Recently someone asked me what books I read as a girl that helped form my notions of femininity and womanhood. I write, after all, romance that feature strong women—women passionate and daring enough to brave danger and adventure to realize their dreams. I certainly must have been bred on strong female characters as a child. Right?
I pondered the question, and my conclusion actually surprised me.
As a girl I was never that interested in girl’s fiction. Though I played Nancy Drew with my sisters—enthusiastically—I didn’t really read the books. (My sisters always assigned me the part of Bess, and I still don’t know what that meant. Someone please enlighten me!) Louisa May Alcott’s little women were enough like me and my four sisters that I adored them. But in truth they felt too familiar and, you see, I was searching for transcendence. Even Joe’s writerly passion only inspired me in a comfortable, homey way. I missed Anne of Green Gables entirely (she came to me as a gift in adulthood that I now cherish). I did, however, swallow Jane Austen’s books whole. Then I swallowed them again and again, a glutton feasting on the same meal night after night. Without doubt, Austen fed the lover of wit and wonderful language in me. In their turn, the Brontes inspired my passion for deep emotion.
But the stories to which I gravitated most eagerly were adventures. As a child tucked in a corner of the old Baptist church-come-small town library, I raced through Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books. Here was a spirit and passion that could not be tamed, but for love would perform any deed. Here was a kind of transcendence that could be found on earth.
It is perhaps not surprising then that my greatest love as a girl was J.R.R. Tolkien. He taught me that which my super-relaxed 1970’s Catholic catechism classes did not, but which I felt so tantalizingly on the edge of the universe each time I went to Mass, each time I learned another tidbit of the history of humanity: Evil exists. Evil is powerful. Evil will win . . . For a time. Then goodness will fight. Then courage will prevail. Then fellowship will roar.
Tolkien’s characters were mostly men, but the passion in their souls, the fear and confusion and bravery and love and honor that drove them, filled my young heart and showed me an epic reality. That reality has nourished me and fueled my dreams and hopes for humanity ever since, and it guides my pen with every story I write.