Rural fiction takes the physical isolation of the characters within to communicate a realistic story flavored by the underlying dread of man versus wild. These narratives typically focused on an individual, a family, or a community, marking the character’s journey through events that can only be described as “acts of god”. The push and pull of nature, beautiful and merciless, hangs over any interpersonal conflict and trumps singular intent. But the protagonist’s relationship with nature changes when that hero isn’t appointed by convention. Let’s discuss the role a woman is typically given in rural fiction, and how these archetypes have changed.
The Essentials of Rural Fiction
The sensory immersion into rural living, watching the cycle of the seasons and the fragility of human life as we age, is often the sole story being told. Life merely happens here, and all around it and within it is the wilderness. It shapes the characters implicitly while remaining faultless and idolized.
Besides thematically driven narratives centered on life in the country, a more traditional plot structure follows a similar track. For a protagonist to have their journey, to act in either respect or defiance of nature is paramount to reaching their goal. The protagonist gains wisdom and learns to respect the wilderness, or else feels despair in the understanding that it cannot be defied. The rural hero, in American literature at least, is the one who carries the mark of the wilderness on his brow. He has learned that the untamed wild must be respected, and in his heroic grandeur, has taken on its omnipotence as his own identity.
Gender and Nature: A Misguided Association
Classic rural fiction is held in such high regard because of its attachment to traditional societal values that were highly romanticized in the 20th century. As such, women were often put in a place of limited power, a stopgap on their own resourcefulness to avoid any indication that they could achieve independence. Not frail, but stern as steel, yet warm and maternal toward their family. The female homemaker is the ideal woman in the eyes of the patriarchy. She cooks, she raises the children, she can protect the homestead, and still she is helpless. She can do everything required of her, but she cannot survive without the guidance of her husband.
As such, the woman is essential for the man’s journey to have any sort of intrinsic value. He must have someone to protect and provide for, or else a prize to strive for. It’s considered a tale as old and true as humanity itself: man must prevail against the wilderness to obtain nature’s greatest gift: the partner, the spouse. Therein lies the only path to mankind’s redemption: the pursuit of community through offspring, the development of society, and protection from the Earth.
Untamed Woman, Meet Untamed Wild
The relationship between humans and the environment shifts when this narrative is turned on its head. The instinctual desperation for belonging is muted when the hero is what she needs. The beginning becomes the end, and the self is truly freed from external motivators. When the heroine is spiritually self-sufficient, what she desires in her journey is truly individual. Yet, we see so much of ourselves in her plight: the loneliness stoked by isolation. She is pulled toward human connection through the contemplation of her own reflection. What she feels lies at the heart of what it means to be alive.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Where the Crawdads Sing has received much criticism for portraying itself as a crime thriller despite the crime having little to do with the overall plot. In naturalist Delia Owens’ debut novel, a young girl named Kya lives completely alone in the marshlands of North Carolina. Kya was abandoned here when very young. She sees no other humans as she grows, teaching herself to survive. What the novel is actually about is the internal machinations of Kya, the flora and fauna of the world around her, and how she understands the Earth and finds a connection.
Rather than despair, the isolation breathes into her an entirely new perspective on life, a story that isn’t a story but is merely a string of observations. To exist is her goal before she’s introduced into society, on trial for the disappearance of a boy in the marshlands.
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
Island of the Blue Dolphins is a classic piece of historical fiction narrating a researched account of the life of Karana, a Nicoleno native. When her people are taken from their homeland by missionaries, Karana is left behind on the island, alone and forced to fend for herself. The novel is well known for exhibiting a female protagonist practicing typically male roles in her need to survive, fashioning weapons, hunting, and skinning animals. At the same time, she shows compassion toward the creatures around her, giving them names and speaking with them like friends.
For example, Karana swears vengeance on the ferocious pack of wolves who killed her brother and hunts them down one by one. She then takes a liking to the head of the pack and decides to tame him.
Any displeasure toward this “unisex” role given to a woman could not be based on any criticism toward the author’s bias, as these are true events being detailed. Rather, Karana’s story is a fine example of the human condition separated from the rules of civilization; it showcases what one is capable of when they are dependent only on their individual abilities and what nature can provide.
A Woman Provides
Modern iterations of the wifely homesteader have made great strides in coloring greater dimensionality into the archetype. The woman’s empowerment is made explicit through one show of force or another, usually by outright punching the patriarchy in the nards. Current historical fiction, where the mundanity of rural life still breeds intrigue, has carved a modernized mold for the female protagonist in an antiquated societal structure. She is tough, a mother bear, not entirely self-sufficient but convincing enough to go toe-to-toe with her spouse.
Yet so many of these narratives present her as still being weakened by her gender. Eventually, a man is her salvation, typically from another man. It’s all presented as though the badass woman is burdened by her femininity and shirks it to become a better version of herself.
Shadows in the Mind’s Eye by Janyre Trompe
Shadows in the Mind’s Eye follows a young wife in rural Arkansas caring for a farm and homestead while her husband, Sam, is away fighting in the great war. She’s relieved to have her partner return when the war ends, but he is rife with trauma and grief, PTSD rearing its ugly head and complicating their reunion. When Sam lashes out at his brother, rumors spread through their little town. All the while Charlotte must support her beloved, care for the farm, and try to maintain the status quo.
She remains strong through thick and thin for her family’s sake, but Charlotte is by no means hard-hearted. The bond she shares with Sam feels real, and she’s sympathetically riled by the tragedy of her broken husband.
The Condemned Oak Tree by Ada Rossi
The titular tree of The Condemned Oak Tree shades a beautiful bed of rhubarb, one protagonist Maureen has planted over the hidden grave of her husband. Ada Rossi’s book is structured like a conversation with Maureen, who details her past with the flat tone of a stoic middle-aged woman whose life consists of her garden and her children. Why did she bury her dead husband in secret? Who is she telling the story to? Maureen’s matter-of-factness tells of a lifetime of self-sufficiency, devotion to family, and love of the natural world.
The Ever-Changing Frontier
How women are presented in fiction continues to evolve, and much effort has been made to break the mold of traditional sensibilities. No more is the shifting tide of pop culture felt than in rural stories, where conservative values work hand in hand with the cruel wilderness to paint stark stories. Family, isolation, nature, and pride are key elements to the genre that can surely be preserved without tying ourselves to conventions of the past. In the meantime, be on the lookout for the next female badass coming to a backwater town near you.