Entry 13: Straight From My Bookbag

We just got back from our Summer beach holiday. And as I reward for all my hard work over the last couple of months I decided to take a week-long break from all texts study related, including novels. Instead I chose to read Atonement by Ian McEwan, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. I enjoyed all three of these novels immensely and would highly recommend them for those who enjoy ‘slice of life,’ deeply thoughtful literary works. Harper Lee’s classic had been on my 'must-read-eventually' list for quite some time (as in several years), and it was really by chance that I ended up throwing it in my bag as a last minute option in case it rained on holiday (which it did, quite profusely). So it almost seems like some strange stroke of fate or coincidence that I finished the book on the very same day she passed away (Feb 19) [And even weirder, as I put this entry up on The Alcove on 27th Dec 2016, I finished Watership Down - the same day the author, Richard Adams, died. Another coincidence?!].

 

1.  Pope Joan (1996) by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Applicability Rating: 8.5/10

Relevant Themes: Women in power, ‘doing’ gender, masculine vs. feminine traits enacted by leaders, male and female leadership differences, leadership in crisis situations

Key Thoughts: In this dramatic page-turner and book club classic, Donna Woolfolk Cross realistically envisions and brings to life the legend of Pope Joan, a talented ninth-century woman who allegedly disguised herself as a man and unexpectedly rose to become the first, and only, female to preside on the papal throne. Regardless of whether or not Joan the Pope did in fact exist (although the evidence Woolfolk Cross provides in the ‘Author’s Note’ is quite convincing), Joan is an unforgettable character who defies convention and rises to the highest echelons of official power (during this time period, the papacy was one of the most coveted leadership positions in all of Christendom).

What happens when a pseudo-male wields power greater than any other man (or woman) in Europe? Would ‘she’ lead differently? The back cover tries to emphasise the fact that Joan is a ‘woman’ in power, but I would disagree with this as Joan always presents as male, which problematizes labeling Joan as a ‘heroine’ or as a legitimate female leader example. As a ‘man’ to all but a very select few, Joan is free from the negative perceptions and expectations which are naturally afforded to the female sex. In fact, she never has to face the double bind that women are generally confronted with – should she employ communal behaviours and be well-liked but not respected or use agentic behaviours and be respected but not liked. While some members of the papal court are deeply suspicious of his/her more egalitarian leanings and communal caring behaviours, the majority accept and respect these ‘feminine’ attributes as long as they are presented in the guise of the normative masculine body. So even though Joan enacts a more post-heroic, transformational leadership style (‘women’s leadership’) than previous papal leaders, without the cloak of masculinity would her ‘leadership’ and authority ever have been taken seriously? The answer is clearly no – in fact, it is because of her female biological organs that she is killed without remorse by a raging crowd; her ‘innate femininity’ makes her unacceptable as a leader or religious figurehead in the public sphere.

After finishing Pope Joan, I began to ask myself what I consider to be an interesting set of questions. For example, why does Woolfolk Cross choose to have Joan practice more ‘feminine’ leadership traits? Joan's vision for a cleaner, safer, more inclusive, compassionate and moral nation-state is in stark contrast to her competitor Anastasius’s aggressive, authoritative and individualistic political goals. Is Woolfolk Cross constructing her view of female leadership through a cultural feminist lens? Is the novel suggesting that because Joan is a woman, even though she’s posturing as a man and has only had agentic leadership behaviours modeled for her (there are no strong female role models in her life), she will naturally opt for more communal and participatory leadership behaviours? And what wider implications do these assumptions about innate female behaviours have for women and leadership more generally? How would the story be different if Woolfolk Cross had portrayed Joan as an ‘iron maiden’ instead?

The other notable topic Woolfolk Cross highlights is the oppressive social restrictions forced on women, social ideas that she hints have not completely disappeared. This is epitomised in a conversation between Pope Joan and Jordanes, a member of her synod:

“Holiness,” he said, “you do great injury in seeking to educate women.”

“How so?” she asked.

“Surely you know, Holiness, that the size of a woman’s brain and her uterus are inversely proportionate; therefore, the more a girl learns, the less likely she will ever bear children.’

Better barren of body than of mind, Joan thought dryly, though she kept the thought to herself.

“Where have you read this?”

“It is common knowledge.” (p. 366)

Woolfolk Cross wants to challenge ‘common knowledge’ in all forms, and Joan’s quick wits are readily devoted to this task throughout the novel (these clever confrontations are excellent!). While I found the romantic undertones of the story rather frustrating and, at times, unnecessary (although Joan had to get pregnant somehow I suppose!), the novel provides a rigorous examination of the root causes and assumptions of misogyny (in religion and society) and has multiple examples of leadership ‘moments’ with feminist undertones which would serve as lively discussion points in a book club setting.

 

2. The Nightingale (2015) by Kristin Hannah

Applicability Rating: 6.5/10

Relevant Themes: Women’s courage in times of crisis, female leadership in male-dominated contexts, challenging popular expectations and perceptions, self-actualisation

Key Thoughts: Voted as the Goodreads ‘People’s Choice Awards’ top historical fiction novel for 2015 (with over 57,000 votes), The Nightingale is a rather typical women's WWII novel which follows the stories of two sisters whose lives are thrown into disarray after the Fall of France in 1940. Vianne, the elder sister, lives near the French border with her small family and tries her best to keep her daughter safe by complying with the Germans, especially after a Nazi officer is posted to her house. Isabelle, on the other hand, desperate to fulfil De Gaulle’s call-to-arms and stand up to the German invaders, flees to Paris and joins the French resistance. Brave almost to a fault, she leads countless missions across the Pyrenees, smuggling downed air pilots to safety right under the Germans' noses.

I really struggled to get into this novel and, I have to admit, almost gave up 100 pages in. There is little in the way of subtly or literary acumen in this book. Maybe it was the predictable ‘chick lit’ tag line on the front cover (‘In love we find out who we want to be. In war we find out who we are’) which made me sceptical or the over-the-top portraits of the annoyingly naive Isabelle and painfully bossy Vianne which made the reading experience less than engaging to begin with. Nonetheless, two-thirds in, as Vianne and Isabelle courageously stand up to the Germans in their own unique ways, I began to pick out some important women and leadership themes. For example, Isabelle, a very pretty young woman, struggles to deal with and counter the prejudices she experiences leading American and British pilots to safety. With some of the soldiers unwilling to listen and follow a young woman, Isabelle must navigate that unsteady bridge between communal and agentic behaviours, showing that she is both compassionate and capable. Saying this, The Nightingale is definitely a novel which falls into the popular fiction category, and is nowhere near as clever or expertly crafted as other works of literature in the same WWII genre, such as Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. For this reason, no matter how popular it was last year, I doubt it will stand the test of time as a canonical ‘great read.’

 

3. The Last Runaway (2013) by Tracy Chevalier

Applicability Rating: 8.5/10

Relevant Themes: Relationships and ‘space between’ women (follower and leaders), power-with others, ethical and moral decision-making, female role models and mentors, self-actualisation & empowerment

Key Thoughts: This was a nice and easy, fast-paced read. Set in the 1850s, The Last Runaway tells the story of Honor Bright, a sheltered and overly timid Quaker girl who impulsively decides to immigrate to America with her sister Grace. Her sister dies unexpectedly from yellow fever soon after their arrival, and Honor sets off on her own to a small pioneering Quaker community to break the sad news to Grace's intended groom. Opposed in principle to slavery, Honor is forced to test her beliefs when a runaway slave shows up on her new husband’s farm. As the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 comes into full force in the North, Honor is faced with a difficult moral dilemma: protect her new family or help the runaways who keep appearing and risk losing everything. Honor doesn’t act alone – she becomes friends with the indomitable Belle, the local milliner and a free black woman known as Mrs Reed, both ‘station masters’ for the Underground Railroad. These spirited women challenge and encourage Honor, acting as ‘leaders’ and role models in their interactions with her.

What I particularly liked about The Last Runaway is that all the female characters are diverse and multi-dimensional. Honor’s transformation from shy and reticent to bold and courageous is well-done and believable. It is due to the influence of Belle and Mrs Reed that Honor is able to change the sense of who she is and what she is capable of, giving her a new understanding of the world and mobilising her for collective action. And there are plenty of examples which allow for questions, such as: what goes on between women when leadership occurs? Or, how is leadership between women portrayed and experienced? How can growth and development be facilitated and supported among women?

The novel also demonstrates how leadership has the ability to move fluidly between people, rather than solely being limited to conventional ‘leader’ and ‘follower’ dichotomies. There is a particular scene where Honor runs away with a slave woman called Virginie. At first, it seems that Honor is the one ‘leading the way’ towards their destination, but it quickly becomes evident that Virginie is also, at times, ‘leading’ Honor, who knows next to nothing about navigating a dark forest at night or hiding from slave catchers. In this context, the task of escaping becomes the ‘invisible’ leader, guiding how Honor and Virginie relate to each other and achieve their end purpose. 

 

4.  The Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar (2012) by Suzanne Joinson

Applicability Rating: 7/10

Relevant Themes: Bad/immoral leadership, follower’s perspectives, ‘spaces between’ women (followers and leaders).

Key Thoughts: This novel reminded me a little bit of The House Girl by Tara Conklin – a captivating historical narrative punctuated intermittently by a sub-par present day story that tries just a bit too hard to connect with the past. So I was always a little bit disappointed when Evangeline English’s fascinating diary that records her calamitous missionary trip to Kashgar was interrupted by Frieda and Tayeb’s lacklustre observations of London life.

I’m not going to bother re-hashing Frieda’s rather unconvincing story here, but I really did enjoy her great-grandmother, Evangeline’s, 'A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar – Notes'. In 1923 Evangeline, a ‘fake’ missionary who wants to write a piece of creative non-fiction about her travels, and her passionately religious sister, Lizzie, set out to establish a mission station in the Middle East. The sisters are under the direction of an overbearing and conniving missionary leader called Millicent, a woman who is not all that she seems. Along the way they rescue a baby from a dying teenage mother and, accused of the young mother's death, the women end up under house arrest in the unfriendly desert city of Kashgar. In no time at all, Millicent puts all three women in extreme danger, firstly by converting a local Muslim girl (who is subsequently drowned by her angry father) and then by distributing inflammatory tracts throughout the restless and hostile city with a rogue Italian priest. Evangeline is soon forced to flee for her life across the desert with the rescued baby, Ai-lien. In her journal entries, Evangeline is an acute observer of the leader/follower dynamic and the sway a corrupt leader like Millicent can hold over her followers. It is Evangeline’s apparent obsession with Millicent that fuels most of the tension in her journal entries – she is at once repelled and drawn to Millicent’s ‘power-over’ her and Lizzie. Even once she is free from Millicent’s immediate influence, Evangeline continues to be haunted by her presence, frequently asking “what would Millicent do?” This dangerous relationship between the ‘leader’ and ‘followers’ would definitely raise some interesting discussion points, however, due to the frustrating hopping and skipping between plot lines and narrative voices, I’m not convinced this novel deserves a place on the short list.

 

5. Sarah Canary (1991) by Karen Joy Fowler

Applicability Rating: 5/10

Relevant Themes: Female absence and ‘Otherness,’ ‘voicing’ and ‘silencing’ of the feminine, minority experiences (racial, sexual, political, mental, etc), reluctant ‘leaders’/‘invisible’ leaders

Key Thoughts: By virtue of the fact that the majority of protagonists and narrators in this book are male, Sarah Canary should be immediately disqualified from my list. However, some of the themes (listed above) are particularly fascinating and, I believe, quite relevant and worth investigating at least briefly. Most importantly, Sarah Canary, even though she never speaks an intelligible word, could be labelled as a leader. Why? Quite simply, people follow her, in a literal as well as metaphorical sense. In fact, for Chin she emerges as a type of silent charismatic leader/goddess who is leading him, perhaps against his better judgement, towards some unidentifiable purpose/knowledge/discovery.

Something I love about Karen Joy Fowler is that she remains tantalisingly on the fence between genres; playing with science fiction and otherworldly experiences, but not quite indulging in an alternative universe. The alien-like behaviour of Sarah Canary is unsettling, and yet she is still familiar. And because she lacks a ‘voice,’ she is vulnerable to myriad interpretations. In fact every character in the story constructs, and subsequently projects, a different narrative background onto her – abused woman, wild woman raised by wolves, goddess/spirit, mental health patient, etc…

Subsequently, the questions about gender, perceptions, projection, culture, and leadership which the novels raises are quite endless, and could include: What if the female heroine is silent? Who speaks for her? How is she voiced and silenced by those around her? And to what effect? What happens to the ‘leader’ when the ‘followers’ are the ones who ‘hold power’ even if they feel ‘powerless’ (e.g. Chin and BJ)? I'll leave it at that for now since realistically I'm not going to use this book further. However, it is an interesting interrogation of a ‘leader’ figure from the followers’ perspective, and it also calls into question the desirability of setting strict criteria on my literature selection.

 

6. “What I Didn’t See” (short story) (2010) by Karen Joy Fowler

Applicability Rating: 6/10

Relevant Themes: Female perspectives, group dynamics between men and women, expectations and perceptions, the female body, ecofeminism

Key Thoughts: I’ve been on a bit of a Karen Joy Fowler binge recently! While I’m not a great short story reader, this entire collection was surprisingly engrossing with its dashes of science fiction-esque mysteries, alternative historical narratives and dysfunctional family and community tales. The second to last story, and the one for which the entire collection is named, is concerned with providing a feminine perspective on what would normally be considered a masculine (and very white) African adventure story (think classic H. Rider Haggard type narratives).

It is not until all the other group members (one woman and five men) are dead that the narrator feels comfortable voicing her take on what really happened during that ill-fated trip to Africa in 1928, although ‘truth,’ as she points out, is completely subjective: “We seven went into the jungle with guns in our hands and love in our hearts. I say so now when there is no one left to contradict me” (p. 170). Their mission is to hunt down and kill a single sacrificial gorilla in order to save as many gorillas as possible in the future from big game hunters. The women are vital to this endeavour as “If one of the girls should bring down a large male,” he [Archer] said, “it will seem as exciting as shooting a cow. No man will cross a continent merely to do something a pair of girls has already done” (p. 174) (a rather dubious utilitarian and pragmatic approach to environmentalism!). The title of the story, ‘What I Didn’t See,’ seems purposefully ironic. The omnipotent ‘I’ is in a much better position to critique the entire misadventure than any of the men ever were, especially since she is subjected to the full range of gendered expectations one can expect to find in 1928.

In a recent interview, Fowler explained how this short story was actually a forerunner to her Man Booker shortlisted novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013) (which I also read for this study): “They’re both based on actual events in the checkered history of human/non-human animal relationships…exactly what it means to be a primate. I think of that story as a sort of primate study where the subjects are my small troop of humans.” Although I haven’t found any sources which link Karen Joy Fowler officially with the ecofeminism movement, she appears to be deeply concerned with questions of sustainability and sustainable development, equity, and social justice in her writing, themes which can be conceptually linked with gender equality empirically through the experience of women, and usefully analysed through the lens of feminism (Haynes & Murray, 2015). For example, ‘What I Didn’t See’ is deeply concerned with both the impact of human activity on primates in Africa (the massacre of the gorillas by ‘rational’ men) and the silencing or alienation of the two women included on the trek (one disappears and the other doesn’t speak on the issue for decades). Both the gorillas and the women are construed of as 'others.' In this way their plights run parallel to one another - there is a "connection between exploitation and degradation of the natural world and subordination and oppression of women" (Haynes, et al., 2015, p. 59).

Why only a ‘6’ applicability rating then? While it critiques gender roles and unsettles the reader with its women/nature exploitation, in this particular case, I’m not sure the text says enough on its own about leadership to make it a truly useful piece for extended analysis.

Other book I read that aren't very applicable for this study:

·       We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013) by Karen Joy Fowler

·       Unless (2003) by Carol Shields

·       Possession (1990) by A. S. Byatt

Currently reading:

·       Base Ten (2009) by Maryann Lesert

·       The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2015) by Becky Chambers