Morning Coffee: Strong Women

fallEven when I’m totally engrossed in a book I’m still analyzing its structure. What did the author do to make it work…or, in some cases, not work? I’ve spent the last week reading books in my search for titles that are similar to my novel, “Mary Bishop”. If you read last week’s post, you know I needed to include a list with my agent queries. While reading, I was reminded over and over again how women gain strength through their friendships with other women.

Women’s friendships are emotional, supportive. Women want someone who will listen, maybe a hug. Women want someone who understands. Women are there for each other when they give birth, when they are ill, when there is a death. At a time when men had access to anything they wanted by right of birth, it was women who gave each other worth. While the laws on women’s rights have changed, the dynamics of women’s friendships have not.

In my novel, Mary Bishop is a strong woman. She finds her strength deep within herself when her husband, Earl, is unable. But when he dies and she is at her lowest, it is her friends Sarah and Frances who come to her rescue, lifting her back out of the darkness. Only they truly understand what Mary’s feeling, and only they can tell her when she’s being foolish by letting someone else undermine the truth Mary knows in her heart.

The books I chose to include with my submission were “True Sisters” by Sandra Dallas, “Caroline: Little House, Revisited” by Sarah Miller, and “At the Water’s Edge” by Sara Gruen. I highly recommend all three.

In “True Sisters”, a group of Mormon converts emigrate from England to America, a decision made by their men. It’s a long trip by boat across the Atlantic, then train to Iowa City, and from there they walked, pushing handcarts loaded with their barest worldly possessions, to Salt Lake City. Many died along the way. The men summed up each loss as the will of God. It was the friendship of other women that kept the women strong each time they buried a loved one. It was other women who recognized the pain each went through when another purge of their belongings meant another treasured possession left behind. It was women who attended births, illness, and injury along the way. The handcart parties were real and this book is a fictionalized version of the final party to make it across the mountains to Salt Lake City.

“Caroline” will be recognized by anyone who read “Little House on the Prairie”, except that this time the story is told from Ma’s point of view, rather than Laura’s, and is less romanticized. Caroline is pregnant with Carrie, Mary is five, and Laura is three, when Charles announces that he has sold their house in the Big Woods and they are going to Indian Territory in Kansas. While Caroline outwardly supports her husband’s decision, she knows what dangers lay ahead on such a trip, especially in late winter: the rivers they will have to cross, the wild animals, the Indians. She agonizes over the loss of her female support system with another baby on the way. She wonders who will attend her birth. How will she manage without her sisters? She knows she may never see them again. It isn’t until she meets Mrs. Scott from a neighboring claim that she regains that support. It’s Mrs. Scott who attends her birth. It’s Mrs. Scott who shows up at their door and stays as long as necessary when all but the baby fall deathly ill. Those familiar with the Ingalls’ story know there will be many uprootings in her lifetime as her husband searches for his dream, and each one will be a test of Caroline’s strength; as it was for so many women during the westward expansion.

“At the Water’s Edge” takes place at the tail end of WWII. A young socialite from Philadelphia who lives a frivolous, indulgent, and often reckless lifestyle finds herself on a freighter to Scotland with her arrogant unloving husband and his friend as the two men go on their obsessive hunt for the Loch Ness monster. Practically abandoned at a small inn, Maddie is suddenly immersed penniless in the unknown world of rations, blackouts, and air raids. Over time she befriends the two women who work at the inn and through them comes to realize she is strong enough to find her own way and leave her abusive husband.

“Mary Bishop” is historical women’s fiction and historically women have always found strength in friendship with each other. Mary’s strength grows with the support of her friends, as did the handcart women’s, Caroline Ingalls’, and Maddie Hyde’s.

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