Updated: Apr 11
By Nancy Harris | For The Patriot Ledger
April 9, 2021
The last five years have seen a significant rise in women-centric historical fiction focusing on the stories of courageous women who have survived unfathomable hardships, taken incredible risks, or simply dared to dream of a better life. Some of these stories are about well-known public figures and others about ordinary women who persevered in unimaginable circumstances. Courage like this is not only a personal strength that serves the individual but also has the potential to inspire others.
But what is courage?
The human brain is hard-wired to be afraid. In fact, the fight or flight mechanism has been key to human survival. While today we may not be running from dangerous wooly predators, the fear mechanism still works. When confronted with danger or challenge it is easy to focus on all the things that could go wrong. While physical risk certainly evokes fear, so too does uncertainty, failure, and losing face. While many people think of courage as fearlessness, psychologists define courage as the ability to act in spite of fear or seemingly overwhelming obstacles.
Clearly, some children come into this world less risk-averse than others and some mature into courage over time. But psychologists now generally believe that courage is not a fixed trait, but rather can be learned and even practiced. Research shows that military bomb disposing officers who initially lack the ability to persist in face of danger learned to do so as a result of specialized training. They concluded that not only being well prepared for a challenge, but knowing it, was key to cultivating courage. Similarly, other psychologists suggest that the ability to “grow courage” comes from taking risks- regularly, intelligently, and progressively. Finally, courage is a skill we can learn by regularly observing others who manage their own fear and anxiety since emotional self-regulation is critical during intense challenges.
It is my belief that courageous role models teach us five critical things:
Survival isn’t the only catalyst for courageous behavior, sometimes the conflict behind the life we are living and the life we want to live can trigger courageous behavior.
When we take on challenges, regardless of the outcome, the struggle alone offers the opportunity to become the best version of ourselves.
Each of us has the power to choose a motivation beyond fear to engage in a courageous action-such as doing what is right or decent.
Preparation or training can help us become more courageous, but inevitably a leap of faith in oneself is also required.
When we see that many before us have survived and thrived in difficult times, we learn that we can too.
The stories below highlight women who have found their own voices, defied cultural expectations, and had the courage to seek a better life for themselves and others.
“The Four Winds” by Kristin Hannah is a searingly powerful, and thoroughly engrossing work of historical fiction that vividly brings to life the Great Depression through the eyes of one indomitable woman.
Texas in 1921 is flourishing, but for Elsa Wolcott, deemed too old to marry at twenty-five, the future seems bleak. But when she meets handsome Rafe Martinelli, her future takes a dramatic turn. With her reputation in ruins, she is forced to marry. While life on the Martinelli family farm brings a sense of belonging and the birth of two children, by 1934 harsh changes are in the air. Millions are out of work, drought has devastated crops, families are starving, and Elsa’s marriage has died along with the Martinelli Farm. In this desperate time, Elsa must choose whether to stay and fight for the land she loves, or journey west to California, in search of a better life for her children.
KRISTIN HANNAH | THE FOUR WINDS
“Surviving Savannah” by Patti Callahan is a richly evocative, utterly compelling, and meticulously researched novel inspired by the real-life 1838 sinking of the luxury steamship Pulaski, known as the “Titanic of the South.”
In present-day Savannah, young history professor Everly Winthrop is asked to curate a collection of artifacts from the wreckage of the steamship Pulaski, which sunk thirty miles off the coast of North Carolina. Everly is grieving the loss of her best friend Mona, and this endeavor may help her with her grief. In this dual story timeline, Everly uncovers the secrets of two women aboard the ill-fated vessel, Augusta Longstreet, and her niece Lily Forsyth. Lilly and her young baby appear to survive the steamship explosion but are never seen again after their lifeboat reaches shore. Difficult and daring choices are made the night of the sinking that determines the fate of these aristocratic women of Savannah.
PATTI CALLAHAN | SURVIVING SAVANNAH
“Code Name Helene: A Novel” by Ariel Lawhorn is a richly detailed and spellbinding novel about Australian-born, real-life socialite turned spy, Nancy Wake who fought the nazis and established supply lines for the French Resistance.
In 1936 Nancy wake is an Australian ex-pat journalist living in Paris when she meets and marries wealthy French industrialist, Henry Fiocca. Though deeply in love, time is not on their side. Germany invades France, and Nancy leaves journalism to become Lucienne Carlier, a daring woman who smuggles people and documents across the border. Nicknamed The White Mouse by the Gestapo there is now a five million franc bounty on her head. Forced to leave France, she becomes a special operative for Britain, code name Helene, and is airdropped back into France. Armed with her signature bright red lipstick, cunning, British weapons, and unfaltering resolve she daringly leads the all-male Maquis fighters in sabotage and the fight of her life.
ARIEL LAWHON | CODE NAME HELENE
Book Smart is a monthly column by Nancy Harris of Scituate, a practicing psychologist and a former instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.