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Book Review: *The Heroine's Bookshelf* by Erin Blakemore

  • The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons, from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder by Erin Blakemore
    Hardcover: 224 pages
    Publisher: Harper; 1st edition (October 19, 2010)
    ISBN-13: 978-0061958762

Back-of-the-book blurb:   An exploration of classic heroines and their equally admirable authors, The Heroine’s Bookshelf shows today’s women how to tap into their inner strengths and live life with intelligence and grace.

She Is Too Fond of Books’ review:  This delightful little book is part biography, part memoir, part a visit with old friends (the female authors and their literary heroines we’ve loved – Jane Austen with Elizabeth Bennet, Louisa May Alcott with Jo March, Harper Lee with Scout Finch), and part inspiration.

Each of the twelve chapters is named for a personality trait; Blakemore examines a character who she feels exemplifies this trait, pulling information from the author’s background, and offering parallels from her own life.  The chapter ends with suggestions of the circumstances in our modern day that might have a reader reaching for this book, and offers ideas of books with similar themes or heroines.

For example, the chapter “Dignity” looks at Alice Walker and her characters in The Color Purple.  Blakemore begins with a sketch of Alice Walker’s personal life, uncovering a history of events in the author’s biography which showed her own sense of dignity – a family barely surviving the Great Depression, an accident which left her temporarily disfigured and blind in one eye, an interracial marriage that lacked support from her family and the law.

Celie, the main character in The Color Purple, is a poor black woman who has suffered injustice her entire life, physically and mentally abused.  Blakemore makes a case for the universality of Celie’s struggle for self-acceptance, her success – ultimately – in announcing, in words, in actions, and with dignity, “I’m here.”

In an easy conversational style, Blakemore draws a line between this literary heroine and our lives – those of women of today, from all walks of life.  She explains what she strength she has found in Celie, and makes a case for us to see a bit of Celie when we look in the mirror.

The chapter ends with bullet-point lists of when to read this book (“When complacent or a bit too contented” and “Before … contentious board meetings”) and

Celie’s literary sisters:

  • Sethe in Beloved, by Toni Morrison
  • Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
  • Idgie Threadgood inFried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg

Each chapter follows this structure; it’s a book to turn to when you need an introspective look at self (Pride and Prejudice), happiness (Anne of Green Gables), family ties (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), etc.  A dozen heroines and their strengths are explored; I found it most interesting that so many authors shared similar traits with their main characters.

The Heroine’s Bookshelf is an appropriate gift for sisters, girlfriends, mothers, and aunts – those women who you’ve lent you their favorite books over the years.

10 comments to Book Review: *The Heroine’s Bookshelf* by Erin Blakemore

  • Ack, this sounds wonderful! And you know, I got a really strange thought as I was reading your review. This would be the perfect dissertation. Maybe it started out as one!

  • I just read another amazing review of this book, and coupled with yours, I get the impression that this is a book that I really should check out. I have not read all the books she mentions, but I do have a good grasp of several of them, and I can always read the others at a later time!! Great review, Dawn! I am glad you liked the book!

  • Sandy – that IS an interesting thought – I don’t know the answer, maybe I’ll tweet the question to Erin.

    Zibilee – I should have mentioned that I haven’t read all the dozen books she focuses on, either. In fact, I have to confess that I feel in the minority, not returning to Jane Austen again and again (like so many of my bookish friends do). However, with Blakemore’s insight, I will return to the book, looking for the particular trait (in Austen’s case, the sense of *self*).

  • It is interesting, but not all that surprising, that the authors often share their heroine’s traits. That’s why they can write those traits so well!

  • I am very unsure about this book. I love all the authors, books, series that are covered but I have assigned some different traits to the women characters in my own mind. I’m not sure if I will be wowed or upset!

  • I don’t think you would be upset, Candace, she does focus on one specific trait for each woman, but not in a way that negates all of the other things they represent.

  • What a great idea for a gift! Of course I’d need to gift it to myself first :)

  • Nope, the book didn’t grow out of a dissertation, Sandy…more like a nagging need to talk about the impact these books have had on my life combined with a whole slew of personal and not-personal factors that got me thinking about their broader relevance. But man, it sounds like an engrossing one!

    Beth/Candace, I’d be interested in knowing your thoughts if you do read it (wowed OR upset). I definitely take stances and choose traits on the heroines and books I cover, but one of the best parts about this entire process has been the conversations I’ve had with those whose views differ, disagree, and contrast with mine.

  • Sounds like it would also make a great bedside book in a guest room; a lovely treat for a guest. Can’t wait to read it.

  • You’re not alone in not returning to Jane Austen…heck, I couldn’t even finish P&P the first time. But even though I’m not a reader, I really enjoyed this one. I liked the little bit of insight into each of the author’s lives.

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