I’m drawn to strong female protagonists, especially those who struggle to define themselves within (and against) the traditional roles of daughter, wife, and mother.
Here are six works of historical fiction that explore the lives of pioneering women and how their experiences challenge their notions of love, marriage, and loyalty.
A Sudden Country by Karen Fisher
I love this novel for the way it manages to be lyrical and dreamy in style, yet the journey across the Oregon Trail that it describes is awash with authenticity, giving the reader a true sense of the hardships of that time and place. Ultimately a story of love and marriage (and their betrayals), this story features Lucy Mitchell, a woman who desires a safe, conventional life. Forced to emigrate West by her new husband, a man she has married entirely for convenience after the death of her first husband (whom she loved), Lucy eventually comes to accept—even embrace—the hardships of her new life as a pioneer.
Crown of Dust by Mary Volmer
The colorful characters are what makes this book a treat—especially Emaline, proprietress of the local inn and one of the few women in a Gold Rush era settlement. Then there’s Alex, who arrives in town disguised as a man and running from her past. Her disguise is effective (though of course Emaline sees through it before anyone else does), so much so that it causes complications when she falls in love. Emaline and Alex are both unconventional women who function as a sort of counterpoints to each other. In addition to exploring issues of gender identity and racism, the novel also addresses the results of an influx of new settlers when word of Alex’s gold strike gets out. Aside from the characters, I can’t help but be partial to the Northern California setting not far from where I grew up and where I now live. The descriptions of the area are beautiful and spot on.
Away by Amy Bloom
This novel stands out to me because it manages to be humorous and playful, even as it tackles anti-Semitism. Inspired by the scant historical details of a Russian woman who tried to walk from Alaska to Siberia, Bloom stated in an interview that the only reason she could imagine someone trying to make a journey like that was for love, and so the story follows recent immigrant Lillian Leyb as she travels across the United States and meets a whole cast of quirky characters. I don’t want to give away what happens, but with writing and narration that is just magical, Bloom manages to tell a heartbreaking story in such a way that it is also a hopeful and affirming love story.
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
This beautifully written work of historical and literary fiction impressed me long before I started working on my own writing. Its exploration of marriage (and its failure) is arresting. Set partially in post–Civil War Northern California, protagonist Susan Ward is a woman with a mind of her own, struggling to find fulfillment in a marriage that has taken her away from the life she envisioned and the things she loves. Like Lucy in A Sudden Country, Susan is a reluctant emigrant to the West and chafes at balancing her own desires against her husband’s. When Susan’s infidelity (a betrayal more of thought than of action) leads to tragedy, her husband is unable to forgive her, even though the two remain married. Stegner’s treatment of what it takes to remain successfully (and happily married) is timeless, even though the novel was written more than forty years ago.
The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss
I just so admire Molly Gloss’s work. Martha Lessen, her protagonist here—
quiet, stoic, independent—makes the unconventional choice to work as a horse trainer during the years of World War I. Told in Gloss’s straightforward yet evocative style, the novel follows Martha as she rides “the circuit” between the Oregon ranches of her clients and eventually finds loves with a man who accepts her exactly as she is. The result is a book that gives the reader glimpses at the lives of the people who make up Martha’s new community, revealing characters in moments that run the gamut—love, kindness, fear, sickness, grief, anger. Though it could perhaps be criticized for being episodic, the humanity with which the characters are portrayed moved me to tears more than once.
True Grit by Charles Portis
This short novel, anchored very much in the characters’ present, is just a gem. I couldn’t help but fall in love with Mattie, the thirteen-year-old protagonist and narrator who is bound and determined to be a good daughter and avenge her father’s murder. She has been her father’s right hand, and she is funny, strong, and will not take no for an answer. Her ability to put grown men in their place is a kick to read and even at the darkest moments of the story, Mattie sparkles. Since she’s not much for introspection, the book doesn’t offer any overt meditations on its themes (revenge, duty, trust, to name a few), but it is nonetheless a novel not to be missed.
Erin Lindsay McCabe was “shocked” to learn that hundreds of women fought in the Civil War, something she learned in her research. Learn more about her novel I Shall Be Near to You.
Do you have a favorite novel of the Old West? Share it in a comment!