Historical narratives often neglect to represent the achievements of women. In response, historical fiction as a genre is expanding to provide a more inclusive and accurate depiction of the events that shaped the world by relaying the stories of female heroes. Within the genre, there are also authors who dip more into fiction, in which their novels are not based on the lives of real people but are curated out of relevant experiences. Still, both styles are inspiring a movement of bravery. This encouragement and commitment to representation is visible in the unforgettable, must-read work of authors like Kristin Hannah.
The Disguise and Conspicuity of Femininity
Kristin Hannah, author of The Nightingale, is inspiring female courage through her historical nonfiction. Hannah intertwines the lives of the bold and bright Isabelle with her older, more diffident sister Vianne. Through page-pinching imagery, Isabelle’s assistance in the Resistance — inspired by a true story of “a young Belgian woman who had created an escape route out of Nazi-Occupied France” — escalates from distributing papers to guiding British airmen who were downed on a treacherous mission to Spain.
Her sister Vianne, whose husband was sent to battle, enlists on her own personal journey of immense sacrifice and resistance as she houses German soldiers. Their bond as sisters wavers as the plot thickens and their situation becomes increasingly threatening. Yet, their individual strength endures. The experiences of both women shed light on the pain and power of womanhood, especially in the face of tremendously horrific circumstances.
Even with its exciting romance, this novel is a complex and tragic war story. Isabelle’s side quest for love as an adolescent relationship with a stranger develops provides some endearing relief. However, most of the scenes Hannah writes are quite jarring and raw. The switching narratives between Vianne’s recollection and the present reminds the reader that the past is not so far behind us.
While packed full of many themes and motifs, the use of femininity as a disguise pops prominently off the page in The Nightingale. Isabelle utilizes predispositions about women’s incompetence to her advantage to remain unidentified throughout her daring work in the resistance. Similarly, Vianne manipulates her attractive appearance and womanhood to help children at risk and protect her family at all costs. Amid their bravery, the path both these women take remains incredibly difficult and acts as a testament to female tenacity. The book is bold and brilliantly curated.
Tante Isabelle says it’s better to be bold than meek. She says if you jump off a cliff at least you’ll fly before you fall.Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale
Other Books Like The Nightingale
As women in all parts of history typically fall behind in the line for commencement, modern authors like Kristin Hannah are giving credit where credit is due through their contemporary work. Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen by Sarah Bird is also inspired by the true story of an African American freed slave. This fearless woman fakes her identity and joins in battle with the Buffalo Soldiers.
Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende and Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky very similarly reimagine historical female experiences to give remembrance to events that must not be forgotten. Island Beneath the Sea shares a similar plotline to The Nightingale as it ventures through the shared story of two women and of one woman’s fight for life, love, and peace against the troubles of her circumstances on a plantation in Saint-Domingue. In Night Witches, Laskly writes of two sisters whose bravery stretches to the sky as they join a resistance group of pilots during World War II.
These stories of identity and fortitude all explore the tribulations women have experienced throughout different parts of history. Yet despite their different settings, the shared feminine existence of the main characters influences the choices and demands they come across. Each in their own way, the female leads recognize their femininity with pride and as a tool, instead of subjecting themselves. The expectations for their lives as women are redefined by their relentless desire to pave their own path and make change within their community.
As a young woman, I felt close to the story of the two main characters in The Nightingale and inspired by their unwavering determination to fulfill their life’s purpose. The stories of all these women are a loud reminder that silence is compliant and complacent and that individual actions can make a difference. Yet, despite their focus on the exploitation of and the power within the female presence, I don’t believe these books have an intended audience, but instead, an intended purpose. Books such as these were written to give space for unspoken stories to be told and remembered by all.