Features / Five in Bloom

FIVE IN BLOOM: Strong Women and Complex Heroines

by Rachel Leal and Juhi Singhal Karan

In honor of National Women’s History month, we bring you five novels written by Bloomers that feature strong female characters. Whether these women are warriors in battle, mothers in peril, or quiet pillars of strength, they all represent the strength and versatility that women throughout history have displayed.

Cold Mountain
By Charles Frazier

The women of Cold Mountain—Charles Frazier’s debut novel, published when he was 47—defy stereotypes of women in distress. The novel’s narration alternates between Inman, a Confederate soldier who escapes an army hospital to walk back to the woman he loves in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Ada Monroe, the city-raised woman he loves who has been left alone on Cold Mountain. With the farm in disarray and a war raging, Ruby Thewes, a homeless woman who knows how to survive and work the land, shows up on the farm. Fighting against the ravages of war, perils of nature, and poverty, they band together and not only survive but emerge stronger than before.  Mel Gussow of The New York Times reports in an interview with Frazier, who won the 1997 National Book Award for Cold Mountain, that “It was a breakthrough in the writing when he created the characters of the two women. Until then, he said, the difficulty and the meanness of the journey dominated.” While Inman’s journey is physical, Ada’s and Ruby’s are psychological journeys that leave these strong women not broken but newly whole. These types of women were familiar to Frazier, according to Gussow: “The two women were based partly on people he knew as a child, ‘very strong, independent women who had a level of self-possession and self-mastery that runs counter to that stereotype of women in that culture.’”


Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
By Helen Simonson

“In the noisy world of today it is a delight to find a novel that dares to assert itself quietly with the lovely rhythm of Helen Simonson’s funny, comforting and intelligent debut,” said Elizabeth Strout of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Simonson’s first novel, published when she was 46. In this New York Times best seller, the protagonist, Major Pettigrew, a very proper and stiff English widower, is “The perfect romantic hero for thinking women of a certain age, [who] finds an ideal match in the elegant, conveniently widowed Mrs. Ali, 58, a local shopkeeper who loves Kipling.” Jasmina Ali, who is of Pakistani descent, is also concerned with the propriety and respectability of English life; and yet she faces racism in the village and pressures from her deceased husband’s Muslim family to quietly retreat from society. Within these constraints, both internal and external, she has the quiet strength to stay true to herself and dare to make a connection with the Major. Kirkus Reviews called the novel “[u]nexpectedly entertaining, with a stiff-upper-lip hero who transcends stereotype, this good-hearted debut doesn’t shy away from modern cultural and religious issues, even though they ultimately prove immaterial.”


Once Were Warriors
By Alan Duff

Alan Duff’s controversial and highly acclaimed debut novel Once Were Warriors was described by the publisher as “one of the most talked-about books ever published in New Zealand.” Published when Duff was 40, the novel won the PEN First Book Award. Duff, “an outspoken commentator on Maori affairs,” tells the story of a Maori family who has been resettled into a government housing project and quickly faces a downward spiral of multiple tragedies. Again, from the publisher: “This hard-hitting story is a frank and uncompromising portrait in which everyone is a victim, until the strength and vision of one woman transcends brutality and leads the way to a new life.” That woman is Beth, the wife and mother of the Maori family depicted in the novel. Beth eventually finds power in the return to her warrior roots and tribal heritage. She uses this regained strength to teach others and to pull herself up from the ashes of disaster created by forced assimilation. Kirkus Reviews wrote: “Duff shows courage in attacking the view that assimilation is the first step out of poverty, and he does so by spinning a compelling tale.”


The Hunger Games
By Suzanne Collins

Katniss Everdeen is a heroine who defies categorization and is, in the words of A.O. Scott of The New York Times, “an athlete, a media celebrity and a warrior as well as a sister, a daughter, a loyal friend and (potential) girlfriend. In genre terms she is a western hero, an action hero, a romantic heroine and a tween idol.” She has been called “the most important female character in recent pop culture history” and came out of her creator’s desire “to write a war-appropriate story for every age of kids.” Suzanne Collins’s father was a military veteran. In her own words, “[i]f I took the 40 years of my dad talking to me about war and battles and taking me to battlefields and distilled it down into one question, it would probably be the idea of the necessary or unnecessary war. That’s very much at the heart of it.” Collins honed her incredible talent for YA writing with years of staff writing for children’s television before publishing her first children’s book at age 41.


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
By Betty Smith

It was the 1940s, and Betty Smith was a woman of the working class. And yet the book that she authored at 47 was an instant commercial and critical success, bringing to life a heroine who, even 50 years later, “is nothing less than a portrait of the artist as a young girl,” in the words of Robert Cornfield in The New York TimesA Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the coming-of-age story of Francie Nolan, a young girl who clings to her love of books and literature despite crushing poverty, a tenuous relationship with her mother, and an unpredictable and alcoholic father whom she can’t help loving. The title becomes a metaphor for Francie’s determination to rise above the circumstances that she is born into as she becomes “the tree that grew in Brooklyn, the one that blossomed out of the pavements, whose strength was not recognized because the breed was so common.”

2 thoughts on “FIVE IN BLOOM: Strong Women and Complex Heroines

  1. Pingback: FIVE IN BLOOM: Strong Women and Complex Heroines | babyboomerwrites

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