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Debbie Wiley | Discovering New Women in History

September 13, 2021

History was one of my least favorite classes in school. Don’t get me wrong–I had some great teachers and I enjoyed a lot of the South Carolina history we were taught, but a lot of what we learned seemed far off and not relevant to my life. I knew that wasn’t true because one of my awesome teachers quoted us time and again about not forgetting the past or being doomed to repeat it, but I didn’t see it reflected through the history books we studied. Very little was taught about the various individual lives of people, in particular the women in history. Anne Frank’s story brought to life what the Jewish people suffered under Hitler, but I learned about her mainly through my literature classes. In fact, it was through literature classes that I learned about how women were treated as property or outcasted from society for exhibiting behaviors identical to the men of their times. Now here I sit, many, many years later, and I am still learning through literature. Whether it’s a graphic novel, such as PERSEPOLIS by Marjane Satrapi, or a novel such as BRIGID OF KILDARE by Heather Terrell, there is so much history to explore about women through literature. It’s an even more important and relevant topic today as we see the plight of women in Afghanistan. Let’s dig into a few of the books that have highlighted women and their roles in history.

Boudica is a woman who has fascinated me ever since I stumbled upon a show on The History Channel talking about her. What a wonderful surprise to find that Kate Quinn is part of an interconnected novel told in seven parts that tell the story of Boudica and her uprising. A YEAR OF RAVENS features seven different authors, each taking a piece of history around the rebellion to bring it to life. While obviously, my goal with reading A YEAR OF RAVENS was to learn more about Boudica, I learned so much more about Queen Cartimandua and the quest for peace that ultimately led to the rebellion. We get various perspectives, including from a slave, a Druid, and a warrior, and I found this book helped bring this relatively unknown piece of history to vivid life.

ISLAND QUEEN by Vanessa Riley focuses on the life of another relatively unknown and yet determined and powerful woman from history. Dorothy “Dolly” Kirwan Thomas was born into slavery, with her father promising her a freedom he never seemed ready to deliver. It opens in the midst of a revolution in Montserrat as we see the harshness of Dolly’s world, both with the various factions of revolutions and rebellions as well as the degradation that slavery imposes on people. The brutality and rape of women as well as the separation of families is hard to read at times, but it’s essential for a true understanding of the abominations that were inflicted on Dolly as well as so many other people throughout history. While I have traveled to some of the islands in the West Indies, I had no idea of the history of violence and instability in many of the islands and it was both enlightening and sad to learn more about the suffering so many endured. Dolly’s determination and drive to succeed despite the obstacles she faced had me cheering and crying right along with her as we watch her go from slave to entrepreneur to a wealthy businesswoman. ISLAND QUEEN is not an easy read, but it is a vital one.

I didn’t realize J.P. Morgan had his own personal library so imagine my surprise to discover he had his own personal librarian! Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray collaborate on THE PERSONAL LIBRARIAN, an eye-opening look at the divisions and dangers that were ever-present in our all too recent history. Belle Marion Greener assumed the name of Belle da Costa Greene to hide her family heritage. Her father was Richard Greener, a well-known advocate for equality and the first Black graduate of Harvard as well as the first Black faculty member at the University of South Carolina (my own alma mater, and his name was sadly one I was never taught in school despite all the South Carolina history we did learn).  THE PERSONAL LIBRARIAN is about Belle and her entry into the art world as J.P. Morgan’s librarian, where she entered high society and became well-known for her intellect, wit, and ability to curate art for the wealthy. All the while, she had to hide her own past, and I think it was this aspect that hit me the hardest. From the very beginning, where we see the arguments between Belle’s parents over what is the best route for Belle, I was heartbroken at the choices that had to be made at that time.

While A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS by Khaled Hosseini features fictional characters (unlike the others I mention in this article), I think it’s only right to conclude by referencing Hosseini’s beautifully written albeit very disturbing tale about women living in Afghanistan. Read it, particularly now, as the fight women have been facing for fair treatment is still ongoing even today. What are some books about women in history that have inspired or impacted you?


Debbie Wiley is a senior reviewer at Fresh Fiction. 

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