I did one of those procrastinating online quizzes; this one, ‘which literary heroine are you?’ And something in my answers – or, who knows, maybe everybody gets the same answer – told them I was Jo March of Little Women (and I’m okay with that…I love that book, as you’ll see, and even visited the Louisa May Alcott house, which is now a museum, when I was in Massachusetts). And the picture accompanying my quiz result was my era’s Jo March and the Hollywood-teenage spirit animal of my generation, Winona (Lucas, Beetlejuice, Heathers, and now – she’s back! – Stranger Things) Ryder.
Anyway, that’s all the excuse I need for a post on the girls I grew up with – not the real ones, but the ones to be found on the pages of some of my favourite books during my coming of age (the ones I can remember without having to look them up).
There’s Fern, a farmer’s daughter, who, in Charlotte’s Web, fought to save her animal friend – the runt of the litter, the pig Wilbur. There are other compelling animal characters who collaborate to save Wilbur’s life – friends like (frenemy? friend for pay?) Templeton, the rat, and the titular Charlotte, the spider. I remember Charlotte’s Web fairly vividly all these years later. I remember how determined Fern was, and how innovative Charolotte was in drawing on the power of language, weaving words in to the spider’s web to bring Wilbur acclaim (and, by so doing, making him a show pig instead of bacon). But one of the things I remember most was the lesson at – near? – the end about life and death. That death is as certain as life (spoiler alert….Charlotte dies) but that it isn’t necessarily the end, she lives on in her offspring, in their offspring, and on like that. I suppose my question now would be, but what if you have no offspring?
There’s Jo. The quiz wasn’t lying. She was one of my favourites as the only girl, it felt like, in Little Women who wasn’t pre-occupied with snagging a beau, nothing wrong with that but that’s not all there is (though fairytales – Cinderella etc., skipping games – “this is the Queen, the Queen of Hearts, tell me the name of your sweetheart”, movies – every John Hughes film I grew up on, love songs – the Jets to Anita Baker, and everything everywhere said otherwise). It resonated with me that she was a writer who followed her dream in this and subsequent books, against societal expectations and conventions. And still managed to snag the beau without centering her life on that – which was a sort of cool message. I don’t think I knew that I wanted to be a writer then, but maybe I already did without knowing.
There’s Jane. It’s funny that I’m currently reading the anti-Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, which flips the script by telling the story of the first wife, the one in the attic, because I loved Jane as a child – I felt such compassion for her and her hard luck life (which calls to mind another childhood heroine, Annie!) and perhaps in more ways than I’d like related to her (harsh public punishments were pretty standard in my world, too), and I just wanted her to win (which she sort of does, I guess, sort of, gaining an inheritance and finding love as an adult). Maybe something of the misfit, underdog in me hoped it meant that I would someday win too…or maybe she was just a compelling character.
There’s Ludell. I remember liking this book, Ludell and Willie in part because it wasn’t often – if ever – I came across books about teenage black girls, so I might have been a bit younger than the intended reader when I read it. I don’t remember a lot (including whether or not I read the previous book in the series), except that Ludell was being raised by her grandmother who was very strict, and strict was Caribbean parents’ and authority figures’ default setting, it seemed, so I recognized that dynamic. Ludell was also an aspiring writer.
There’s Margaret. Of Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. Because I may be a Caribbean girl but the awkward pre-teen to teen transition (breasts coming in, blood coming down, none of it happening fast enough, or too fast, first crushes, starting to question, well, everything) is something any girl, anywhere can relate to. I don’t remember much of the plot to be honest, I just remember that Margaret was all of us girls going through that confusing phase of life.
There’s Trixie. Some people grew up on Nancy Drew, but my female detective of choice (choice being relative since I had no money to buy books and mostly read whatever I got my hands on) was Trixie Belden. I’m stuck for plots except the angst of being a girl in a family of boys and not a standard beauty coming in to her teen years when such things start to matter, while solving mysteries. As for the mysteries themselves, I don’t know. I just remember her as a tomboyish (another farm girl) red-head (strawberry blonde according to Wikipedia, so clearly I’m sketchy on the details). But she was the closest I had to a Veronica Mars – at a time in my life when my girl detective of choice was probably Laura Holt on Remington Steele (my sister and I loved that show, and called Pierce Brosnan as James Bond long before he got the job).
There’s Mike. Mike in Stephanie S. Tolan’s The Last of Eden was me. A teen writer who had her group but was in some ways starting to question how/if she fit. And though she was a scholarship kid at boarding school in America and I a scholarship kid at Catholic school on an island in the Caribbean, between the uniforms and rules, the tested links and loyalties, the everything-evolvingness of that time, our worlds didn’t seem that far apart.
There’s the Wakefield twins (Jessica and Elizabeth). Granted, there were many romance novels (your Mills and Boons, your Harlequins, your Silhouette Desires etc.) and many teen novels (Sweet Dreams series et al) and many other books I probably shouldn’t have been reading from The Thorn Birds (loved the Thorn Birds) to Sydney Sheldon and Danielle Steel etc., but the Sweet Valley High series is easily conjured when I cast my mind back to that time – in part because like soap operas (which a lot of us also consumed back then), this teen drama series kept us anticipating the next episode (kind of like I hoped – hope? – my Musical Youth teen/young adult series will do…if I ever finish the sequel). Also they were sisters who were very different (one a social butterfly, one a student journalist) but at the end of the day, still sisters…I suppose I related to that too. I mean, it wasn’t the blond hair and blue-green eyes right?
There’s Scout. Initially, I didn’t think to add Jem’s spunky little sister, Scout to this list because she’s more than just a favourite from my childhood and teens, she’s an all-time favourite as is the book in which she features, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout, Jem, Dill, Atticus, Calpurnia, Tom Robinson, Boo, and the race-driven morality drama in which they’re caught up is the only mandatory school read on this list – and am I glad it was. Scout – mouthy, inquisitive, rebellious Scout (love her) – learns a lot during the course of the book, about human nature and about the perils of judging a book by its cover.
There’s Annie of Annie John fame, the first time I saw a girl on a book cover who might have been me. I’ve written before of how the discovery of this book opened up pathways re my own dreams of being a writer, but as a reader – a reader in the Caribbean – you have no idea how unusual it was to read of a girl in my world. Annie was an Antiguan girl whose mother had Dominican roots, like me; I just recognized and related to her…and the scene that always stands out in my mind is Annie’s reaction to Columbus in chains, something sarcastic like: the big man can no longer just get up and go. You see, Columbus is the Beginning in the history we were taught …in the Beginning we were a wild and barren land and then there was the Pinta, the Nina, and the Santa Maria and so the story and our world begins…except that was not the full story by half. So Annie’s attitude reflected my own questioning of this historical narrative as did her musing at how much different it would be if the Europeans had seen the ‘new world’ said how nice and kept it moving…no genocide of the Amerindians, no mass enslavement of the Africans. I also related to the way her relationship with her mother became this hostile territory – there may have been a million teen angst books about the way that relationship changes but I hadn’t read one from a strictly Caribbean-Antiguan perspective before. And, still, it is the relatability of Annie’s angst, irrespective of the cultural specifics, that I think accounts in part for the enduring appeal of this book beyond Caribbean readers. Annie is, of course, inspired by Kincaid’s own upbringing, which makes her the fourth writer on this list – five if you count Scout (which I am, her future self), six if you count Charlotte. You wouldn’t be amiss, I suppose in surmising that as far as my pre-teen/teen literary heroines went, I had a type – something I myself just learned, writing this.