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Original Essays | February 17, 2014 0 comments
I was born and still live in rural East Tennessee. I grew up on Mountain Valley Road, surrounded by foothills and farmland, rocky creeks pouring... Continue »
The Hero's Journey for Women?by Brunonia Barry
In our modern feminine myths, if a strong woman exists at all, and if she is allowed to prevail, she usually does so by fighting like a man. More often, she is rescued by one. The "woman in peril saved by a man" plot is such a cliché that you'd think no one would dare to use it. Yet it remains the most frequently used story structure for a female protagonist.
And even on those rare occasions when a woman appears to prevail, we don't know how to end her story. Maybe she is felled by an unpredictable and inoperable illness. Or perhaps she marries her rescuer and lives happily ever after. Why is it that we find a suitable ending for a woman's journey to be death, marriage, or pregnancy? Death is certainly an ending sorts, or at least a transitional stage. But marriage and pregnancy? Realistically, when has a woman's story ever ended in marriage or childbirth? In our feminine mythology, there is often an element of clipped wings or at least transference of power.
So I set out to write a different kind of story. In my first novel, The Lace Reader, I decided to explore the heroic journey as it applies to Towner Whitney, my main character. Towner is flawed. She tells you up front that she lies and that she is crazy. It is obvious in the first few pages of the book that this is not a woman who can save a town. This is a woman who will be lucky to save herself.
Since I was using the classic hero's journey structure as described by Joseph Campbell, a very important element in the story became the sense of place the kind of place that Joseph Campbell, in describing what he termed the hero's call to adventure, said you might find only in a fairy tale, or in a profound dream state.
Just months before I started the book, I moved back to Salem, Massachusetts, after living in Southern California for several years. There are obvious contrasts between the two: the history, the climate, the people. But the most memorable contrast for me (and one I had forgotten) was the light. In Southern California, the light is so bright that color fades under its brilliance. But in New England, where the light seems more diffused, the colors appear brighter and the shadows darker. I always tell people that when I moved back to Salem, I saw the city with new eyes. It might be more accurate to say that I saw it in a new light.
As I got to know the city again, I began to think of Salem as the perfect setting for a woman's myth. Certainly, Salem has a clear feminine history, albeit a dark one, with the witch trials of the 17th century. And there is a certain irony in the existence of the modern-day witches who thrive here now. If you add the haunted houses and fright tours (which have nothing at all to do with the witches but seem to peacefully coexist in the name of entrepreneurial spirit), then Campbell's description of the profound dream state begins to take shape. Throw in the beautiful old architecture, the border islands, and the old shipping lore of the 19th century, and the world of Salem becomes almost complete.
The only thing missing for me was something to contrast with Salem's dark feminine history. I felt I needed something more optimistic as background. I found it in the history of Ipswich Lace.
Ipswich, Massachusetts, is a town just north of Salem with an amazing but little-known history. Back in George Washington's day, the women of Ipswich became famous for making bobbin lace. This was a home-based industry, and, at its peak, more than six hundred women (which was basically one women per household) were making Ipswich lace. These early colonists had neither the means nor the availability to purchase the fine silk threads that the European lace makers used, nor could they afford fine, decorative bobbins. So they used what was at hand, growing flax for linen thread and using pins and bobbins often made of delicate bird or fish bones, and lace-making pillows stuffed with beach grass. The lace they produced was beautiful and became so popular that, for a time, it actually was the favored currency of the Ipswich women, who could purchase almost anything they desired with an IOU for just a few inches of lace. Then, just as Ipswich lace was at its peak, lace-making machines began appearing on the Continent, and, within a few short years, this thriving industry run almost solely by women disappeared without a trace, except for the bit of lace on a collar or cuff, or stuffed away in someone's sewing box. The women of Ipswich went back to being the wives of farmers, and lace-making became a skill to be handed down to their daughters and granddaughters, along with bread-baking and sewing, though less important than either.
With the discovery of Ipswich lace, and the contrasting history of Salem, a new women's mythology began to take shape for me, and a story began to emerge: one in which the women of Salem's Yellow Dog Island have learned to recreate Ipswich lace, and all three generations of the Whitney women have the ability to predict the future by reading it.
When Towner Whitney receives "The Call to Adventure" (the next step of the Hero's Journey as described by Joseph Campbell), her call is literal. She receives a phone call from her brother to come back to Salem because her Great Aunt Eva, Salem's official "Lace Reader," has disappeared. Answering that call, Towner sets in motion her own heroic journey, where past and present collide and the future lies at the outer edges of her gifted vision.
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Born and raised in Massachusetts, Brunonia Barry studied literature and creative writing at Green Mountain College in Vermont and at the University of New Hampshire. She has created brain teaser puzzles for Smart Games and lives in Salem, Massachusetts, with her husband and their beloved golden retriever, Byzantium.