Who has not seen the new movie Wonder Woman? Catch it before summer passes you by. It’s a marvelous visual escape from the fear that grips much of our society. Harsh sunlight hit me once I stumbled from the cocoon of that darkened theater. My thoughts turned to four real-life wonder women whose character and courage inspired me decades ago. And I thank my mom for filling my life with books that celebrate women who stood their ground, each in her own way.
A voracious reader by second grade, I pulled a large red book off a shelf in my dad’s study. It was a history of the Bible, with stories dramatically illustrated by Gustave Doré’s wood engravings. Gloria Steinem was making headlines, but my eyes turned on a remarkable figure who emerged as the fourth judge of Israel in the 11th–12th centuries B.C. Talk about a triple-threat powerhouse. Judge Deborah served as a counselor, warrior, and wife.
“Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided.”—Judges 4:5
Deborah commanded armies and even composed her own victory song. How cool is that? Moreover, 40 years of peace followed. I demanded an instant name change from Cathy to Deborah, which Mom wisely ignored.
That book fired my imagination and love of history. I re-read every page for a year until the cover fell apart. Adventures filled each chapter. But my favorite image was Deborah holding her arms aloft while settling squabbles among the menfolk.
Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad, a children’s biography written by noted African-American author Ann Petry in 1955, fell into my hands in fourth grade. It cracked open the sober truths of our country’s tragic history. I discovered a multidimensional heroine: a cruelly-beaten field hand, an escaped slave who led hundreds to freedom, an abolitionist, a soldier, a spy, a nurse, a women’s rights activist, and a humanitarian. I’m still rooting for her face on the $20 bill.
Two of Harriet Tubman’s most famous quotes anchor her freedom from fear as she led dangerous nighttime dashes across swamps, forests, fields, and patrolled backroads:
“If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there’s shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.”
“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”
Michael Landon’s “heartwarming” TV interpretation of The Little House Books still shows up on the airwaves. Unfortunately, Landon stunted the evolution of the Ingalls and Wilders by settling their families in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. The fierce desire to push ever westward dominated the psyches of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her father. The family moved multiple times and almost starved through a brutal South Dakota winter. Although The Little House Books are fictional accounts based on Wilder’s life, they shine as period portraits.
Laura Ingalls met and married Almanzo Wilder in DeSmet, South Dakota. She had little desire for the backbreaking labor of a farmer’s wife, yet she promised to toil alongside him for four years. Indeed, life tested their marriage: crops devastated by hail and drought, overwhelming debt, the loss of a baby son, and the destruction of their home by an accidental fire. The Wilders found transcendent joy in Rose, their only daughter.
Wilder’s pioneer spirit propelled her into the new (though typically tame) genre of young adult fiction. She published her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, at the age of 60. Against the wishes of her editor and her daughter (author Rose Wilder Lane), she insisted on rendering stark images of howling blizzards and a small town haunted by gnawing hunger and isolation in The Long Winter. From a literary standpoint, it is her finest work. In These Happy Golden Years, Wilder does not shrink from an honest portrayal of the sullen, potentially violent family she boards with as a young schoolteacher.
The First Four Years, which traces the Wilders’ early marriage, is lean in comparison. Unfinished, it was found among Rose Wilder Lane’s papers after her death in 1968. Wilder’s publisher chose to correct only misspellings. Nonetheless, an indomitable grit flashes:
“The incurable optimism of the farmer who throws his seed on the ground every spring, betting it and his time against the elements, seemed inextricably to blend with the creed of her pioneer forefathers that ‘it is better farther on’—only instead of farther on in space, it was farther on in time, over the horizon of the years ahead instead of the far horizon of the West.”
Do your family a favor and turn off saccharine TV reruns. The real deal is in the books. Read them aloud if you have small children. Garth Williams’ artwork makes Wilder’s concrete images all the more tangible. A boxed set is a grand Christmas gift and a disguised history lesson to boot.
Life ticks predictably for spinster-watchmaker Corrie ten Boom, her father, and sister until the Nazis invade the Netherlands. The family joins the Dutch underground. In The Hiding Place: The Triumphant True Story of Corrie ten Boom, she documents their efforts to shelter and feed Jews on the run until arrested by the Gestapo in 1944. Ten Boom and her sister land in a concentration camp after their father perishes in a transit camp. Only Corrie ten Boom survives. Her book roils with emotions: love, anguish, terror, doubt, anger, hate, and the return to love.
“Do you know what hurts so very much? It’s love. Love is the strongest force in the world, and when it is blocked, that means pain. There are two things we can do when this happens. We can kill that love so that it stops hurting. But then, of course, part of us dies, too. Or we can ask God to open up another route for that love to travel.”
Ten Boom’s words resonate in trying times.
Catherine Hamrick blogs at Random Storyteller and Catherine Hamrick: Writer, Editor, Social Media Human.