Orliana Morag

We all have books that inspire us, whether they were childhood favorites or books we discovered as adults.  Sometimes it’s the main character that serves as our inspiration; other times, it’s the author themselves.  When I was trying to come up with my list of books that changed my life, I noticed most of them were written by women.  As an aspiring author, it makes sense that I would be influenced by female writers, but I also wanted to know if other women who didn’t want to pursue literary careers felt the same.  As it turns out, they absolutely did!  In a society in which most books in school curricula were written by men, my female friends and family members drew their inspiration from some of the greatest writers of all time—women.  So, if you’re struggling to find books that ignite your creative fire, here are six to fan the flame.

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Purchase 'Salvage the Bones' here!

Let’s start with a classic: Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  

For one of my friends, this was the book that taught her it was ok to sit outside and wonder about the world.  In her somewhat fictionalized autobiography, Wilder recounts her experiences growing up near Indian Territory in the late 19th century, including building a house, preparing land for a farm, and grappling with all the challenges of surviving on the American frontier.  Living in Wisconsin and Indiana, my friend spent a lot of time pretending she was a homesteader and acting out passages from the book.  She said it was Little House on the Prairie which sparked her imagination and first got her interested in historical fiction.  In her words, the Little House series is ‘some of the only quality historical novels about girls for girls.’  

Next up is something rather different: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward.  

A literal genius (Ward was a recipient of the MacArthur “genius grant” in 2017), Ward has also won two National Book Awards for Fiction, one of which was for this novel about family and resilience in the face of unspeakable tragedy.  Set in a coastal Mississippi town, the story spans twelve days, ten of them leading up to Hurricane Katrina, one on the day of the storm, and the last in its wake.  Ward and her family experienced the disaster first-hand; their house was flooded and they spent hours stranded in their car before they managed to find shelter.

Even though Salvage the Bones is centered around Hurricane Katrina, it’s about so much more.  Esch, the main character, is a 15 year-old girl whose life has never been easy; life for poor African-Americans in rural areas rarely is.  After what she believes to be a romantic affair with her brother’s best friend, she finds herself pregnant.  The boy denies any responsibility, and Esch is left only with a strengthened conviction that her life mirrors that of Medea, the Greek sorceress consumed by heartbreak and revenge.

Ward’s beautiful prose, as well as her portrayal of a struggle so often ‘ghetto-ized as “other,”’ makes Salvage the Bones truly universal.  While works by Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Melville, and countless other white men are frequently praised as the ‘Great American Novel,’ Ward presents a different version of America—one that is just as real and just as powerful.

Now for an author with something for everyone: Margaret Atwood.  

With work ranging from poetry to graphic novels, children’s books to librettos, Atwood really has done it all.  One of her most famous, and I believe most significant works, The Handmaid’s Tale, focuses on a dystopian future in which women’s rights are abolished.  Countering the suggestion that her book could be categorized as science fiction, Atwood instead described it as ‘speculative fiction,’ or a fictional story that could occur.  The novel deals with subjugation, dehumanization, religious fanaticism, and the resistance of a totalitarian regime in such a way that terrifies its readers; many of its scenes could have been taken straight from Nazi Germany or Cambodia under Pol Pot, while others seem like a foreshadowing of what is to come.  Frightening though it may be, the sheer plausibility of The Handmaid’s Tale inspires us to actively protect the freedoms those before us fought so hard to secure.  

And speaking of women’s rights, here are two of the books responsible for attaining them: Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.  

These two books are enormously important to second-wave feminism, both in France and in the United States.  The Second Sex is an extraordinary analysis of womanhood through the lenses of physiology, biology, semantics, economics, and so many more.  Some claim that Beauvoir’s treatise laid the groundwork for our current distinctions between sex and gender.  An advocate for safe and widely available contraception and abortion, de Beauvoir fought tirelessly for their legalization.  A proponent of ‘open marriage,’ de Beauvoir spent fifty years in one herself with Jean-Paul Sartre, the so-called ‘Father of Existentialism.’  According to Camille Paglia, noted critic, nearly all modern feminist literature has its origin in The Second Sex.

Friedan’s book focuses on the ‘problem that has no name,’ i.e. the widespread dissatisfaction of the American housewife.  Contrary to the idea propagated in the 1950s that a woman would achieve fulfillment if surrounded by material comforts and a loving family, Friedan found that these women were suffocating in a world of ‘Father Knows Best’ and Ladies Home Journal.  Many of the women with whom she spoke had attended college, and yet, after graduation or marriage (whichever came first), they were sent back to the home to raise children.  These women had their ambitions stifled and suffered acute psychological distress as a result.  The Feminine Mystique rallied middle-class women to the feminist cause and spurred legislative change, like the Equal Pay Act of 1963.  

As monumental as this work is, there are valid criticisms to be made.  Friedan’s audience is the white, middle-class housewife.  Nowhere in the book does she mention women of color or women of different socioeconomic backgrounds.  So, if you choose to read this book, which I still recommend you do, note the omission.  And do your part to make sure that the current wave of feminism lives up to its claim of intersectionality.  

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While works by Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Melville are praised as the ‘Great American Novel,’ Ward presents a different version of America—one that is just as real and just as powerful.

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Finally, we come to my all-time favorite novel by my all-time favorite author: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.  

I know, I know, we all love the Keira Knightley film and the BBC version with Colin Firth emerging from a lake.  I do too!  But Pride and Prejudice is also the book that made me want to become an author.  Some view the novel simply as a romance, a story of love conquering societal norms.  I strongly disagree with this interpretation.  For me, Pride and Prejudice is about the fallibility of love and the unfortunate necessity of marrying to survive.  Elizabeth, despite her intelligence, is a fool when it comes to Mr. Wickham; Charlotte Lucas’s choice to marry the ridiculous Mr. Collins was a sacrifice committed by untold numbers of women throughout history.  At a time in which many female authors were disregarded, the fact that her books (all published anonymously ‘by a Lady’) achieved any degree of success and popularity was remarkable.  This is especially true since Austen herself never married, an act that would have provided her with financial stability.  With its intricate layers of social commentary and satire, all tucked neatly under a cover of biting sarcasm, Pride and Prejudice provided the public with a refreshing twist on overly melodramatic books then being published.  

So there you have it!  Six incredible books written by six incredible authors—women who stood up for their beliefs and conquered impenetrable barriers in order to ensure that young girls’ dreams were not limited to the adoring wife or submissive daughter.  In all these books, the female characters create their own identities as individuals, refusing to be defined solely in relation to others.  And because of Wilder, Ward, Atwood, de Beauvoir, Friedan, Austen, and countless others, my girlfriends and I have learned to do the same.  If you have more works that inspire you, email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.!

 

Orliana Morag is a rising sophomore at the University of Chicago, where she is pursuing degrees in History, English, and Creative Writing. She hopes to be an author, specializing in fiction and social commentary.

 

 

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