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Girls Gone Wild: Adventurous Women, Past and Present

by Susan Brown

*This article originally appeared in the May issue of RA News. Subscribe to RA News and any of our other newsletters.*

One of last year's most popular nonfiction books was Cheryl Strayed's Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Part memoir, part adventure tale, Wild details Strayed's perilous and personal journey from the Mojave Desert to Washington State. An inexperienced hiker, she set out on a lengthy solo hike after the death of her mother and the demise of her marriage. Along the way, she encountered rattlesnakes and record snowfalls and discovered deep personal truths about herself and the world around her.

But Strayed wasn't the first woman to set out on a grand and perilous adventure in search of something new in the world and true about herself. History is full of women who wanted to see more of the world and learn more about themselves and set out to do both, recording their thoughts along the way. Readers who enjoyed Strayed's rich, detailed recounting of her adventure, as well as her personal reflections on her life as a woman and a wife, may enjoy learning about those who had similar experiences before her.

Claiming Ground by Laura Bell
ISBN: 9780307272881

Fans of Wild will find much to enjoy in Claiming Ground, Laura Bell's memoir of her journey to a remote Wyoming ranch in the late 1970s. Not sure what to do with her life in Kentucky after graduating from college, Bell headed to Wyoming to work as the only woman on a sheep ranch. Once there, she found herself surrounded by gruff ranch hands, many of whom were alcoholics. She also confronted a lonely landscape and tough working conditions, both of which she writes about while reflecting on her own inner life. Her adventure, like Strayed's, was at times lonely and dangerous, but it was also fodder for a moving memoir.

 

A Little More About Me by Pam Houston
ISBN: 9780393048056

Many readers may know Houston from her short story collection, Cowboys Are My Weakness. Readers who pick up A Little More About Me, a collection of essays, will certainly learn more about the author and her physical and emotional adventures. Houston has traveled to nearly fifty countries, braved whitewater rapids, trekked the Himalayas, hunted in Alaska, and camped in Africa. Though these trips are fascinating, what sets this book apart is Houston’s humorous tone combined with stirring reflections on her personal life – her childhood, her struggles with body image and self-esteem, and her relationships with men. Readers who pick this up for the adventure will be moved by the author’s personal reflections and readers who pick this up looking for a moving memoir will be fascinated by the author’s travels and travails around the world.

Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West by Dorothy Winkenden
ISBN: 9781439176580

Young men weren't the only ones who went West in the early twentieth century. In 1916, Victorian socialites Rosamund Underwood and Dorothy Woodruff were bored with their upper-crust life and looking for adventure. They shocked their families when they took jobs at a new school in Colorado built for the children of homesteaders. Written by Woodruff's granddaughter, Nothing Daunted uses the pair's letters home as source material to detail their journey west, their new life among the hardscrabble homesteaders, and their observations of the new world they discover. Along the way, readers also get a glimpse of the world that was changing around them, including the expansion of the railroad, the plight of Native Americans, and the battle over mining rights. Readers who enjoy memoir may find this book appealing because of its reliance on letters and diaries to tell the story of this dynamic duo.

The Bolter by Frances Osbourne
ISBN: 978030727014

Like Winkenden, author Frances Osborne uses the letters and diaries left behind by her infamous great grandmother, Idina Sackville, to tell the tale of an adventurous woman and her time. Sackville was firmly ensconced in Britain's Edwardian high society when she shocked the world by divorcing her husband and running off to Africa's Happy Valley with another man. In Africa, she went on safari and spent long days alongside the workers on her plantation; she even bred cattle successfully. However, the adventures she is most known for happened inside her plantation home, in the drawing room and the bedroom. Sackville's personal adventures included five divorces, rumors of wild orgies, and scandalous parties. Much as Strayed examined her own life and place in the world, Frances Osbourne does the same for her ancestor, touching on themes of gender equality, family life, and the fabric of a society that was rapidly changing.

Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Artic by Jennifer Niven
ISBN: 9780786887460

Cheryl Strayed was far from being adept at wilderness survival when she set off on her adventure, and neither was Ada Blackjack, the Inuit woman who is the hero of this gripping true tale. In 1921, Blackjack was a divorced twenty-three-year-old mother who could not afford to care for her child, who was suffering from tuberculosis. In exchange for a significant amount of money, she agreed to accompany an Arctic expedition which would turn out to be disastrous. Hired on as the expedition's seamstress and domestic helper, she ended up being the only survivor of a nightmarish adventure gone wrong. Niven relies on letters and diary entries to tell the tale of Ada's life before, during, and after the mission.

One of my favorite bumper stickers reads “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” While the women featured in this list weren’t necessarily behaving badly, they did, like Cheryl Strayed, step outside of their comfort zones to experience a new world around them and discover a new spirit within them. Readers are fortunate that many of them documented their experiences in letters, diaries, and memoirs that can be read by a new generation of women and maybe inspire some wild behavior that might just make history.


Susan Brown took her first library job to earn beer money in college. After several years in academic and government libraries, she finally found her true calling behind the reference and readers' advisory desk at a public library. Before moving to Kansas, she worked at libraries in Virginia and North Carolina and has her M.L.S. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is currently the marketing director at Lawrence Public Library in Lawrence, KS and is passionate about readers' services, social media, and marketing and merchandising for public libraries. Susan blogs about practical marketing for public libraries at 658.8 -- Practical Marketing for Public Libraries.