Listen to Granny

Old women have plenty of stories to tell, and the conceit makes for great miniatures of larger events. All the books chosen for this post are emotionally resonant stories of women (and children and men) caught up in the great events of the day but finding their own small victories. 

Octogenarian Herra Bjornsson has made her date with the crematorium, and all that is left to do is reminisce about her eventful life in Hallgrimur Helgason's Woman at 1,000 Degrees. Mostly, it's about her harrowing experiences as a teenager in Europe during WWII, though she also spends time post war in Argentina and flirts with a Beatle. How Herra keeps her sense of humor is a minor miracle, but she is witty and snarky to the end, making the case that living into old age my just be the best revenge of all. 

Also dealing with WW II, but on the Eastern Front is Debra Dean's The Madonnas of Leningrad. Marina is battling with dementia as she prepares for her granddaughter's wedding. She keeps falling back to a time when her memory was her preserver during the Siege of Leningrad. After helping to pack up all the artwork of the Hermitage and retreating to the basement to both guard it and escape the calamities of the war, Marina learns to remember each brush stroke of the masterpieces as a way to survive psychologically. The balance between memory as friend and foe is delicately portrayed in this richly detailed saga of the power of art.

Lisa See paints a devastating portrait of women's lives in 19th century China in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Lily and Snow Flower are from different classes, but are bound together in early childhood. As Lily looks back on her life from the early 20th century, she examines this friendship and how it plays out against Chinese traditions and history. The result is a heart-wrenching look at upheaval that never quite touches women's place in society. 

Barely touched on in Twain's masterpiece, Huck's friend Jim has a wife who is given full characterization in Nancy Rawles' My Jim. Sadie tells her story as she makes a quilt for her granddaughter: the barbarities of slavery, the hardships of newfound freedom, and most of all, the hope of reunion. While parted and united many times through this romantic tale, Sadie and Jim are well aware there are very few truly happy endings for their people in their time and focus on future generations, which makes for riveting reading.

Have more stories of old women with a small place in history? Tell us about them in the comments.

We welcome your respectful and on-topic comments and questions in this limited public forum. To find out more, please see Appropriate Use When Posting Content. Community-contributed content represents the views of the user, not those of Chicago Public Library