Literature’s Unlikely Heroines and Heroes

There are plenty of novels out there with characters seemingly born to be heroes and heroines. Brave. Perhaps big and strong. Perhaps with lots of training in the defensive and attacking arts.

Then there are novels starring unlikely heroines and heroes. Unlikely because the protagonists are very young, very old, not physically powerful, etc. Those books can make for riveting reading as they take us by surprise, allow us to relate to characters who don’t seem superhuman, etc.

My most recently read example of this phenomenom was Ray Bradbury’s deliciously creepy novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. A scary carnival has arrived in town, endangering the live of several people — including the boys Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway. To the rescue comes…a brooding, bookish, middle-aged janitor: Will’s father Charles.

There’s also Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels. She’s a young, abused, antisocial computer hacker — not your typical literary heroine. But very courageous in a nothing-to-lose way.

Or how about Mary Minor Haristeen, who solves crimes with the help of her pets in the engaging mystery series by Rita Mae Brown. Mary’s training for her heroics? Running a small-town post office.

Another amateur detective, the elderly Miss Marple of various Agatha Christie mysteries, is also not a typical heroine.

Then there’s Neville Longbottom of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In the early books, Neville is a timid and socially awkward student. By the seventh and final book, Harry and friends may not have survived without the grown-bold Neville.

Speaking of popular fantasy works, J.R.R. Tolkien has Frodo Baggins find heroism the diminutive character barely thought possible during the dangerous adventures of he and his cohorts in The Lord of the Rings.

In the dystopian-novels-set-in-the-near-future realm, the resourceful/precocious teens Laura and Willing coolly keep family and friends together in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower and (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles. Heck, Laura in Butler’s book even manages to found a new religion of sorts.

Historical fiction? There’s the unlikely visionary teen heroine who’s martyred in Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. And the courageous sisters who, in a very patriarchal/macho society, take the huge risk of opposing brutal Dominican Republican dictator Rafael Trujillo in Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies.

Who are your favorite unlikely heroines and heroes in literature?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — about America’s gun violence and more — is here.

For Novel Readers, It’s Love at Later Sight

After discussing great debut novels in last week’s post, I naturally thought about so-so debut novels by authors who eventually became great writers. In some cases, they made the leap to excellence with their second novel. In other cases, it was more of a slow build.

One author who immediately sprang to mind was Jack London. In 1902, he came out with what’s considered his first novel: A Daughter of the Snows. I love the fact that it stars a strong woman, but the book’s clunky dialogue doesn’t sound like how people really talk, and London’s narration is also not very good. Then The Call of the Wild was published a year later, and it was brilliant. I don’t know what happened during those 12 months, but someone please bottle it!

Around the same time, Edith Wharton wrote the novellas The Touchstone (1900) and Sanctuary (1903). Mildly interesting books. Then came the quantum leap to The House of Mirth (1905), a justly iconic novel with an enormous emotional wallop.

Let’s move on a few years and look at Willa Cather. Her debut novel Alexander’s Bridge (1912) is good but not that distinctive. A year later, Cather found her “prairie” voice with O Pioneers! — uneven, but with many great moments. Then she knocked things out of the park with The Song of the Lark (1915) and My Antonia (1918).

F. Scott Fitzgerald? His first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), has terrific writing in some places, mediocre writing in others. Five years later…The Great Gatsby, about as close to prose perfection as an author can get.

Terry McMillan made her novel debut with the good Mama in 1987, and, five years later, wrote the superb Waiting to Exhale.

And Barbara Kingsolver started with 1988’s excellent The Bean Trees. A decade later, she took a humungous leap with her amazing fourth novel, The Poisonwood Bible.

But enough about American authors.

When Sir Walter Scott turned from poetry to novel writing, the first result was 1814’s Waverley — and one could tell he was still trying to master the new format. But it was not long before he wrote several top-notch novels, including Old Mortality (1816), The Heart of Midlothian (1818), and Ivanhoe (1820).

Anne Bronte’s debut novel Agnes Grey (1847) is absorbing, but several steps below her superb second novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848).

I haven’t read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s not-that-well-known novels from the 1840s and 1850s, but they surely didn’t approach his 1866 masterwork Crime and Punishment. Same for the Leo Tolstoy novels that preceded 1869’s epic War and Peace!

Emile Zola wrote quite a few novels before everything came together with The Drinking Den (1877), after which he penned several other excellent fiction books — most notably Germinal. Prior to The Drinking Den, Zola’s best novel was perhaps 1867’s Therese Raquin, but that potboiler was not great literature.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) was Erich Maria Remarque’s riveting third novel — kick-starting a run of a half-dozen other powerful fiction books through 1962’s The Night in Lisbon.

Some of your favorite authors who wrote non-stellar first novels?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — about my town’s schools superintendent search and a nasty comment aimed at a fellow Board of Education member — is here.

Memorable Debut Novels

Last week I talked about excellent late-career novels. This week, the focus will be on some of literature’s best debut novels!

First books are often a mixed bag, with many novelists in that situation still getting the hang of the fiction-writing thing. But a number of them hit the ground running — some helped by having had short stories or other non-novel fiction previously published.

For a sampling of great debut novels I’ve read, let’s go chronologically, shall we?

Jane Austen’s first published book was Sense and Sensibility (1811) — pretty darn good for a fiction debut!

Mary Shelley wrote the 1818-released Frankenstein in her late teens, and that precocious work is still riveting and influential in its bicentennial year.

The Pickwick Papers (1837) remains one of the funniest books ever written, and jump-started an amazing run of novels for Charles Dickens over the remaining 33 years of his life.

Adam Bede — George Eliot’s 1859 debut novel about a young man, a young female preacher, and more — gets a bit overlooked in that author’s canon. It’s a tremendous book that would be the best of many an author’s efforts, but Eliot went on to top it with The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, Middlemarch, and Daniel Deronda.

Like Dickens, Colette started her novel-writing career with a hilarious book — 1900’s Claudine at School — before moving on to deeper, more serious fare.

Eight years later came L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, my favorite young-adult novel ever.

Two exceptional debut novels of the 1940s included Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. McCullers’ 1940 book, written when she wasn’t much older than Mary Shelley had been when penning Frankenstein, is a compelling chronicle of several characters. Michener’s 1947 book is an example of related short stories coalescing into a novel.

Ray Bradbury’s haunting novel debut The Martian Chronicles (1950) is also a book of loosely connected tales.

Isabel Allende’s first novel was the ambitious, multigenerational, magic-realism-studded The House of the Spirits (1982).

A decade later, the college-set The Secret History (1992) became an impressive career opener for Donna Tartt — though that author’s The Goldfinch would eventually surpass it in quality.

In the action-thriller realm, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher debut novel Killing Floor (1997) is almost unbearably exciting.

Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000) juggled all kinds of characters and multicultural situations in a way that was both deadly serious and hysterically funny.

And Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (2003), set in both Afghanistan and the U.S., was an intense and powerful debut.

Then there are authors who had only published novel, which made that book not only their debut but also their swan song. Memorable examples include Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird,  Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, to name a few. (The last two came out after the authors died.) Of course there are gray areas when it comes to whether one-novel authors are really one-novel authors — for instance, Ellison’s Juneteenth was edited into publishable form and released posthumously, while Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was marketed as a distinct novel but was probably an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.

What are some of the debut novels you admire most — either the ones I mentioned or the many I didn’t?

Speaking of impressive debuts, here’s a live version of the first single from the great Irish band The Cranberries, whose singer Dolores O’Riordan tragically died last month at the too-young age of 46.

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — a Gettysburg Address parody — is here.

Authors Who Save Their Best (Or Their Near Best) for Last

Late-career novels! They can be tired, not that original, or other negative things — even if they’re written by great authors. There are only so many ideas in novelists’ brains, and their energy might flag as they grow older.

Yet, over the centuries, some authors have penned exceptional books decades after their debut novels were published — after spending many years honing their craft and gaining (frequently bitter) life experience. In some cases, those books may have taken longer to write than those authors’ earlier efforts, but they were worth the wait.

I thought about this last week while reading the novella Hadji Murat, which Leo Tolstoy started in 1896 and finished in 1904 (when in his mid-70s) before it was released posthumously in 1912. (Tolstoy’s best-known works — War and Peace and Anna Karenina — were published much earlier, in 1867 and 1877, respectively.) Hadji Murat, about a brave and adept Chechen rebel, is a gripping piece of fiction — with the added bonus of a scathingly satirical look at the loathsome Tsar Nicholas I, who appears in one chapter.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s final work was none other than his amazing The Brothers Karamazov, published in 1880 — the year before Dostoyevsky died at age 59. Many literature lovers debate whether Karamazov or 1866’s Crime and Punishment were better (I prefer the latter), but they’re both masterpieces. Dostoyevsky’s first novel came out in 1846.

Herman Melville’s first novel, Typee, also appeared in 1846. Forty-two years later — when Melville was in his late 60s and hadn’t authored a book for many years — he began the riveting Billy Budd that ended up being published posthumously.

Many novelists with successful late-career books come out with fewer fictional works in their later years for a variety of reasons — other things to do, the aforementioned fewer ideas and lower energy levels, etc. In Melville’s case, he had fallen into obscurity after poor sales and negative critical reaction to works such as Moby-Dick and Pierre.

I’m not sure why George Eliot wrote fewer novels after a rapid burst at the start of her fiction-writing career, but the last two — Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda in the 1870s — are incredible. Maybe it had to take several years to create such long, rich works.

But Henry James annually churned out three admired, complex novels in 1902 (The Wings of the Dove), 1903 (The Ambassadors), and 1904 (The Golden Bowl) in the latter part of a fiction-writing career that began in the 1860s.

Also at the start of the 20th century, we have a young Colette bursting onto the literary scene with 1900’s Claudine at School. But perhaps her best-known work is 1944’s Gigi — published when the author was in her early 70s.

Agatha Christie, whose first novel was published in 1920, continued to churn out mysteries into the 1960s and 1970s. They might not have been her best work, but were still considered quite good.

John Steinbeck’s debut novel Cup of Gold came out in 1929. His last full-length fiction book — 1961’s The Winter of Our Discontent — was a very solid effort.

Margaret Atwood, whose first novel The Edible Woman arrived in 1969, was still writing with the best of them in her mid-70s when the excellent third-in-a-trilogy MaddAddam appeared in 2013.

Toni Morrison recently wrote two well-reviewed novels — Home and God Help the Child — in her 80s. Her first novel appeared back in 1970.

And going way back, Voltaire was in his mid-60s with a large canon of writing when his masterpiece Candide came out in 1759.

Late-career duds or near-duds? There are many, but I’ll name just three: Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl, Erich Maria Remarque’s Shadows in Paradise, and Jack Finney’s From Time to Time.

Your favorite late-career novels? Any misfires you’d like to mention that were published near the end of authors’ lives? (And for those of you who are rooting against the New England Patriots in tonight’s Super Bowl, the still-great-at-40 quarterback Tom Brady will be late in his career one of these decades…  🙂  )

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — my 700th! — is here.