Ain't No Mountain High Enough:
Women's Extreme-Adventure Stories
(and One of My Own)
Among the many dangers of being an obsessive reader is that you tend to mediate your life through books, filter your experiences through plots, so that the boundary between fiction and fact becomes porous. One evening, during the years I was living as a graduate student in Philadelphia, I was watching TV when a commercial for the local electric company came on. The commercial was promoting a program to help addled senior citizens keep track of their bills. On the screen was an elderly man sitting at a dining room table, staring at a pile of windowed envelopes. He looked a little bit like my dad, and sure enough, as the screen widened out to include the rest of the room, there was a big black-and-white photograph of my father as a toddler, dressed in a sailor suit, surrounded by his two older sisters and their parents. "Oh, there's the photograph," I thought to myself. I had a framed copy in my living room—all the Corrigans and their descendants have a copy of that photograph hanging somewhere in their homes.
Aside from being a striking image—my grandfather with his handlebar mustache staring soberly into the camera; my grandmother in a long dark dress with a lace collar, holding my dad on her lap; my two aunts, smiling, one in a First Communion dress—it was a picture occasioned by tragedy. My grandmother Margaret had been diagnosed with cancer, and she and my grandfather John had the photograph taken to help the children remember her. She died in 1925, when my father was five years old.
"Oh, there's the photograph." It took me at least a full minute to realize that the Corrigan-family photograph was on TV. I was like those American soldiers described in Dispatches, Michael Herr's great book about Vietnam, who, as they ran into enemy fire, shouted "Cover me!"—a line they'd absorbed from countless World War II movies. I, too, had gone to a lot of movies and watched too much TV. My fuzziness in distinguishing between reality and simulacrum was a postmodern condition shared by all of us who'd come of age in the culture of spectacle. But in my case, books were the worst troublemakers when it came to wreaking havoc with my head.
From adolescence on, at least, I've read my life in terms of fiction, and so that evening, when I saw a personal object from my life turn up in a TV commercial, it seemed, at first, natural. (By the way, after calling the electric company's public-relations office, I learned that the photograph had been found in a secondhand-furniture store on Arch Street in Philadelphia. The location made sense. The one-two punch of my grandmother's death followed by the Great Depression a few years later knocked the Corrigan family down. House and car disappeared and my grandfather John, taking advantage of the first month's free rent offered by desperate landlords, moved with the children into a series of apartments in West Philadelphia. A lot of family treasures, like the photograph, were put into storage, never to be rescued.)
My Catholic girlhood, my school days, my first forays into dating, college and graduate school, tortured love affairs, jobs, teaching, marriage—all these events had been mirrored in, even anticipated by, the books I read. When I worked in a five-and-ten during the latter part of high school, I thought of myself as young David Copperfield wasting away in the blacking factory. When I found myself marooned, night after night, in a one-room graduate-school apartment that basically consisted of a bay window and some linoleum, I thought of myself as Tennyson's Lady of Shallot, trapped in glass. Jo March, Holden Caulfield, Lucky Jim, Nancy Drew, Elizabeth Bennet—I thought of myself, at one time or other, as all of them . . . and still do.
But, then, at the age of forty-three, after at least three decades of understanding my life through literary analogues—indeed, sometimes shaping my life in the image of fiction—I arrived at a crucial moment that I couldn't "read" through books. To return to the "Wrong-Way" Corrigan metaphor, I felt as though I were flying blind. For years leading up to the moment I received that life-changing phone call from the adoption agency, I had been living a classic version of the female extreme-adventure tale—a veiled narrative that I had begun to recognize as an essential component of many women's stories, old and new. By the time that realization dawned, however, I was about to set out on another kind of adventure altogether.
The traditionally male extreme adventure has been the trend in nonfiction writing—apart from autobiographies—for roughly the past decade. I can make this pronouncement with confidence because I must get one or two new specimens of this kind of book delivered to my house every week. Jon Krakauer contributed to the increasing demand for this genre of saved-by-the-skin-of-his-teeth new journalism with his two bestsellers Into the Wild and Into Thin Air. Sebastien Junger's superb book, The Perfect Storm, is, perhaps, the apotheosis of this genre, which, as yet, shows no signs of waning popularity with he-man first-person sagas about polar explorations, solo round-the-world sails, rodeo riding, and firefighting steadily muscling their way into bookstores along with more scholarly works like Nathaniel Philbrick's award-winning In the Heart of the Sea, a true-life saga about the whale ship Essex that inspired Melville's better-known fictional extreme-adventure tale, Moby-Dick.
The traditional extreme-adventure story is a one-shot testosterone expenditure of physical courage that pits man against nature/man/himself, with man (the narrator usually) left standing, bloody but unbowed, amidst the wreckage of his fancy sporting gear. Scale the mountain; weather the storm at sea (or not); fight the war, the fire, the flood; carry out manifest destiny; be the first to fly over the ocean or to the moon; climb down into volcanoes and Egyptian tombs; or simply learn to survive with the intestinal fortitude of a Crusoe, Kurtz, or Leatherstocking.
Granted, there have always been women, real and fictive, who've grabbed the spotlight by playing boys' rough games by boys' rules. These women enter the fray with gusto, but they never stray so far out of the gender borders that they're dismissed as freaks. That most famous of all woman warriors, Joan of Arc, would have really shaken things up if she had led her armies in female dress; outfitted as an honorary male, she reaffirmed the militaristic status quo—although even that sartorial sleight of hand didn't save her from the stake. Harriet Tubman, "the Mother of the Underground Railroad," made solo rescue missions to the South every winter for a decade after she herself escaped from slavery. Armed with a pistol and her nerves of steel, she led more than a hundred slaves to freedom in Canada and then went on to serve as a Union spy during the Civil War. Because her missions in both arenas were clandestine and largely undocumented, the specific details of most of Tubman's astonishing exploits have been lost to history.
Aviatrixes Amelia Earhart and Beryl Markham also wore men's clothes when they flew off to distant horizons, but out of the cockpit they made sure they were photographed in ladylike costumes. (The lithe Earhart never looked as ungainly as she did in those trumpet skirts and heels she trussed herself up in for public appearances.) Then there's my personal favorite female buccaneer, Nellie Bly. I first learned about the turn-of-the-century "mother" of investigative stunt journalism by reading a juvenile biography of her that was shelved (improbably) in the makeshift library at St. Raphael's School. I remember being so excited to find out there was such a woman—a journalist who made her living by writing (like I dreamed of doing) who also lived a life of adventure (like every kid dreams of doing). Bly first made a name for herself by posing as a deranged immigrant woman and getting herself committed to New York's infamous Blackwell's Island. Only her editor knew of her exploit; if he had suffered, say, a fatal heart attack while Bly was buried in Blackwell's, she might have spent the rest of her life there.
But Bly was rescued, and her first-person account of the horrendous treatment of Blackwell's inmates, some of whom were locked away simply because they couldn't speak English, predated Geraldo Rivera's expose of Willowbrook State School by some six decades. In 1889 Bly went on to best the record of Jules Verne's hero Phileas Fogg by traveling around the world in a breathless seventy-two days. The famous picture of her from that trip shows a pretty, wasp-waisted young woman, demurely outfitted in checked traveling skirt and jacket and carrying a carpetbag. Bly might have circled the globe unchaperoned, but she did so properly cloaked in the protective mantle of late-Victorian ladyhood.
Then there are the early-twentieth-century sports marvel Babe Didrikson Zaharias, and that blond and glamorous "just one of the boys" photographer Margaret Bourke-White. Other standouts are the African plantation owner Isak Dinesen and World War I nurse and outspoken women's rights advocate Vera Brittain, both of whose autobiographies (Brittain's mournful Testament of Youth particularly) inspired me when I discovered them in my early twenties. Strangely, in fiction as opposed to real life, female daredevils are scarcer; furthermore, the ones that do exist are almost exclusively the product of male writers' imaginations and their risk-taking is usually erotic in nature.
In 1722, three years after he created the ur-survivor, Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe gave readers Moll Flanders, whose picaresque adventures as a prostitute, society lady, thief, and convict he tried to pass off as a true-life autobiographical account. Flanders was a kind of eighteenth-century reincarnation of the Wife of Bath, Chaucer's immortal gap-toothed, much-married sensualist. Shakespeare's Cleopatra also insinuates herself into this hip-swiveling sorority of literary Mae Wests, as do, I suppose, William Makepeace Thackeray's Becky Sharp and Henry James's and Edith Wharton's bevy of more pallid social adventuresses such as Daisy Miller, Undine Spragg, Madame Merle, and Lily Bart.
The Bronte sisters' far less curvaceous creations—Jane Eyre, Catherine Earnshaw, Shirley—outrageously defy convention, but with the possible exception of Jane's flight from her aborted wedding to (the still-married) Rochester in which she stumbles through a storm on the moor, their physical adventures don't really qualify, in the traditional sense, as "extreme." Jane Austen's Catherine Morland, the impressionable young heroine of Northanger Abbey, wanders, every other page or so, into secret passages and ghostly chambers, but this Gothic novel is too much of a send-up, too much on the order of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, to seriously qualify as an "adventure." In fact, with the exception of Nancy Drew, who was the initial creation of a man, Edward Stratemeyer, but whose series life and escapades were sustained throughout the next two decades by women writers, I can't think of very many other female-authored women of adventure in fiction—certainly not before the onset of the Second Women's Movement, and even then . . . who?
The thought of Nancy Drew reminds me that the two places where swashbucklers in skirts have long thrived have been in the "can't-get-no-respect" genres of juvenile and detective fiction. The juvenile-fiction connection makes sense: before the fall into adolescence, it's easier for girls to get away with acting as tomboys. There's Astrid Lindgren's fearless anarchist, Pippi Longstocking, Dorothy from L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Ludwig Bemelmans's Madeline, and the whole fairy-tale crowd of female high-wire acts—Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, Fa Mu Lan—many of whom have been gussied up and diminished into girly-girls by Disney.
Almost from its very inception, detective fiction has sanctioned curious women to gamble with their lives and enjoy the male thrills of exploring the unknown and hunting down prey. A relentless quest for fresh variations on the old formula certainly had something to do with the literary introduction of female detectives, especially in the pulp serials. Maybe the fact that most crime stories end up restoring and affirming the prevailing social order also gave mysteries more leeway to experiment with unconventionally daring heroines: to all appearances, at the end of these tales, everyone—victims, criminals, and detective—is put back in their proper place. With few exceptions, the careers of many turn-of-the-century female detectives ended in marriage.
The fact that many detecting women have been figured as "unawakened" adolescents like Nancy Drew or "over-the-hill" busybodies like Miss Marple has also made them less threatening to the status quo. Sure, there has always been the occasional married female snoopster—Agatha Christie's Tuppence (of the twinkly Tommy and Tuppence series) or Dashiell Hammett's Nora Charles (hitched to fellow boozehound Nick)—but they're deviations from the norm. Until feminism electroshocked the formula in the 1970s, the prevailing attitude toward female sleuths was most eloquently voiced by Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Congratulating his secretary and part-time detecting partner, Effie Perine, on an assignment she's just completed, Spade rasps, "You're a damned good man, sister."1 In other words, to be a credible detective, a woman had to become an honorary man.
I've loved reading about the exploits of many of these female adventurers, real and fictive, and relished the opportunity to (vicariously) compete, swagger, and spit alongside the boys, as they do. Maybe because I read so many new novels written by women and because I have a scholarly background in the nineteenth-century British novel—a genre in which women more than held their own with their male contemporaries—I began to think about the existence of a specifically female variant of the extreme-adventure tale.
The female extreme-adventure tale, as I was beginning to discern it about eight years ago, was light on feats of derring-do and braggadocio, heavy on anxious waiting and endurance. The precarious situations described in these female extreme-adventure stories—childbirth, unwanted pregnancies, abortions (legal and illegal), abusive relationships, fatiguing caregiving—are ones that are faced almost exclusively by women. Their physical ordeals are augmented or even outweighed by heavy emotional burdens. Much space is devoted in these stories to the value of a woman quietly keeping her nerve through hours—sometimes years—of strain. And above all, it's the quotidian quality of their pain that separates the women from the boys. Blinding blizzards and numbing frostbite, such as Jon Krakauer describes, last for a few hours, maybe days, and then, one way or another, the nightmare is over. In contrast, the torments particular to women's extreme-adventure tales continue year after year. Climbing Everest looks like a snap compared with waking up every morning to, say, the enervating prospect of attending to an elderly invalid parent.
I was really struck by the idea of a "women's only" version of the extreme-adventure tale in the course of reviewing Anna Quindlen's 1998 novel, Black and Blue, for The New York Times. Around the same time, like millions of other readers, I'd caught extreme-adventure fever from reading Krakauer's books and The Perfect Storm.
From the Hardcover edition.