on a quest for a new female heroine I would tell you to grab this book and love it. But back to the topic at hand! Kat Potente enters the scene as the love interest of our male protagonist, Clay, but you soon learn that she is far more than a pretty face. Kat is one of the data visualization whiz kids at Google – a beyond-smart techie who seems to be on the verge of climbing high up the ranks at the internet powerhouse. When Clay becomes obsessed with mysterious goings on at his very unusual place of employment, he turns to Kat to help him find answers through the far-reaching network of information and technology that she has access to through Google. I like Kat because I find her work to be a fascinating look into the near future of where Internet technology, and the digitization of old texts, will take researchers. To a librarian and archivist, it’s tantalizing to see the concepts at play in this book, even if it’s fiction. You know that not far beneath the surface there is a lot of reality in what Sloan is writing about.
A Song of Ice and Fire series (aka Game of Thrones), by George R.R. Martin. Do I have to pick just one? This series is chock full of awesome ladies; my personal favorites are Arya, the young tomboy of House Stark, and Brienne of Tarth, the warrior maiden. Both ladies are fiercely independent, even when it causes them great pain and hardship. Without risking too much in the area of spoilers, I can also let it slip that Caitlin Stark (Eddard’s wife), Osha (a wildling woman taken captive by House Stark), and Ygritte (another wildling woman) play very important and interesting roles in the series.
Of course there are many other fascinating women in literature that deserve a write-up. I’ve tried to include books/heroines that do not get mentioned as frequently in the numerous ‘Women in Literature’ lists that can be found online. I would love to hear about your personal favorites!