Delayed Rays of a Star
Amanda Lee Koe
Marlene Dietrich would become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars; Anna May Wong grew up in a laundry but would emerge as the world’s first Chinese American star; and Leni Riefenstahl began as a struggling director who would become the auteur who produced films glorifying Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. These three women are captured in a photograph at a Berlin party in 1928, at a moment when their futures are not set. In Koe’s novel, readers follow each of the three women as they each presented with opportunities or forced into choices in order to chase their dreams. The situations faced by each of them will show that, in many ways, the lives of women eighty years ago and those lived by women today are still constrained by cultural expectations that are difficult to escape.
The Book of Emma Reyes
The existence of this memoir, which comprises a series of letters written by the Colombian artist Emma Reyes, is a small miracle. Born into the sorts of grinding poverty that kills many children before adulthood, Emma survived and grew up to be a dedicated artist who became a godmother of sorts to other Latin American artists living and working in Europe. Reyes once described her own art as “My paintings are screams. Monsters are released from my hand … I do not paint my pictures; I write them.” In this memoir, accompanied by hand-drawn pictures by Reyes, readers are treated to a remarkable tale of a trailblazing woman who rose from poverty to a life where she rubbed shoulders with some of the most famous European intellectuals.
The Movement of Stars
In 1845 Nantucket, a young woman’s choices were limited by dint of her gender. For the young man she accepts as a student, his race has limited many of the options that he has previously had. Together the two of them turn their attention to the heavens. The King of Denmark has offered a prestigious prize to those who are able to find new comets. While the two chase a heavenly body in the sky, the relationship between their human bodies complicates their work and the ways that community members react to them. In this fictionalized account of the life of Maria Mitchell, the first American woman astronomer, Brill has given readers a star-filled novel that will remind readers that our “reach should always exceed [our] grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
For years, many in the West had no idea what was happening in China during the years of the Cultural Revolution, a period in the 1960s and 1970s where Mao Tse-tung and his wife implemented a series of policies that oppressed intellectuals. As the daughter of intellectual parents who were forced to work in grueling jobs with less-than-subsistence wages, Anchee Min experienced poverty difficult to imagine. But she excelled in school, and as a rising star student, she was subjected to tests of her loyalty that resulted in her working at a prison farm. There she experienced the joy of a first love and an opportunity to become a star of Chinese cinema, a remarkable series of real-life events that Anchee Min narrates in her inimitable voice.
The Mapmaker's Children
John Brown was one of the most divisive figures of the Abolitionist Movement prior to the American Civil War. Rather than wait for negotiations to end slavery, he attempted to start a rebellion at Harper’s Ferry that led to his hanging. But Brown was not the only abolitionist in his family, and his daughter, Sarah found her own way to help those who were enslaved escape. She created art that depicted the route of the Underground Railroad, but they were hidden within the paintings in a code. These secrets and others are uncovered when Eden, a woman living in modern times, discovers artifacts in the house she and her husband have just bought. What Eden will discover breaks open a treasure chest of Americans’ lost past.
Confessions of the Fox
I loved this novel when I read it last summer, a perfect read for those who want a raucous novel about the outsiders who populated one of the world’s biggest cities in the world. London in the eighteenth century thrilled to the exploits of Jack Sheppard and Edgeworth Bess, two of the city’s most notorious thieves and romantic partners whose outward appearances belied their inner identities. Their stories would have been lost to history if not for the work of the fictional Dr. Voth, a scholar who has been charged with reading a manuscript purporting to tell the lives of Jack and Bess. But as Voth’s research uncovers proof of gender fluidity, outside forces attempt to disrupt his revelations. A novel of layers that readers will love peeling back.
American Spy opens in 1992 in a scene that will set readers hearts racing as Marie must protect her two young sons from a home invader who intends to slaughter her family. She takes Tommy and William into hiding and begins to keep a journal for her sons, an attempt to explain to them why their mother is fighting for their lives. Marie has been one of the first black agents for the F.B.I., but her various skills attract the attention of the C.I.A. who recruit her for a cloak-and-dagger operation in Burkina Faso. In the foreign policy of the Reagan administration, the ultimate aim of all American actions is to repel the Soviet Union and Communism. But what will Marie be asked to do in order to serve her country?
Obasan is the Japanese word for “aunt.” When Naomi visits her Aunt Emily, Emily provides her with a large box of correspondence that details her life in Canada in the 1930s and 1940s. While many Americans are aware that American citizens of Japanese descent were held in detention camps during World War II, a shameful episode in which Americans were branded as traitors because of their ethnicity, the same actions were taken against Canadian citizens. But Naomi discovers even more than Emily’s experiences; she learns the secrets of her mother’s lifetime. A powerful novel that is included in many Canadian schools curricula.
A Fall of Marigolds
March 25, 1911 is a significant date in women’s history: on that Saturday afternoon over a hundred young women—many of them teenagers—burned to death when the shirtwaist factory where they worked caught fire. At the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, owners were determined that no one should sneak out of their shifts, so the doors were locked. The results shocked the nation. In Meissner’s gorgeous novel, a woman living in modern New York City is brought into constant contact with this day from the past. Why? What message waits for her there? An historical novel that will inspire readers to find out more about the brave women who fought for their rights and the rights of all workers.
Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 in recognition of her work on behalf of the environment and women’s rights in her native Kenya. But how did Maathai, born in a rural village in Kenya in 1940, find her voice and the courage to face being arrested seven times? In her opening chapter, Maathai provides clues to the passions that would develop in her life. Her descriptions of the surroundings of her village and even then, her recognition of the various ways that outside interference impinged on village life makes for fascinating reading. Maathai‘s activism took place even as she was raising three children after herself after a divorce. Her life and mission continue to inspire any and all who become aware of her remarkable story.
It is difficult to comprehend the cruelty of slavery. Women who bore children while enslaved often had the threat—or the reality—of having their children taken away from them as part of the horror, in addition to the backbreaking work, lack of food, and violence inflicted on the enslaved body. Based on a true story of a woman who was brought to trial for murder after she killed her child, Morrison challenges readers as they consider how far they would go to protect their children. And would a mother be justified in killing her beloved child if it prevented her from experiencing a life in bondage? Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. This work, among her many others, demonstrates just what a national treasure Toni Morrison is.
The Hours Count
In the 1940s, young mother Millie modes to a new neighborhood and discovers wonderful neighbors in the Rosenbergs. Ethel Rosenberg is also a young mother, who provides advice and support. Millie also meets Jake, the psychologist who she turns to for help with her toddler boy, who is having trouble learning to speak. Her husband and Jake begin to put pressure on Millie to keep an eye on Ethel, and they intimate that the Rosenbergs may not be the all-American family they appear to be. Jillian Cantor brings to life the true details of the lives of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were put to death for espionage during the Cold War. Cantor’s novel makes for compelling reading and demands of readers its own questions: how far would you go to spy on a neighbor if you thought your country demanded it of you?
The Red Moon
Nasarian faces a tough choice: stay in her Kenyan homeland and accept her traditional role as wife and mother, or pursue the life of the mind that she can only find by leaving her country behind? Her father has been branded as a Mau Mau terrorist while her mother is also an outcast, and when her brother turns against her for her refusal to submit to ritual genital mutilation, Nasarian must build a life of her own. Haulsey has penned a rich story that takes readers into the tribal life of the Kenyan past and provides them with an intrepid narrator who longs for something more than what she had been offered at home.
Year of Wonders
Bubonic Plague made its first appearance in Europe in 1348, when in a two-year pandemic that wiped out nearly half of its population. So by the 1600s, its dangers were well known even if the way the disease was transmitted was not. In Year of Wonders, Brooks tells the true story of an English village that made the decision to cut off all outside access to it while plague moved through the rest of the country. The person who guided her village to its life-saving decision is housemaid Anna Frith, who is also a healer. The remarkable Frith is herself subject to charges that her “knowledge” of the plague makes her a suspect in its transmission. For those looking to understand the English past, this is a great addition.
I Always Loved You
Mary Cassatt painted masterpieces as part of the Impressionists, the only American artist to do so. The riveting story of the young woman artist who journeyed from her home in Philadelphia in order to pursue her art in Paris is lovingly told by Oliveira. But Cassatt’s career was not a straight path to the top of her profession. Instead, she felt torn by her parents’ demands that she return to the United States in order to marry and to care for her ailing sister. And then she met Edgar Degas, one of the Impressionist masters, who takes Cassatt as student and muse. Their tempestuous relationship would push both artists to expand their world views and their works. A novel for those looking for both an inspiring romance and the story of the triumph of art.
The stories of women are often the ones buried in archives. They’re gathered from letters that the women wrote, or from mentions of the women in memoirs or histories written by men, or in newspaper accounts that report on the actions of a single woman or a group of women. Often, what is left of individual women are fragments, but when those fragments gathered from other women’s stories are combined with others, writers can take readers back to their worlds even if it’s not possible to tell one individual woman’s story.
In these books about women, authors base their stories on the lives of women from the past. In most cases, the actual historical figure behind the story is the protagonist; in other instances, writers base their stories on a collective story of women’s accomplishments or transfer the story of a real-life woman onto a fictional character. In addition, we’ve included a few compelling memoirs written by women because no one has yet told their stories in fictional form.
Featured image: Virginia Dabney and Anna May Wong in Daughter of Shanghai (1937) © Paramount Pictures