Thursday, March 10, 2016

Warrior Women in Middle Grade Historical Fiction

Everyone clamors for strong women characters in middle grade fiction to inspire and empower our own girls. But is there historical precedence for powerful women? In the days before women had the vote, were there strong women who influenced policy or wielded political power? Strong women do not have to show up just in fantasy and myth. Here are a selection of historical fiction based on real women who wielded not only power, but a sword.

The strong woman in Rosemary Sutcliff's Song For A Dark Queen is Boudicca, the Queen of the Iceni, a British tribe under Roman rule. The story is told by Cadwan, Harper to the Queen, who watches her grow from a determined six-year-old into the leader who opposes the oppressive new laws of the Emperor, Nero. When the Romans flog her and rape her daughters, she leads a rebellion that destroys several cities and nearly causes the Romans to leave Britain. It is no secret to anyone who knows history that Boudicca's victories are short-lived and that Rome eventually triumphs. Because the Britains during this period were not yet leaving written records, all we really know about Boudicca comes from the writings of Tacitus and Cassius Dio, and these two sources differ as to how Boudicca dies. Sutcliff has chosen to follow Tacitus' more romantic version, and says that Boudicca returns home drink poison from a cup made of Roman glass. Boudicca's story does not end well, but it is stirring and eloquent and asks readers to think about power and its uses and limitations.

The Edge on the Sword, by Rebecca Tingle is set nine hundred years later. The strong woman in this story is Flaed, a shorter version of  the historical Æthelflæd. Flaed is the fifteen-year-old daughter of the West Saxon king, Alfred. She is betrothed to King Ethelred of Mercia, a man older than her father.
King Alfred has made sure that Flaed has military training. She has learned to protect herself with stealth and smarts because her male opponents will always be stronger that she is. She is forced to use these skills when her party is attacked on her way to Mercia.  Flaed begins to realize that she fights not only to save herself,  but to save the ones she loves, and Wessex and Mercia.

Æthelflæd as depicted
in the cartulary
of Abingdon Abbey by Anonymous
We know from the original source of Æthelflæd's history, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, that after her husband's death, Æthelflæd ruled Mercia in her own right for eight years, during which she kept the Danes out of Mercia and established a series of fortresses that protected the land. She was renowned as a formidable military leader.

The Dove and the Sword, by Nancy Garden, tells the story of the woman who is probably the most recognized woman warrior in history: Joan of Arc, the charismatic leader of the French during the Hundred Years War. Told through the eyes of Gabrielle de Domremy, a childhood friend of Joan, and the 'dove' to Joan's 'sword,' this story traces Joan from her first calling to her death at the stake. Gabrielle is a courageous young woman, but entirely fictional, but the author used many primary documents in building her story. As far as I could ascertain, most of the words attributed to Joan in this novel are actually her own words.

Women warriors might always win in fiction and fantasy, but the real world has not always been so kind to strong women. The stories of neither Joan of Arc nor Boudicca end well: both were destroyed by enemies and died brutally. But even if they failed to attain their goals, their noble lives and dedication to their causes can inspire today's girls to continue the fight for freedom to live their lives the way they choose.

Jennifer Bohnhoff is a seventh grade social studies teacher and the author of three works of middle grade historical fiction. You can read about her and her books at her website:

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