These women have gone through some stuff you and I likely never will but we can go along for eight amazing rides and if you are lucky arrive at the end a bit braver, stronger, more self-aware. You might just tackle a Reine de Saba, Julia’s first French cake or swim the English Channel (with a team) like I did. Two of these fine women actually did change my life. Your reactions may not be as dramatic but I guarantee their stories will have an impact.
- Beryl Markham
“Around Beryl life was never dull. Like a comet passing through the firmament she lit up all around her. None who came in contact with her could fail to recognize the genius of a truly remarkable person.”
Everyone has heard about the American aviator, Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, but Beryl Markham was pretty amazing and much less feted. She made history in 1936 as the first person ever to fly the Atlantic solo, in the other direction, from England to North America. Check out West With the Night and Straight on Till Morning by Markham’s biographer Mary S. Lovell. Or for a compelling recent historical fiction memoir I recommend, Circling the Sun by Paula McClain. Much of her life was spent flying in Africa and spending some reading time in her company will make you feel like an adventurer and explorer in the days when the world seemed a much bigger place.
2. Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Anne was the author of more than two dozen books but she is best known for two dramatic experiences when she was in her 20’s. One was blissful, one anguished. There were reflected in the title of a volume of her diaries, Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead. She met and married Charles Lindbergh, who was the first to fly solo across the Atlantic making him at the time, the most famous man in the world. The second experience came on the evening of March 1, 1932 where the Lindbergh were at home with their 20-month old son, Charles Jr. and a nurse, Betty Gow. The nurse looked in now and then on Charlie as he slept in his crib.
“At 10 Betty went in to the baby, shut the window, then lit the electric stove, then turned to the bed; it was empty, and the sides still up,” Anne wrote. The Lindberghs were soon enveloped in the horror of the kidnapping, the discovery of the baby’s body 10 weeks later and the long investigation to catch the kidnappers.
I poured through the five volumes of her diaries that chronicle the birth of the paparazzi that hounded the famous couple and her own flying exploits. She learned to navigate, to operate a radio and to pilot a plane. In 1930 she became the first woman to get a glider pilot’s license in the US. That same year she was co-pilot and navigator when her husband broke the transatlantic speed record. Her first book, North to the Orient is a fun historical read as well although I loved the diaries.
Her life and love, was not without controversy. Lindbergh campaigned to keep America out of World War II. He also gave a speech in Iowa in 1941 in which he warned Jews of retribution for being among the leading “war agitators”. In her diary volume called War Within and Without, she said she experienced profound feelings of grief over what her husband had said.
In her later years, Anne discovered that Charles’ long trips away from home gave him the opportunity to have two other wives and more children… the plot thickens.
I loved the diaries for the history, her vulnerability, strength and mundane things like the enjoyment of the gardens she cultivated in England and France. Lindbergh fostered his wife’s feminism and in helping her to stand on her own two feet, created so much independent that it almost separated them. They are fascinating reading. I started with one of the diaries and haunted our used book store until I had read all five.
3. Lynne Cox
A pioneer of open water swimming, the description of Lynne Cox’s story in Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer by USA Today cracks me up. “What emerges here is an athlete whose determination is so fierce that it seems almost exotic. She is fit. She is focused. She is Lance Armstrong with body fat.”
Here are some of her amazing achievements – At the age of 16 she set a new world record for an English Channel swim. She was the first to swim the Strait of Magellan. She narrowly escaped a shark attack off the Cape of Good Hope and was cheered across the 20-mile Cook Strait of New Zealand by dolphins. She swam the Bering Straight and went for a mile long dip in the Antarctic, dodging icebergs.
A lover of adventure non-fiction, I’ve found many of the stories gripping but the telling of the tales a bit uneven. Many adventurers are better at clinging to mountains or running white water than they are re-telling their tale. Not so Lynne. I love her writing. She is an extraordinary athlete in the niche sport that has captured my passion but she also has the gift of describing her efforts so well that even non-swimmers can almost feel the cold water and absorb the experience.
I also recommend Grayson and her newest book, Swimming in the Sink.
Lynne gave our team advice when I asked her about comparing the English Channel (which our Crazy Canuck’s team did in 2016) to the Catalina Channel which we knocked off in 2019. She was right and I am her biggest fan.
4. Julia Child
Here is where you may think I’ve drifted off theme from my daring-does women. But far from it, Julia paved a remarkably courageous, strong and pioneering path of her own that changed the face of cookbook writing and cooking shows on what was then a new medium, television.
Start with My Life in France by Julia and if you are blown away by her humour and spirit as I was plunge in deeper with biographies. Dearie by Bob Spitz and Appetite for Life by Noel Riley Fitch will help fill your hunger for more joie de vivre and Julia.
Once you understand her purpose and the years and drive it took to bring the pleasure of French cooking to America, then it’s time to crack open Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volumes I and II and try your hand at some of the recipes. I highly recommend Boeuf Bourguignon, her French bread recipe (although it is 21 pages long) and finish off with a chocolate cake to end all chocolate cakes, the Reine de Saba.
5. Clementine Churchill
Her life story is so much more than the woman behind the man kind of tale. A great way to plunge into the life of Clementine is through her own words. Winston and Clementine, The Personal Letters of the Churchills edited by their daughter Mary Soames is a fascinating look at more than 60 years of the famous couple’s life. If you are into history it’s great. It’s also very romantic. Their loving relationship unfolds in all its sadness, tenderness and joy. It’s a real partnership and of course we all know Winston can write. Well, it turns out Clementine can too.
Here is just a little snippet:
3 August 1929
“My darling one,
It was not without some melancholy twinges that I watched the figures of Diana and Sarah disappearing on the quay. All departures from home – even on pleasure are sad. The vessel drifts away from the shore and an ever-widening gulf opens between one and the citadel of one’s life and soul. But most of all I was distressed to think of you being lonely and unhappy and left behind.”
6. Isak Dinesen
Born in 1885, Isak Dinesen was the pen name for Baroness Karen von Blixen, and the period of her life that most fascinates is her time in Ngong Hills in Kenya. Coles Notes version… she ran a coffee plantation, caught syphilis from her husband, returned to Denmark for the cure, came back to Africa and had a long-term affair with Denys Finch Hatton.
During this time in Africa she went on safari, flew with Finch Hatton in an open cockpit plane over stunning scenery and recorded life in in poetic prose. My favourite lines include the first of the book, “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the North, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you’d got high up, near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.”
And these, which send shivers up my spine, especially when spoken by Meryl Streep in the movie version of Dinesens’ book titled Out of Africa…
“If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?”
And this gem…
“Perhaps he knew, as I did not, that the Earth was made round so that we would not see too far down the road.”
Karen was one interesting lady. Good thing she could write so we could still learn about her.
7. Lucy Maude Montgomery
Here I’m diverging again from my theme. It’s not the author that inspires as much as the ahead-of-her-time character of Anne Shirley. But of course it’s the author Lucy Maude Montgomery that gave us Anne. The first in the series of books is of course Anne Of Green Gables, written in 1908, yup 1908.
Written for all ages, it has been considered a classic children’s novel since the mid-twentieth century. Set in the late 19th century, the novel recounts the adventures of Anne Shirley an 11-year-old orphan girl, who is mistakenly sent to two middle-aged siblings, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, who had originally intended to adopt a boy to help them on their farm in the fictional town of Avonlea on Prince Edward Island in Canada. The novel recounts how Anne makes her way through life with the Cuthberts, in school, and within the town.
Since its publication, Anne of Green Gables has been translated into at least 36 languages and has sold more than 50 million copies, making it one of the best selling books worldwide. Montgomery wrote numerous sequels, and since her death, another sequel has been published, as well as an authorized prequel. The original book is taught to students around the world.
So what’s the big deal?
Anne is timeless, particularly for young girls. She’s smart and independent. The fact that she is very opinionated, strong-minded, and doesn’t just shut up and meekly do what she’s told puts her outside of her own time.
I have a lovely collection of old editions of the Anne stories and love to dip into them.
“I am frankly in literature to make a living out of it,” Montgomery said. The P.E.I. native did just that and left inspiration for many many girls along the way.
8. Diane Stuemer
The Voyage of the Northern Magic, A Family Odyssey is about a four-year voyage around the world told compellingly by the mum and wife Diane Stuemer. Diane and her husband Herbert, entering middle age, with a comfortable home and three boys under 12 did what many of us muse about but of course never do… they sold everything and took their family to circumnavigate the globe in a 40-year-old boat.
The book is gripping. Storms at sea, pirates, waterspouts, lightning strikes, broken water pumps, masts and radios and 34 countries and 35,000 nautical miles. It’s all made more poignant because of Diane’s health. The trip was started following her brush with cancer and she dies at the age of 43 not long after the Northern Magic pulled into port for the last time.
Embarking on a crazy adventure solo is one thing, bringing your family along for the ride is something different. Reading about how they managed and grew as a unit from a mother’s point of view is inspiring as are all the friendships, connections and charity work they poured themselves into along the way. Weirdly, one of the books saddest moments for me was when the stray cat they picked up along the voyage ended up overboard.
Over to you. I would love to know if you take up any of my suggestions and what you think.