My Favorite Heroines
by Marie-Helene Bertino
Brought to you by 2 A.M at The Cat’s Pajamas.
Growing up, I read myself half-blind day and night. Peep me in the backseat of my mother’s VW beetle, tearing through C.S. Lewis while she prayed that finicky car up hills. Picture me in the doctor’s office, stethoscope pressed against my young and harrumphing heart, flipping through From The Mixed Up Files of Ms. Basil E. Frankweiler.
I’m trying to read should have been my middle name, but as it was I was stuck with my lopsided first one, an amalgam of my grandmother’s name and my mother’s stuck together using a hyphen for glue. Because of it, and because my skin was brown, my features not quite this or that, passersby regularly inquired about my ethnicity. What are you? Kids would say, pointing to their noses, meaning mine. What are you? Adults would say, then fill in the stilted silence that inevitably followed by guessing — Persian? Israeli? Indian? Puerto Rican? Spanish?
Perhaps thinking that these questions weren’t enough to induce an identity crisis, my mother clipped my hair into an unbecoming bowl haircut and people began to assume I was a boy.
What am I? I asked myself, and sought my answer in books.
The first heroine who helped was Nancy Drew. Nancy had a complicated relationship with her successful father, a memory of her deceased mother preserved in godlike amber, a convertible roadster, and a surrogate mother in the form of Hannah Gruen, her housekeeper. Nancy was routinely flanked by Bess, a conventional girl with perfect blonde curls, and George, a tomboy who was always “fresh from a crew race.” In other words, Nancy Drew was a rich girl. Though she taught me how to shadow assailants, she never worried about money or working like my family did.
Thank god for the penny scraping Little Women. Oh Jo March, my Jo March. I think of you constantly. Beloved sister, playwright in-residence of the March attic. Her greatest desire was to hang out with her sisters in the land of make-believe. She did not like suitors visiting the March home, hoping to marry one of her sisters. I think of Jo March every time I make a speech at a friend’s wedding. When I say: you’re meant for each other, I mean, thanks for taking my friend away, jerkwad!
When I first read Little Women I could not imagine why Jo wouldn’t marry Laurie. Now, years later, I can’t imagine why she would. Times have changed, but the stigma against unmarried women remains. You go, Jo March, with your moving to the city and marrying a man way older than you. Your sister will die, your peers won’t understand you, but you are my hero.
However, though Jo March remains a patron saint of writer girls, she was still at the mercy of the laws of physics. In other words, she couldn’t do magic.
Enter Princess Eilonwy, daughter of Regat of the Royal House of Llyr, from Lloyd Alexander’s The Prydain Chronicles. Eilonwy was a powerful enchantress with a magic bauble and a complicated relationship to her mentor/captor Achren. She is funny and brash and takes any chance she gets to remind the series’ over-lucky protagonist Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper, that she is more talented. She is the source of every interaction I’ve ever had with men in the workplace.
Complicated and brilliant, Meg Murry from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time series is perhaps the most well rounded heroine and my most beloved of jams. She likes quantum physics, is a loyal sister to her misfit prodigy little brother Charles Wallace, and…what was the other thing? Ah yes. She got to fly through time and space in a tesseract. Through it all, she worried she was too plain-looking.
As a fabulist writer, I must pay alms to Alice. Alice, as in Through the Lookingglass, as in In Wonderland, is a challenging heroine, in that she doesn’t so much seek out adventure but fall into it, literally. Even after meeting several denizens of Wonderland, she remains baffled by everyone’s lack of manners. She’s a perpetually perplexed innocent, not talented in the way of Nancy Drew or smart like Meg Murry. Yet I list her because her fall allowed me to hang out with her compadres; the smiling cat, the Mad Hatter, etc…in a series of episodes that may be one of the most creative stories ever written.
(Author’s Note: None of the kids from The Chronicles of Narnia make this list because they are indistinguishable from one another, quipless, and boring. As a kid, I rooted for the lion to eat them.)
What am I? How should a human being behave? We read to escape but also to ascertain an integral sense of what it means to be us specifically, in the world. Looking back on this list, the overwhelming trait these heroines have in common, besides guts and spunk, is whiteness. I didn’t realize that when I was a kid, so desperate was I to cling to any girl who echoed my seemingly unconventional feelings. None of these heroines looked like me. As in real life, there came a time when a curtain was pulled across the room, and I was meant to stay with the people who belonged to a lower set of privilege.
The first non-white heroine I read was Pecola Breedlove from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and I loved her so much I could feel her in my bones. The Bluest Eye is not a book for children, but I read it when I was a child and it fed me.
It cheers me that little girls today have many more kinds of heroines to choose from, but there could always be more. Anyone who thinks children don’t need to see themselves mirrored in books are most likely members of the party that has been hogging the mirror. One of the most important rules of being a writer is Know Thyself, and to see is to know. Had I never seen myself in literature, I would have assumed the writing of it was only meant for the privileged. Every heroine I’ve listed helped me know myself and allowed me to write my own heroine; brown, jazz-belting, chain-smoking Madeleine Altimari. Madeleine is for anyone who needs her.
I still add to my original collection of children’s books regularly with the awe and care of a botanist. This past summer, I stumbled across a used bookstore in Wildwood, New Jersey called Hooked on Books. On a shelf near the counter I glimpsed the unmistakable canary yellow of the old Nancy Drew volumes. I gathered every one into my arms and asked the owner how much for all of them though the number didn’t matter.
As he rang me up he said, do you have a little girl?
I said, I am the little girl.