Friday, March 8, 2013

Happy International Women's Day!

This holiday was first celebrated in 1911 and is now an official holiday in over 25 countries, including Kazakhstan. The purpose is to draw attention to women’s issues as well as honor the women in your life. As my own little way of celebrating, I’ve put together a list of some of my favorite female protagonists in literature who have shaped my reading experiences as well as my outlook on life.

01. Francie Nolan from Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a coming-of-age tale about a young girl’s adolescence in the city. I confess that I barely remember this book because it’s been so long since I read it. But I do remember walking into the library at 14 in search of that magical, elusive book. A librarian handed me this, and I was changed. Francie loves reading, but it’s her strength of character that carries her through heartbreak and makes her a relatable protagonist.

“Dear God," she prayed, "let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry...have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere - be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”

02. Cassandra Mortmain from Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Cassandra’s a 17-year-old who lives with her eccentric family in a castle in the English countryside. She longs to be a writer, like her father, who locks himself in the tower in order to finish his second novel. In pursuit of this goal, she sets out to ‘capture the castle’ in her diary, but the story is set in motion when two American move into the hall nearby and change Cassandra’s life, as well as her sister’s. Through it all, Cassandra is funny, strong, graceful. I reread this in Kaz and then lent it to a friend, who commented that I’d marked up the text so much that she could just read all my underlinings and brackets and not miss any of the plot. That’s how good it is. Every line speaks.

“Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.”

03. Jo March from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. 95% of girls who read this book identify with Jo in some way, because she’s fantastically outspoken and brave but also flawed. She desperately wants to become a famous writer, but her family’s situation forces her to work. And her desire to keep her sisters together doesn’t work as well once they all begin to grow up. Throughout the novel, she faces setbacks, arguments, and devastating loss with fortitude and determination.

“I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, something heroic or wonderful that won't be forgotten after I'm dead. I don't know what, but I'm on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all someday. I like good strong words that mean something.”

04. Nan St. George from Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers. At turns funny and tragic, this is the story of five American girls who aren’t accepted in New York society because of their ‘new’ money, so they try their luck in England, to varying degrees of success. Nan St. George, the youngest of the five, rebels when told she’ll be getting a governess. But the two become fast friends and form a friendship that stands the test of societal disappointment and disillusioning marriages.

"The greatest mistake is to think that we ever know why we do things. . . . I suppose the nearest we can ever come to it is by getting what old people call 'experience.' But by the time we've got that we're no longer the persons who did the things we no longer understand. The trouble is, I suppose, that we change every moment; and the things we did stay."

05. Irene, the queen of Attolia from Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series. This is my favorite series, but it took me a while to warm up to Irene. Beautiful but never accused of being kind, she’s cold and distrustful because of the things she’s been forced to do to take and keep her throne. When Gen sees her dancing among the orange trees, he realizes she’s not as intimidating as she seems. She’s a complex woman who evolves through her relationship with Gen but also stays true to herself.

“I inherited this country when I was only a child, Nahuseresh. I have held it. I have fought down rebellious barons. I've fought Sounis to keep the land on this side of the mountains. I have killed men and watched them hang. I've seen them tortured to keep this country safe and mine. How did you think I did this if I was a fool with cow eyes for any handsome man with gold in his purse?”

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