Book Review: Women Warriors: An Unexpected History

Book Review: Women Warriors: An Unexpected History

Women Warriors: An Unexpected History

by Pamela D. Toler

Blurb:

Who says women don’t go to war?

From Vikings and African queens to cross-dressing military doctors and WWII Russian fighter pilots, these are the stories of women for whom battle was not a metaphor. The woman warrior is always cast as an anomaly—Joan of Arc, not GI Jane. But women, it turns out, have always gone to war. In this fascinating and lively world history, Pamela Toler not only introduces us to women who took up arms, she also shows why they did it and what happened when they stepped out of their traditional female roles to take on other identities.

My Review

Just as Women’s History Month closes for 2019, Women Warriors: An Unexpected History joins my research bookshelf with a handful of academically rigorous books. These books on “women doing unexpected things” include surveys of warrior queens, music composers, mathematicians and philosophers, as well as dozens of biographies of famous, accomplished women. I have several more popular history books on scandalous women, bad princesses, and overlooked scientists. The latter seem to dominate the marketplace. I enjoy their breezy modern take while introducing the reader to (mostly) forgotten women. (Reviews of those books can be found here.)

Needless to say, this was not an “unexpected history” for me—at lease in terms of the female historical figures. From the mythical Mulan to the female Dahomean King’s Guards (likely inspiration for the fictional Dora Milaje personal guards of the Black Panther movie), I was aware of most of Toler’s subjects. What was unexpected—and most welcome!—was the analysis and in-depth research. Unlike most authors of these survey books, Toler is an academic.

Thankfully she doesn’t write like one. Her prose is clear and readable.

Toler organizes her material into eight chapters with titles such as “Don’t Mess with Mama” and “Her Father’s Daughter.” In each chapter she surveys typical women warriors, from across time and cultures, who fit the title. She puts their decision to fight in the context of the times and explores the consequences of taking these dramatic actions. After every two survey chapters, a several-page “Checkpoint” covers a single subject in more detail. Substantial footnotes provide additional information and source references.

Toler concludes her book by asking the question: Are these warrior women “insignificant exceptions”? Most academics and historical military commanders felt so. Modern US military leaders used that to argue against allowing women in combat roles. They argued this at a time when Israeli women were drafted and served with their male counterparts. They argued this long after all female battalions fought in WWI and WWII. They argued this long after Soviet “Night Witches”—an all female bomber squadron (women pilots, navigators, and maintenance crews)—terrorized the Nazis on the Eastern front. Several ex-military women ran for US congress in 2018, highlighting their impressive service records, and many won. The bravery and accomplishments of modern women in combat around the world should forever lay that argument to rest.

Toler answers her own question: “Exceptions within the context of their time and place? Yes. Exceptions over the scope of human history? Not so much. Insignificant? Hell no!”

Highly recommended. Check out Author Pamela D. Toler talking about her book Women Warriors in the video below.

Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The details:

  • Title: Women Warriors: An Unexpected History
  • Author: Pamela D. Toler
  • Publisher: Beacon Press (February 26, 2019)
  • Available in: Hardcover, eBook, Audiobook
  • ISBN-10: 0807064327
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807064320

Women Warriors cover

About the Author

Armed with a PhD in history, a well-thumbed deck of library cards, and a large bump of curiosity, author, speaker, and historian, Pamela D. Toler translates history for a popular audience. She goes beyond the familiar boundaries of American history to tell stories from other parts of the world as well as history from the other side of the battlefield, the gender line, or the color bar. Toler is the author of eight books of popular history for children and adults.  Her newest book, Women Warriors:  An Unexpected History is due out February, 2019.  Her work has appeared in Aramco World, Calliope, History Channel Magazine, MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History and Time.com. 

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Book Review: The Huntress

Book Review: The Huntress

The Huntress

by Kate Quinn

Blurb:

The Huntress Cover“The Huntress tells the story of three people in search of answers: Nina Markova, an ace Russian fighter pilot, is one of Stalin’s infamous Night Witches, the first band of women ever allowed to fly bomber runs during a war. Ian Graham, a former journalist turned Nazi hunter, is struggling to rid postwar Europe of the Nazis who escaped retribution. And Jordan McBride is a teenager whose life in Boston takes an interesting turn when her new stepmother arrives with a war’s worth of secrets. All three of their lives are touched by a Nazi assassin known as “The Huntress.” Their search for her and for answers will lead them to each other and, ultimately, toward more danger than they ever could have expected.”

My Review

I have yet to read a Kate Quinn novel I didn’t like. She has a sure touch for developing relatable characters and putting them into exciting situations. Quinn’s skill pulls the reader from page to page and ensures reluctance to put the book down. The Huntress delivers that magic in this tale of Nazi hunters in post-WWII.

The “present” story-line is mostly told from British former war correspondent Ian Graham’s point of view, covering a seven month period from April to October 1950. Deeply damaged by his experiences in the war and coverage of the Nuremberg trials, Ian gives up journalism to become a Nazi hunter. His partner is an American ex-GI (and one-quarter Jew) Tony Rodomovsky, who spent the war as an interpreter and has something to prove. He uses his charm and language skills to great effect. They are joined in their search for a Nazi known as the Huntress by Graham’s war bride Nina Markova—the only known person who had faced the murderer and still lived. (more…)

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Book Review: “Hag Seed” by Margaret Atwood

Book Review: “Hag Seed” by Margaret Atwood

Hag Seed

by Margaret Atwood

The Blurb:

Hag Seed coverFelix is at the top of his game as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. His productions have amazed and confounded. Now he’s staging a Tempest like no other: not only will it boost his reputation, it will heal emotional wounds. Or that was the plan. Instead, after an act of unforeseen treachery, Felix is living in exile in a backwoods hovel, haunted by memories of his beloved lost daughter, Miranda. And also brewing revenge.  After twelve years, revenge finally arrives in the shape of a theatre course at a nearby prison. Here, Felix and his inmate actors will put on his Tempest and snare the traitors who destroyed him. It’s magic!  Margaret Atwood’s novel take on Shakespeare’s play of enchantment, retribution, and second chances leads us on an interactive, illusion-ridden journey filled with new surprises and wonders of its own.

My Review

The Handmaid's Tale coverI love Margaret Atwood and have read nearly everything she’s written. She’s experiencing a renaissance now because of the Hulu award-winning TV series based on her 1986 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale.If you’ve wondered way some women have been showing up in full-length red gowns and white bonnets to protest legislation limiting a women’s right choose or other restrictive laws—this book/show is why. If you haven’t read the book—you should. But I digress…

Hag Seed (a reference to the “monster” Caliban) did not disappoint. The publisher, Hogarth Books, is putting out a series of novels by famous authors retelling Shakespeare’s plays. I’ve read two others in the series and this one is my favorite—so far. Atwood drew “The Tempest” and gave us a workman-like effort with touches of whimsy. She employs the “play within a play” trope where the main character Felix/Prospero is teaching and directing “The Tempest” in a prison literacy program, while simultaneously living out the plot of the play. (more…)

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Book Review: Kindred by Octavia Butler

Book Review: Kindred by Octavia Butler

Kindred

by Octavia Butler

 

“Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana’s life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.”

Review:

Originally published in 1979, Kindred is a brilliant exploration of “the peculiar institution” of slavery. In this historical fantasy, Dana, a twentieth century black woman, is ripped from her time and deposited on a 1820’s Maryland plantation to save a young white boy named Rufus from drowning. When threatened by the boy’s father, she snaps back to her own time, wet and muddy from the river, to the astonishment of her husband who saw her disappear before his eyes only seconds before. This is the first in a series of time displacements that occur whenever Rufus is threatened by death and snaps her back when her own life is threatened. The time elapsed includes only a few months of Dana’s modern time, but years in her life with Rufus (as a boy and later as a young man) and the slaves on his plantation. (more…)

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Book Review: The Confessions of Young Nero

Book Review: The Confessions of Young Nero

The Confessions of Young Nero

by  Margaret George

 

The blurb:

“While Nero idealizes the artistic and athletic principles of Greece, his very survival rests on his ability to navigate the sea of vipers that is Rome. The most lethal of all is his own mother, a cold-blooded woman whose singular goal is to control the empire…Nero’s determination to escape her thrall will shape him into the man he was fated to become—an Emperor who became legendary. With impeccable research and captivating prose, The Confessions of Young Nero is the story of a boy’s ruthless ascension to the throne. Detailing his journey from innocent youth to infamous ruler, it is an epic tale of the lengths to which man will go in the ultimate quest for power and survival.”

 

My Review

Because Nero is a minor character in one of my books (Sword of the Gladiatrix) and plays a more impactful role in the upcoming sequel (Song of the Gladiatrix), I was curious to see how George would handle this fascinating and controversial figure. The Confessions of Young Nero is set in the period considered by some historians to be Nero’s “sane” period (even though it included his infamous murder of his mother). His early life, especially under the influence of the philosopher Seneca and other older mentors, showed much promise. As he grew older and more independent, his choice of companions grew more reckless and his actions less excusable. (more…)

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