A celebration of the strength of the soul. Ántonia Shimerda doesn’t want to be anything other than herself, while the girls who conform, who worry about their skin and their role in life, are fettered and fretful (“The country girls were considered a menace to the social order. Their beauty shone out too boldly against a conventional background”). Ántonia—impregnated and abandoned—survives “in the full vigor of her personality, battered, but not diminished.”
East of Eden
To widen a definition of feminism—when I read this as a teenager, Cathy Ames astounded me: she was unapologetically evil, willful, utterly independent. But the horrible things she does are according to her own rationale, her own needs and desires and hard past. Frankly, someone that bad, and that powerful, was inspiring. She certainly wasn’t domestic. In the category of California dark, read Raymond Chandler—some people claim young women should only read inspirational books by women, lest they think they need to look like a noir blonde, but I loved counting the ratio of smart bombshells to stupid men.
Letters from Yellowstone
H. G. Merriam invites a botanist named A. E. Bartram along on a Smithsonian expedition to Yellowstone Park in 1898; A. E. arrives as Alexandria, but the expedition is short-handed, and the scientists, despite misgivings, head off into a deadly landscape. Told through letters and telegrams, richly detailed, and often very funny.
In my novel, The Widow Nash, Dulcy Remfrey steps off a train crossing Montana in 1905 and disappears into the West. She’s running away (in mourning, and from violence) to save herself; she isn’t sure if it’s an act of cowardice or bravery but she’s utterly alone as she navigates a world that’s both raw and sophisticated, a melting pot filled with other people who are reimagining themselves, embracing or dodging fate.
It’s true that any novel set in the American West, especially one set in the past, tends to be innately gritty, and the trick of calling a character feminist depends on context: a widow turning to prostitution in the 1860s is moving across a different canvas than a college student finding her way today. The very act of going west meant giving up the known world to become a speck on a landscape that could kill with heat, cold, water, snakes, bears. Some of the most resonant novels come from the descendants of the tribes at the even harder end of the equation, but almost all tend to be coming-of-age stories, understanding-of-self stories, which only makes sense: we’re all, male or female, born equal, born feminists, born ourselves, without doubt. The squirrelly stuff comes later, when people muck with your mind, add limits and assumptions and the boggy downside of religion and sex.
An embarrassment of riches: Edna Ferber’s novels (So Big, Giant, Cimarron) are full of women who throw themselves into life. Read Mildred Walker’s Winter Wheat, Josephine Johnson’s Now in November, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams, Debra Magpie Earling’s Perma Red, Margaret Verble’s Maud’s Line, Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. And read Joy Williams’ The Quick and the Dead, set in the contemporary Southwest, for a line that sums up so much: “Plants were lucky because when they adapted it wasn’t considered a compromise. It was more difficult for a human being, a girl.”