On my never-ending journey in search of strong women to read about, fiction hasn’t always come through for me. Sure, they exist, like some kind of beautiful, fleeting dream, but these elusive characters (borderline myths) just don’t appear as often as they should. But with the easy switch of a genre at last this starved woman is beginning to find the satisfactory story she’s been looking for. Forget fantasy, bring on the fact!
The women of history; do we really know them? We met some of them in school, of course. Queen Elizabeth I, Marie Antoinette, Mary Washington, etc., but behind the dry pages of high school’s history textbooks lie amazing, daring women with lives that play out as well as any drama or romance. But unlike Pride & Prejudice‘s Elizabeth Bennett or True Grit‘s Mattie Ross, these women were real, starring in stranger than fiction lives!
For example, remember the story of the mysterious Chinese warrior, Mulan? Based on a poem about soldiers who later realize their friend from the army is a woman, the adventurous tale was brought to most of us through Disney. The pretty young woman who doesn’t fit in takes up the guise of a man and enters the army in place of her frail father. There she eventually finds comrades, action, and after her gender is revealed, comfort in herself.
Now meet Sarah Emma Edmonds whom I met recently in Laura Leedy Gansler’s The Mysterious Private Thompson: The Double Life of Sarah Emma Edmonds, Civil War Soldier. At seventeen, this Canadian farm girl vanished to become Frank Thompson in order to avoid her father and an arranged marriage he had planned. Unlike Disney’s Mulan, Emma was unaided as she fled to the U.S. and made her own living until the Civil War began in 1861. Out of love for this country (and perhaps a large sense of adventure), Emma joined the Second Michigan Infantry.
For a woman who loved a good tale, Sarah Emma Edmonds’ life could beat even the best adventure novel, something so full of action, cunning, close calls, friendship, and even a bit of romance that it couldn’t have been made up half as well.
There are good, strong fictional female characters out there, but, if you ever get a bit tired of searching for those needle in the haystack girls, don’t pass up a good chance to get acquainted with inspiring and entirely real women. So, let me leave you with a quote from Emma, who was herself inspired by a fictional heroine as a girl:
“I felt as if an angel had touched me with a live coal from off the altar. All the latent energy of my nature was aroused, and each exploit of the heroine thrilled me to my finger tips. I went home that night with the problem of my life solved. …I was emancipated! And I would never again be a slave.” -Sarah Emma Edmonds (The Mysterious Private Thompson: The Double Life of Sarah Emma Edmonds, Civil War Soldier)