I am psyched to see the latest film incarnation of Wonder Woman. However, another thought has shadowed me: the fear gripping our world. Mom, a reality-based Wonder Woman, filled my life with books that told of women who made a choice between the most dramatic of human instincts: love and fear. Each summer, I re-read a few favorite stories from childhood. Here are the tales of four women who awed me when circumstances thrust them into a life of action.
Deborah, the Judge
The moment words came alive to my eyes, I devoured books. My second-grade teacher read Charlotte’s Web to the class for 30 minutes each day. The slow pace tried my patience. My curiosity pressed Mom into buying a copy, which I raced through in the dark night, aided by a trusty Girl Scout flashlight and bedcovers pulled over my head.
On the hunt for new material, I seized a large red book that related the history of the Bible. Wood engravings by Gustave Doré heightened the drama. Step aside, Gloria Steinem. Prophet Deborah wowed me. The fourth judge of Israel in the 11th–12th centuries B.C., she embraced the roles of 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. Heck, I wanted to file a name change from Cathy to Deborah.
Although I cannot recall the title of that book, it fired my imagination and love of history. I re-read every page for a year until the cover fell apart and pages tattered. Adventures filled every chapter. When my third-grade Sunday school teacher mixed up the stories of Rehoboam, Solomon’s successor, and Jeroboam, the rebel ruler, I piped up a correction. She glanced at me doubtfully. “Are you sure?” In my enthusiasm and to her bewilderment, I reeled off the succession of ancient kings and split territories until I stopped for breath about the time Nebuchadnezzar’s troops rolled in.
Shortly after that, Mom proffered The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, likely thinking a change was in order.
Harriet Tubman: Moses in America
Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad, a children’s biography written by Ann Petry in 1955, fell into my hands in fourth grade. It cracked open the sober truths of American history. I discovered a multi-dimensional 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. Her face on a $20 bill would suit me just fine.
Two of Harriet Tubman’s most famous quotes anchor her freedom from fear and the passion that navigated her 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.”
Tubman’s biographer, African-American author Ann Petry, broke ground in American literature. She also penned The Street (1946), a critically acclaimed novel about the dreams and struggles of Lutie Johnson, a working-class black woman who longs to leave Harlem in the face of racism and poverty.
Laura Ingalls Wilder: Lifelong Pioneer
Michael Landon’s “heartwarming” TV interpretation of The Little House Books flickered almost a decade in our homes. However, Landon stunted the evolution of the Ingalls and Wilders by settling their families in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. In reality, 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 portraits of the period.
Laura Ingalls met and married Almanzo Wilder in DeSmet, South Dakota. She had little desire for the arduous labor of a farmer’s wife, yet she promised to toil alongside him for four years. Indeed, that period tested: 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 emerging (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 a lean work. 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 in the pages.
“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.”
Corrie ten Boom: An “Ordinary” Woman’s Transformative Faith
Life ticks at a predictable pace 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, clothe, 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 honestly recounts roiling emotions: love, anguish, terror, anger, doubt, 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.”
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