Perhaps the reason I have little patience for literary females who come off as wimps is because the girls I admired when I was young could have been poster children for “still, she persisted”. Argue about nature or nurture all you want; I know that a large part of who I am is due to the literary heroines Anne, Jo, Rebecca, Laura, and Evelyn.
From Anne Shirley, L.M. Montgomery’s red-headed orphan heroine, I got my ability to see the best in any situation. Interest in Anne has flared up again with the newest film version of Anne of Green Gables, but I befriended Anne before I could even read her story myself. One of my earliest memories is of my mother reading from a condensed version of Anne’s story, a large, illustration-filled book.
I found it easy to express my enchantment with Anne’s red hair, the bane of her early existence. What I don’t think I ever explicitly admired but have always tried to emulate is Anne’s ability to find the positive in any situation, no matter how negative. Anne is the incarnation of the little boy who digs happily in a pile of manure because, he says, “There’s gotta be a pony in there somewhere!” Even when the woman who has called for her from the orphanage basically tells her it was a mistake that she was sent, Anne still treasures the sight of the beautiful landscape she experienced between the depot and the house where she has settled. Anne is able to colorize the drab world she inhabits with an imagination that usually puzzles and sometimes delights those around her. Eventually, Anne uses that imagination to become a writer.
Even though Jo March, from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, had the loving family Anne did not have as a little girl, she shares Anne’s literary bent. Jo writes plays for her sisters to perform and lurid stories for disreputable papers to help fill her family’s meager coffers. However, the quality I most admire in Jo is her bravery. She may grumble, she may excuse, but Jo always faces whatever has to be faced. Early in the book, she has to endure a social event that irritates her as much as it charms her sister; later, Jo faces her darkest hour when her younger sister Beth dies. Unlike her placid older sister Meg, Jo will not ‘put on a happy face’ when tasked with doing something she dislikes, but she does it, and she is usually stronger and wiser for it.
Rebecca Rowena Randall, from Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, is an underrated literary heroine. We hear much less about her than we do of characters like Anne and Jo, but Rebecca shared their creativity and optimism. When Rebecca’s mother sends her to live with her two maiden aunts in order to give her opportunities she wouldn’t have at home, Rebecca must learn to curb the flamboyant instincts that have survived her modest, even impoverished, upbringing. Like Anne, Rebecca has to learn to act in a socially acceptable way in a small, conservative, turn-of-the-century community. Like Anne, she longs for bright clothes instead of the drab ones her aunts sentence her to wear.
Rebecca’s key attribute is her optimism. Even though she has lived a hard life, she always seem certain that all will be well. In fact, accusing someone of being a “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” is one way of calling them out for their unwarranted optimism. Rebecca’s optimism may seem odd to others, but the belief that everything will turn out for the best is what has allowed her to survive her sad upbringing. Like Anne, Rebecca expresses that spirit by writing poems and stories.
Ironically, the one heroine among these five that doesn’t write is Laura Ingalls, the autobiographical lead character in the Little House on the Prairie series. I admire her physical hardiness. Pa calls her his little French horse, and you know it had to take some kind of intestinal fortitude to survive everything the frontier threw at the family. Many people remember Laura and her family twisting straw sticks to make fuel for the stove during the Long Winter, but I often think about how they’d wake up with snow ON THE BED. Laura never shirked work, at one point making the long walk into town to sew buttons onto shirts all day. Laura had psychological grit as well. As a child, Laura had no problem handling the disgusting leeches in the creek to torment her nemesis Nellie. Later, when she got her first teaching job, she managed to survive the weird, psychologically strained atmosphere in the house where she boarded.
And then there’s Evelyn.
The protagonist of Jane Langton’s novel, Paper Chains, she had the long red hair I’d always wanted since I read about Anne, and she was intellectually curious in a way I wanted to be. I loved Paper Chains so much that I kept it checked out of the library constantly and wrote the author to tell her so. She responded with a delightful letter and a copy of the book so I would have one of my very own.
The novel is about Evelyn’s first semester at an Eastern university, and I formed many of my ideas about what college was going to be like by reading it. Evelyn’s writing consists mostly of notes from her philosophy class (which introduced me to philosophical concepts like the allegory of the cave) and unsendable love letters to the professor on whom she develops a crush.
Evelyn’s wild enthusiasm for the everyday inspired me. Keeping a dog hidden from campus authority figures, cartwheeling across an intersection, or loping up stairs to the forbidden bell tower, Evelyn always takes big bites out of life. She seems to echo Rosalind Russell, who said in her Auntie Mame incarnation, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.”
Who am I today because of these characters? I feel that being a reader made me a writer, so I can partially credit all five of these young women for that. More than that, though, I think the curiosity they all share helped me develop my own curiosity about people that helps me as I try to be the best teacher, writer, and human I can be.