The Heroine's Bookshelf:
Life Lessons, From Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder

by Erin Blakemore

Harper Collins, 2010. ISBN 978-0-061-95876-2.
Reviewed by Lee Ambrose
Posted on 04/27/2011

Nonfiction: Life Lessons

In one slim volume, Erin Blakemore has gathered some of my favorite literary heroines and their authors into what feels like a circle of close friends. Blakemore's premise is intriguing: looking at the authors of some of our most beloved literary classics and discovering how their heroines and protagonists reflected the authors' life.

In her Introduction Blakemore writes "As I befriended the women behind the books, I was reminded that they were as human as any modern woman. Louisa May Alcott? Testy morphine addict. Betty Smith? Chain-smoker with a terrible knack for picking the wrong men. Like their heroines, the women behind some of literature's most important and enduring books weren't perfect. Most of them didn't even come close: their lives were pocked with acrimony and despair, family feuds and miserable, boring jobs. They showed up for them anyway. The heroism of these authors lies not in the perfection of their pursuits but in the fact that they bequeathed us something in the process, something that came from the stumbling-through and survival that is our collective lot."

Twelve qualities: dignity, indulgence, self, faith, family ties, happiness, magic, ambition, simplicity, steadfastness, compassion, and fight. Twelve remarkable characters: Celie, Claudine, Lizzy Bennet, Janie Crawford, Francie Nolan, Anne Shirley, Mary Lennox, Jo March, Laura Ingalls, Jane Eyre, Scout Finch and Scarlett O'Hara. Twelve amazing literary classics and their authors: The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Claudine novels by Colette, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. It's a pretty incredible undertaking when you consider the familiarity of the characters and the author' lives that are required to create such a wealth of knowledge and insight in a mere 200 pages. But Blakemore has fulfilled her mission.

Not only does she draw similarities and difference each author has with her character, she goes so far as to offer key conditions when reading (or perhaps re-reading) each novel would be beneficial. One particularly interesting feature is that Blakemore has suggested three "Literary Sisters" for each of the twelve characters. At first I found myself searching for the ways in which each of these "Literary Sisters" were like the character in question. But in the end, I have decided that it isn't so much the similarity of each sister as it is the fact that each displays amazing qualities their authors designed them to exhibit.

Blakemore's powerful epilogue leaves her readers with a very interesting and daunting task: "All that's left of these women [authors] is what they chose—what they dared—to leave us. In a way, they've burdened us with an extraordinary task: to bring our own life experiences and interpretations to the reading of their lives, their heroines; to keep their legacies alive long after their deaths...the power of these authors lies not just in the books they wrote, but in the lives they led, lives that somehow manage to puncture the distance of continents and centuries."

Author Erin Blakemore lives in Boulder, Colorado where she enjoys running her own business, roller blading, and hiking. Visit her website.

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