Today we’re thrilled to have Martha Conway  with us. Her latest novel, THIEVING FOREST (Noontime Books), is the story of seventeen-year-old Susanna Quiner, who watches as a band of Potawatomi Indians kidnaps her four older sisters from their cabin. With both her parents dead from Swamp Fever and all the other settlers out in their fields, Susanna makes the rash decision to pursue them herself. What follows is a young woman’s quest to find her sisters, and the parallel story of her sisters’ new lives. The book explores the transformation of all five sisters as they contend with starvation, slavery, betrayal, and love.
Martha’s first novel 12 Bliss Street was nominated for an Edgar Award, and her short fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Mississippi Review, The Quarterly, Folio, Carolina Quarterly, and other publications. She graduated from Vassar College and received her master’s degree in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She has taught fiction at Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio and UC Berkeley Extension, and is a recipient of a California Arts Council fellowship in Creative Writing. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, she now lives with her family in San Francisco.
There’s a joke I once heard that seems applicable to heroines: If the three wise men had been three wise women, they would have asked for directions, gotten to the stable on time, and helped with the birth.
I love that joke not only because it’s funny, but because it reminds me that you can get to work and get yourself dirty without losing your glow of distinction. The traditional hero tends to stand apart from the people he meets along the way, touching down only briefly on his way toward a larger goal. Heroines, however, can retain and even add to their luster by interacting with others; didn’t Princess Diana famously take off her white glove to shake hands with an AIDS patient? That gesture made her more human, but it also singled her out.
In the same way, female protagonists can offer a new dimension to adventure and quest novels, which is a personal connection to the people and communities they encounter. Although Susanna Quiner, the heroine I created for my quest novel, was a bit grudging when starting off on her journey (reluctance is common among heroes), I wanted to show her living with and learning from the communities she encountered. It was important to me not only that she became immersed in different cultures, but that each one gave her something she didn’t know she needed. I wanted her to be a character that developed and changed along the way—that’s the modern kind of hero or heroine. Elizabeth Bennett becomes a character who can love Mr. Darcy after family developments force her to let go of some of her own pride.
What surprised me, however, were my own prejudicial feelings that rose up every once in a while, which basically could be summed up as follows: “But a woman just wouldn’t do that then.” They wouldn’t leave the cabin, they wouldn’t embark on a journey without a man, they wouldn’t go anywhere without a gun. For some reason, the gun issue in particular plagued me. However, I was lucky that the story was set in a time when guns needed to be hand packed with powder and then lit (I still don’t get that), and if anything got wet, forget it. Since my novel takes place among rivers and swamps, in the end a gun seemed less useful than, say, a portable cooking pot.
In one account I read of the traditional hero journey, the hero:
- Is naïve and inexperienced
- Leaves home to go on a journey
- Meets monsters
- Gains allies
- Makes a stirring speech
- Engages in a contest of strength (either physical or mental)
- Attains his goal
- Returns home in disguise or unrecognized
Is there anything in this list that disqualifies a woman to be the story’s hero? Nope. Not in my mind. Not when I really think about it.
The truth is, women have done all sorts of remarkable things throughout history. My own ancestor, if my father’s stories are correct (and we come from a long line of notorious truth stretchers), was Grace O’Malley, a pirate in the 1500s who wrecked havoc on the Irish Seas. I grew up hearing that Grace O’Malley was the only person Queen Elizabeth I ever bowed to in her life. (That’s got to be false, but I love the story anyway.)
There’s also Isabella Bird, a Victorian clergyman’s daughter, who traveled over six thousand miles in the wilds of North America, sometimes with others and sometimes alone, before going to Hawaii and Japan. And Doctor James Barry—we don’t know her real name—who got herself through medical school as a man, then went off to join the British Army as a soldier and doctor, traveling in South Africa, India, and the West Indies, engaging in duels and rising in rank without anyone ever suspecting she was female.
These are women who were not afraid to leave home and face the unknown.
Instead of saying, “But a woman wouldn’t do that,” I learned to ask myself, “What would a woman do here?” Connecting with people, negotiating, trading something valuable in order to advance her cause—these are things a woman might do rather than resort to fisticuffs. Okay, sometimes there’s some fighting. But all heroes and heroines have to think outside of the box to get what they want. They need strength (both physical and mental), tenacity, and mettle.
And, to my mind at least, the ability to change. For my heroine, change came from the people she met on her journey, people she often did not even like when she first met them. But that didn’t matter. She needed to take off the white glove anyway, and make the connection.
Is your heroine unafraid to leave home and the unknown? Does she make connections?