Happy Beltane, everyone! I’m so excited to have Jacqueline Friedland as my guest here today. As her post below makes clear, she’s a soul-sister of mine in her love for strong women. Her post really got me thinking about how our early experiences with reading shape who we are later on as writers. I think I may do a follow up post on that with my own thoughts. But this post is about her, not about me. Take it away, Jacqueline!
Did you ever try to figure out why certain novels make you fall in love and others make you fall asleep? Perhaps you’ve wondered if there is a common thread, a specific literary ingredient that draws you so deeply into certain stories? Maybe if you could identify a trend in the books that invariably keep you reading late into the night, that knowledge might allow you to better hone in on other books that would provide you with equal delight.
As a voracious reader and an author, it has been important to me to pinpoint the devices and themes embedded in the books I most adore. Not only can such knowledge save me from muddling through books that don’t speak to me, but it can also help me to create written work of my own that feels appropriate and substantive in all the right ways. Over the past several years, I have identified several characteristics that lead me to gravitate towards a novel. I like a fast-pace, a strong plot, accessible prose, maybe some romance, perhaps some humor. Nothing scary, gory, or overly experimental. But there is something more elusive that has made certain books stay with me for years.
When my mother read aloud to me during my early childhood, we loved The Little Engine that Could, The Secret Garden and Little House on the Prairie. As I grew older, I was drawn to books like Nancy Drew, The Babysitters Club and Anne of Green Gables. Then there were the books that shot to the top of my list as I reached adulthood: Gone with the Wind, Jane Eyre and The Bronze Horseman. What these books all have in common are strong female characters (and if you weren’t aware, Watty Piper’s plucky little engine is indeed female). These works of fiction portray girls and women who have grit, the will and determination to continue striving until they reach their goals.
There is an additional commonality between these characters though, which is that these females are not only strong, but kind. In today’s world, there is so much discussion of women needing to be strong, but not enough emphasis on the fact that in appropriate circumstances, kindness should be perceived as a type of strength. The ability to think about others and see past one’s own experience in interacting with people requires a special kind of fortitude.
In creating my debut novel, Trouble the Water, I felt it was imperative to include positive messages about feminine power and decision making. The manner in which my characters approach the circumstances fate deals them is what I believe defines their spirits and ethos. I wanted to portray characters who could make the best of difficult circumstances while also being brave enough to reject conformity. I created women who took the lemons life handed them and decided to use those lemons as paperweights. After all, not everyone likes lemonade.
The central female characters in Trouble the Water are each willing to think outside the Victorian or antebellum box, despite the constraints of the 1840s. The women are courageous enough to make their own choices and to shout until they are heard. Abigail Milton, the story’s protagonist, has worked in a cotton mill in Lancashire England, receiving a pittance in recompense since she was eleven years old. When her parents ask her to travel to America so that she may live off the charity of their old friend in Charleston, and thereby lighten the financial burden on her family, she agrees to set off on her own, traveling across the Atlantic Ocean with little more than a stale bread crust and unwavering determination to make a better life for herself.
As the story unfolds and Abby discovers that her new home is rife with clandestine efforts to free local slaves, she is excited, energized, and eager to participate in the abolitionist effort. Rather than judging the high-risk and profoundly illegal activity of her patron, Douglas Elling, Abby wants to jump directly into the trenches of abolition with him. It’s a whole different kind of #metoo.
Throughout the story, Abby repeatedly resists being corralled into any of the stereotypical gender molds of the day. From her penchant for physical exercise to her continued rejection of assistance from men, even those who simply offer to carry her bundles, Abby is her own person. She is desperate to create meaning in her life, which she believes can be achieved through teaching and helping others. When she develops romantic feelings for another character, she struggles greatly over how to reconcile those feelings with her burning desire for independence.
In addition to Abby, the other women featured in the novel are full of conviction and tenacity. Cora Rae Cunningham, a beautiful, spicy, nineteen-year-old who has rejected one marriage proposal after another will not be seduced by wealth nor forced into an arrangement that is not to her romantic satisfaction, much to the dismay of her plantation-owning, socially conforming parents. Clover, a house slave impregnated by her master, refuses to birth her baby into a life of bondage, and in the ultimate act of bravery and sacrifice, takes her chances on running North.
Creating a realistic historical novel that depicts female characters who are ahead of their time, models for women in any time period, is a challenge that I was glad to undertake. I felt it was incumbent on me to portray women who were progressive for their time, active players in their life stories, rather than passive guests, living out the scripts that had been handed to them by other forces. My characters have strong backbones, as well as moments of unexpected kindness and generosity. They are just the type of women who would keep me reading deep into the night.
Sounds like your characters and mine would get along great! Thank you so much, Jacqueline! I know I can’t wait to read her book! If you have any questions for Jacqueline, please leave them in the comments below and I’ll make sure she sees them.