Not by design, my fiction selections recently have all been about strong, amazing women, and have all been written by women. This is the general inclination of my taste in fiction anyway (more Colette, less Hemingway), but there seems to be a general consensus in the mainstream that there just aren’t great stories about strong women out there. I think that’s an incorrect assumption. There might not be as many stories with female protagonists as there are male, but there is some great fiction available featuring fabulous gals doing memorable things.
Martha Hall Kelly
What do a New York socialite, a Polish underground resistance fighter and a Nazi doctor all have in common? Not much, actually, but in Martha Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls their stories weave together through the time period of WW2 and the following decades. Polish teenager Kasia is sent to the all-female concentration camp Ravensbruck where Herta, a young German doctor, takes part in experiments on Kasia and her sister. Years later the sisters are helped by socialite Caroline to receive medical treatment to fix the damage done by the Nazi testing, as well as to track down Herta to ensure she can no longer practice medicine.
The strongest of the stories here, and the most heart-wrenching is Kasia’s, based on the true story of Nina Ivanska, which details the treatment of the camp prisoners, including the tests done on the “rabbits” of Ravensbruck. The guilt she feels at causing her sister, mother and some neighbours to also be picked up in the sweeps of Polish resistance fighters plagues her long after she is free from the torture of the camp. I felt that Herta was not explored in as much detail as she could have been, and there are whole periods where we do not hear from her (such as her time in jail, trial at Nuremberg, etc) that might have, if not made her more sympathetic, at least been a window into what she felt, or was thinking, during the tests she did on innocent women. We get her emotions and thoughts when she first arrives at the camp, and when she is fleeing from the allies, but not much to help us understand the why of her actions during the tests.
As Caroline doesn’t interact with Kasia until decades after the war, Kelly has given Caroline a fictional storyline to interweave her plot with the other main characters. While this love story would be a great novel on its own, it felt distracting interspersed with what was going on with the other characters.
Overall, though, a truly interesting story that had me searching the internet for more information about the Ravensbruck rabbits and how they recovered from their atrocious treatment.
I came across The Dressmaker while searching for another book with the same title, but grabbed it because this Gothic novel seemed so intriguing. Tilly returns to the 1950s rural Australian town of Dungatar to look after her sick mother, but most of the town remembers why she left so many years ago. Now an accomplished fashion designer and seamstress, the ladies of the town make nice with Tilly to her face because she has the talent and skill to outfit them in dresses that might have come off a Paris runway. But tragedy follows Tilly and the townsfolk blame her for a death she is not responsible for – yet again.
Just when it seems as if Tilly will forever be Dungatar’s scapegoat, she (perhaps inadvertently) gets her revenge, burning down the entire town as she leaves her petty neighbours behind.
The cast of characters in The Dressmaker might have been a bit too big to keep track of but Ham does a good job of describing individual traits and quirks. This is your classic revenge story, but with pretty dresses, a cross-dressing police officer, a bit of herbal witchcraft, and a really likeable protagonist whose pain – and strength – is almost palpable.
The Dressmaker was made into a film starring Kate Winslet that debuted at TIFF in 2015.
The Birth House
Herbal witchcraft also makes an appearance in this novel about a midwife in rural Nova Scotia during the first world war. Young Dora Rare finds herself apprenticed to an old midwife, learning to catch babies as the women of Scot’s Bay find themselves under pressure to use the paid services of a doctor to bring their children into the world. When Dora catches the eye of the town heartthrob, she attempts to abandon midwifery to start her own family but her husband is less of a catch than he seemed at first.
Dora’s bad luck sees her linked to a number of birth-related deaths in the Ketch family and with pressure from the doctor after the death of a woman she prescribed an abortion tonic to, she flees for Boston. When she is found innocent, she returns, thwarts the doctor, and sets up a birth house for the women of the community.
McKay’s inspiration for The Birth House is her own home which was once used for exactly the same purposes as Dora’s in the book. She does a wonderful job of describing rural Nova Scotia in the 1910s and 20s, interweaving the struggle to pair old ways with new ways: for instance, the herbal elixirs of Dora’s mentor, Miss B, compared to the modern medicine of the doctor.
The Birth House, at its heart, is the story of strong women bonding together to support one another, especially in the face of gossip and fear. When Dora is accused of being a witch, the only women who support her are the “come from aways”, women who had moved to the town from elsewhere. (This makes me wonder if McKay, who is originally from the US, had a hard time after first moving to the Bay of Fundy area, and if it’s a slight jab at her community… in rural places in the Maritimes, you can be “come from away” for decades after settling somewhere.)
This is a spell-binding novel that I had a hard time putting down and is one of the best works featuring a strong female protagonist that I’ve read in a long time.
The Virgin Cure
I was so enamoured by The Birth House that I immediately moved on to McKay’s next work, The Virgin Cure. While still skillfully written, I didn’t care for this one quite as much.
The Virgin Cure tells the story of Moth, a 12-year old girl from the streets of New York in the 1870s. After Moth’s mother sells her to a rich woman to be her maid, Moth escapes from her abusive treatment to discover her Mother is gone. She lives on the streets for a while until she meets Mae, a pretty, well-dressed girl who promises Moth a better life. That life is to be groomed, Pretty Baby-style, to be a virgin whore to a wealthy man. Moth agrees because it’s a better life than being on the street, and finds herself being courted by the husband of the woman who abused her.
Throughout Moth’s time waiting to sell her virginity, a kind doctor cares for her and the other girls at the brothel, as well as the downtrodden of the lower east side. Dr. Sadie is based on a real-life relative of the author, and it feels as if it’s her story that McKay really wants to tell. She is a minor character within the novel, but it is her strength and assistance that helps Moth find a better life, and knowing she was the reason McKay wrote this book, I was far more interested in her than a storyline that feels vaguely cliched and exploitative. Not that child prostitution isn’t something that we shouldn’t address, and write about and talk about, even in a historical context, but I feel as if McKay missed out on an opportunity by going with a storyline that would attract intrigue instead of writing about the character that really fascinated her.