Marilla, Alva, and Women With Gumption

Gumption. It’s a wonderful word, isn’t it? I grew up with two older brothers and I can remember being filled with pride when I once overheard my dad quietly chuckling and commenting on how I could hold my own after a sassy retort in reply to their teasing. My mom kept me well supplied with books centered on women who were resourceful and feisty and plucky (there’s another word I love).  I love a strong woman and I love reading about strong women in all the forms in which they come.

Two of my favorite review copies I received this year, with heartfelt thanks to the publishers at St. Martin’s Press and William Morrow, were Therese Anne Fowler’s A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts and Sarah McCoy’s Marilla of Green Gables.  Both feature main characters with real gumption.

I grew up going to the Newport mansions and can actually recall first learning about Alva Vanderbilt on the tours. I was thrilled to hear about a real life woman flouting convention and kicking butt. Fowler guides readers from the time when Alva saved her family from the poorhouse by making a strategic marriage, through eventually asserting herself in that marriage to do things her way, being ostracized herself from the other women of the elite wealthy society by fighting for women’s right to vote, and to when she eventually divorces her husband and marries for love. Fowler’s exploration of a complex and gutsy woman was such a wonderfully absorbing read that I highly recommend.

Similarly, I can recall reading the Anne books as a child and, I would imagine like most readers, slowly being won over to Marilla’s hard personality.  Initially prickly and strict, we come to see that her tough shell hides a soft center and that her actions, though perhaps sometimes unreasonable, come from a place of trying to do what’s right. I thought that McCoy does an excellent job of further showing us how Marilla became the strong, capable, loyal woman we know in later books and it was so much fun getting to know Marilla as a young woman who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind nor stand up for what’s right.

Scroll down to see a list of books that I imagine might be in Alva and Marilla’s book stacks: more women with gumption. You’ll see that there’s something for every age.

Trailblazer: A Girl Power Primer by Joan Holub
This board book tells the story of often overlooked women who have made a big impact in history, like Ada Lovelace and Ruby Bridges.
Jane and the Dragon by Martin Baynton
I loved this one as a kid and I love this one now.  This picture book tells the story of a young woman who wants to be a knight and her friend who supports her, knowing that society’s pressures to conform are not always right.
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
This is a classic middle grade that I’m often surprised to hear people haven’t read. I like that Turtle is a bit like Harriet the Spy: not necessarily likeable, but you kind of like her anyways, and you definitely admire her spirit.
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Young adult that features a heroine who is both physically and mentally strong.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
I’ve heard this book being dismissed a bit as of late, but I’m here to defend it. There are certainly problems with race, but I don’t think you can read fault with Jane herself.  When I first read this book in fifth grade, I was infuriated that she didn’t just marry Mr. Rochester, but when I reread this one more recently I was floored by her amazing conviction.
You Learn By Living by Eleanor Roosevelt
I’ve been saving this one for the right moment and haven’t read it yet, but I’m always in awe when I read bits of Roosevelt’s wisdom. What a woman.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson
A charming book in which we get to watch the main character find her gumption over the course of one extraordinary day.
Betsy Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace
I talk about these books a lot, but one of the reasons I so deeply love this series is that Lovelace, back in the early 1900s, shows that women can be strong in all sorts of ways, whether they want to be at home raising family or out in the “Great World” pursuing their dreams, and that we should support each other rather than getting caught up in needless competition.
Peace Like A River by Leif Enger
If you, too, love Scout and her feistiness, you will be delighted by the narrator’s sister, Swede.
 What are some of your favorite books that feature women with gumption?

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  • Shell says:

    I enjoyed this post. I was thinking about this same topic the other day after I started my current read. I haven’t read any of the Anne books so I’m looking forward to reading them.

  • Mollie Reads says:

    OH I lOOOVE this post, Erin. And Swede has my heart forever. Goodness. P.S. I’m reading Jane Eyre for the very first time in January

    • Erin says:

      Mollie, you’re going to LOVE Jane Eyre. I think…haha. Somewhere deep in my bones, I’m feeling that she’s your kind of woman, though. And, yes, Swede forever <3.

  • emilyisbookish says:

    I LOVE this post!! I now own both A Well-Behaved Woman and Marilla of Green Gables, and can’t wait to read them! Have you ever seen the movie The Holiday? I think it first made me adore the word “gumption.” We all need it. 😉

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