Monday, March 6, 2017

Rejected Princesses by Jason Porath

Reviewed by Ambrea

“Well-behaved women seldom make history…and these women are far from well behaved,” writes Jason Porath in Rejected Princesses.  With these words, he kicks off a funny, fantastical and hilariously irreverent journey through history that highlights the accomplishments of women across the globe.  As Porath points out, “[The] list of historical women we learn about in school is lacking.  It’s safe, it’s censored, it’s short.”  His book, however, offers an alternative view that allows readers the chance to meet the most famous—and infamous—women of history, myth, folklore, and legend, and get to know a side of them we never knew.

First and foremost, I want to say that I loved this book.

Yes, loved.

If it’s not already apparent, I’m a bit of a history nerd and I love learning about quirky, unconventional history and feisty females who make their mark on said history—and Rejected Princesses was the best of both worlds.  It features women who are too rebellious, too dangerous and, sometimes, too deadly to make it into high school textbooks; in fact, many of the women—whether resigned to the darkest parts of history or lingering only at the edges of myth—aren’t often featured in any scholarly curriculum.  They’re forgotten, which I think is a great shame.

Luckily, Porath has created an amusing and articulate book that helps rectify this.  He begins with Khutulun, great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan.  When faced with matrimony, Khutulun agreed to marry the man who could defeat her in wresting.  If he won, he would win her hand in marriage; if she won, he would give her one hundred horses.  Spoiler alert:  she was undefeated.  And this is merely one story of many.

Porath’s book gets better from there, because it features a number of women—fighters and warriors, spies and astronomers, Vikings and pirates, rebels and freedom fighters—forgotten by history, but who are incredible, regardless.  I mean, I have an ongoing list of my favorites:

*Noor Inayat Khan (World War II spy)
*Julie d’Aubigny (opera singer/general troublemaker among the French elite)
*Annie Jump Cannon (astronomer—and she invented the classification system for stars that we still use today!)
*Iara (Brazilian mermaid/warrior myth)
*Mariya Oktyabrskaya (World War II tank operator)
*Olga of Kiev (Christian saint who supposedly destroyed an enemy village by setting it on fire with messenger pigeons)
*Ching Shih (Chinese pirate)
*Sybil Luddington (think the female equivalent of Paul Revere—only better)
*Alfhild (Viking princess)
*Mary Bowser (Civil War spy who pretended to be a servant in the Confederate White House—and very nearly burned it down)
*Nanny of the Maroons (protector and leader of escaped slaves, known as the Maroons, in Jamaica)
*Tomo Gozen (Japanese samurai)
*Marjana (saved Ali Baba in the “Forty Thieves” story—actually, she’s the hero of the story)

And, of course, I can’t forget the Night Witches from my list.

I am fascinated by World War II.  I’ve read several books about it, and I feel confident saying that I know my fair share about it.  I’m not an expert by any means, but I find myself constantly intrigued by the conflicts and social/political shifts that occurred in World War II.  It’s an era that had such wide-reaching effects that we can still see ripples today; more to the point, we can still talk to the people who endured it.  I may not enjoy violence, but I love hearing stories about it and I like piecing together my own knowledge of it, I like holding those stories.

And yet, somehow, I’ve never heard of the Night Witches.

Here’s just how incredible they were:
“The Night Witches mark one of the greatest underdog accomplishments in military history.  Handed a bunch of slow, flammable trainer planes that had been designed only to dust crops, an all-female group of untrained civilians became one of the most decorated divisions in the entire Soviet military.  Flying without armor, guns, sights, radio, cockpits, brakes, parachutes, or virtually any navigation machinery, they dropped bombs on the Germans every three minutes, like clockwork, every night for three years.”

Moreover, they would often cut their engines and glide over German military camps on the Eastern front, before kicking on their engines and dropping bombs.  They literally fell out of the sky, dropped bombs on German soldiers, and then did it again and again and again.  “They flew over 1,100 nights of combat, and each pilot flew over 800 missions.”

Holy cow.

These women are super women.  They were—and are—amazing, and I loved learning about them.  And I loved Rejected Princesses, because I had the opportunity to discover unexpected and incredible women who shaped history, who made unexpected appearances in popular stories and myths.  Admittedly, Porath’s book can be rather violent and unnerving (history wasn’t always pretty—and, let’s be honest, it hasn’t always been kind to women), but, overall, it’s an interesting and entertaining book.  Full of humor, colorful art, historical facts, legends and myths, and, of course, incredible women, it’s a great resource for those who wish to dabble in history or discover something new.

Note: March is Women's History Month.  Celebrate by reading about some amazing women!

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