Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Book Review: The Heroine's Bookshelf: Life Lessons, from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder by Erin Blakemore

In this book, Ms. Blakemore takes a dozen famous heroines and their authors (all women) to show different life lessons that are on display, from compassion to ambition. Along the way she also shows how the authors display these traits as well as their subjects, which sometimes is purposeful and sometimes accidental. Luckily, she only had one book/author that I hadn't read, the Claudine novels by Colette.

These short essays are lovely. They help you remember why you loved these books and these heroines, even the less-than-likable ones like Scarlett O'Hara and Mary Lennox. She gives you great biographical information, such as how Jo March's life didn't much resemble Louisa May Alcott's, so instead of thinking of Little Women as a lightly veiled memoir, instead it was more of a wish, for how Ms. Alcott wished her life to be. It's very neat to see how the author's life informed her characters, from Frances Hodgson Burnett's bad marriages and scandals, to Lucy Maud Montgomery's... bad marriage and less than ideal childhood. Hm. There were certainly themes that came up again and again, although of course there were the occasional more happy childhood, like Laura Ingalls Wilder's, but again with her novels we see how what we think of as a true story is far from it (in The Long Winter, a young married couple with a baby lived with the Ingallses). I learned a lot about some of my favorite authors and their creations who leap off the page.

My one quibble is that occasionally the author meanders into memoir territory, telling us how A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was the one book she took when she went overseas. I love memoirs but she doesn't have enough of these little asides to really consider the book a memoir proper, so instead they are just occasional intrusions into what is otherwise a lightly academic look at authors and their heroines and what they teach us. I think knowing what these books taught Ms. Blakemore in particular isn't relevant, at least not unless we learned a heck of a lot more. The balance of personal and literary felt off to me.

But those aside are few and far between, easily ignored if they bug you. The book is very accessible, a nice intro to the greats of literature, and can be picked up and put down as the essays don't follow any overarching plot or even theme. I enjoyed it a great deal. It was the perfect book to read in the bubble bath with a glass of wine on a cold winter's night!

I bought this book at my local independent bookstore, Park Road Books.

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