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The Spirit of Girls

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I’m Leslie VonHolten of Chase County, Kansas, with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte.

She throws like a girl. She’s a weak sister. Hey, don’t be such a girl.

Come on. By now most of us know these are garbage colloquialisms, even though we still hear them.

We all know—right?— that we should all strive to be as tough as little girls.

In Paulette Jiles’s book News of the World, it’s 1870 and 71-year-old Captain Kidd is hired to return young Johanna Leonberger to her immigrant German family in Texas. Only Johanna thinks of herself as Cicada, and her family as Turning Water and Three Spotted, her parents among the Kiowa Indians. She has been with them for four years, since she was 6 years old.

Through their journey from Wichita Falls to San Antonio, Johanna’s person unfolds. She’s scared but defiant. Strong, skillful, and adaptable. Tender and kind. Loyal. And a heck of a fighter.

While reading News of the World, I was reminded of other fighting girls in literature. There is Janey, the young girl in the classic Lonesome Dove who brains the creepy old man who bought her and is holding her hostage. She escapes and runs off to follow the hapless deputy Roscoe Brown. She works as his scout and guide, running barefoot (like Johanna) through Texas, refusing to ride along. Instead she walks, or slinks off into the brush to reappear with news of what lies ahead. And talk about throwing like a girl—Janey is a crack shot with that right arm, felling rabbits for dinner and whacking nefarious bad guys off their horses, thereby saving Roscoe’s tail end.

Then there is the original girl boss, Pippi Longstocking. She’s so strong she can lift a horse with one arm! Her mother has died and her seafaring father is lost at sea—or maybe he’s a king somewhere—so Pippi makes due. She’s got a monkey, a horse, and a house, and she is free as a bird. Like Johanna and Janey, Pippi doesn’t truck with your social conventions and your haughty manners and your fancy clothes and your ideas about what makes a girl a girl.

Johanna also made me think of Fiona, the resilient little sister in Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers. Set in 1980s Chicago in the early days of the AIDS crisis, before we even knew what AIDS was and what was happening, 11-year-old Fiona would sneak food and money to her brother Nico who had been disowned from their family because he was gay. When Nico gets the virus, she is his nurse and advocate. When his friends get sick, she cares for and fights for them, even when doctors and politicians and researchers lack compassion. It’s Fiona, a girl, barely a teen, who runs onto this strange undefined battlefield to fight for men she loves and for principles she knows are just.

Fiona’s story is a deeper character study than Johanna’s, Janey’s, and Pippi’s, and author Rebecca Makkai follows the impact of these events into Fiona’s adulthood. Her life has been hard and sorrowful, but she perseveres. The tough little girl grown into the passionate and persistent grandmother.

Challenges abound for our girls today, especially when our popular media doesn’t depict them as the dynamic, strong, layered, and skillful people they are. Myself, I want to amplify these literary characters like Johanna, like Janey and Pippi and Fiona. Characters with spirit and tenacity.

The HPPR Radio Readers Book Club is made possible in part by generous gifts from Lon Frahm of Colby and Lynne Hewes of Cimarron, Kansas. Find more at HPPR.org, or like us on Facebook.