When the folks at S&S asked if I wanted to do a blog post about my favorite unconventional heroes in literature, I jumped at the chance. Seconds later, I ran into my first big challenge: What makes a hero unconventional?
Diminutive in stature but mighty in spirit, Frodo from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is probably one of literature’s most paradigmatic unconventional heroes. But then a friend asked if I was going to expand my definition to include protagonists whom you wouldn’t at first blush call heroes. “Is Ignatius Reilly from The Confederacy of Dunces an unconventional hero?” she asked. Good point. And what about nonhuman heroes, like the 5,000-year-old Sumerian pot that narrates Tibor Fischer’s novel The Collector Collector? There are also antiheroes, like Milton’s Satan or Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, from The Talented Mr. Ripley. And what about ordinary people who commit small but beautiful acts of heroism?
In the end, it was easier to say yes to all. What follows is a hodgepodge of personal favorites that pinball through these loose categories, sharing with one another their own quests to become, ahem, legends of their own making (I say, cheekily quoting copy from my own novel).
When it comes to unconventional heroes, this one’s a bit of a twofer, ticking both the “very normal person doing very un-normal things” box and the “nonhuman character” box. The plot, in brief: Etta is eighty three, and one day she starts walking from the Canadian prairies to the eEast cCoast, leaving her husband, Otto, to his memories, and meeting a cast of endearing characters along the way. I’m a sucker for ordinary-seeming people who make extraordinary life changes— - the kind of heroism that doesn’t always make the news— - and this book is full of that kind of heroism, from Etta to Otto, to their neighbor Russell, whose quest to join Etta, whom he’s loved from afar, constitutes the biggest decision of his life. And then there’s James, a talking fox. You really can’t go wrong with a talking fox, and the story has the distinction of being the last book to make me cry after reading it.
This quiet novel moves from the hot and dry present of a quiet Canadian farm to a dusty, burnt past of hunger, war, and passion; from trying to remember to trying to forget. It is an astounding literary debut of unlikely heroes, lifelong promises, and last great adventures.
After accidentally killing his best friend’s mom with a baseball, Owen Meany comes to think of himself as an instrument of God. And, it turns out, the tiny Meany, who SPEAKS IN A STRANGE VOICE BECAUSE OF A SCREWY LARYNX, is in fact just that. The novel is narrated by John, son of the aforementioned mother and a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War who escapes to Canada. As the years pass, the date Owen predicted for his own death approaches, and in a climax I can only describe as rich in lunacy and sorry (words often associated with an earlier Irving novel, The World According to Garp), Owen sacrifices himself to save countless innocent lives, proving that you measure heroism by heart and courage, not physical stature.
Anne Carson’s novel-in-poems is a retelling of the myth of Geryon, a Greek monster and the grandson of Medusa. Geryon is both boy and fire-breathing creature, abused by his brother, who falls in love with a young man named Herakles. His story’s rich in romance, heartache, and a bakery that serves pastries whilst bathed in the ominous glow of a volcano. When I taught The Autobiography of Red to a class of college freshmen, they rolled their eyes at having to read a poem this long, but without fail each student came back heartbroken. Hell, some of them even wanted to read the original myth Anne Carson borrowed from—and loosely translated herself. The back cover of my Vintage Contemporaries edition describes the book as “a profoundly moving portrait of an artist coming to terms with the fantastic accident of who he is,” a description I think sums up how we all feel at certain points of our lives.
How could Anne Carson, enamored of volcanos, a classicist who translates Euripides and Sappho, be an author of the sea? It is her writing itself that is sea-like. She writes words that have roaring meaning and harsh edges, words that are like sea-glass, rubbed from a place between human and natural, words that are steep, like cliffs, which edge out into the unknown, at once confident and wary - words that go ahead, afraid. Those are sea words. "What is an adjective?" she writes, in the first pages of Autobiography of Red. "Nouns name the world. Verbs activate the names. Adjectives come from somewhere else. The word adjective (epitheton in Greek) is itself an adjective meaning 'placed on top,'" added, "appended," "imported," "foreign." Adjectives seem fairly innocent additions but look again. These small imported mechanisms are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being." There it is, the sea, the shore, the endless white sky above it.
In these dark days, it seems like it’s getting easier to imagine a world of climatological and societal collapse. The Wolves of Winter has been favorably compared to The Hunger Games, and while in some ways I think that’s a fair comparison, I found Lynn McBride a far more endearing, and emotionally vulnerable, heroine. She is, to put it simply, a complete badass— you’d have to be to survive in the tundric Canadian Yukon—and as she struggles against the elements, enemies, and her own past, she proves an inspiring character. Her skill at trapping and her aptitude with a crossbow are awe-inspiring, but it’s her grit and resolve in the face of Immunity, a group out to exterminate anyone who might be carriers of “the flu” responsible for wiping out most of humanity, that make her legendary.
A post-apocalyptic debut novel in a tradition that includes The Hunger Games and Station Eleven, this vision of a possible future shows humanity pushed beyond its breaking point, the forging of vital bonds when everything is lost, and, most centrally, a heroic young woman who crosses a frozen landscape to find her destiny.
Lynn McBride has learned much since society collapsed in the face of nuclear war and the relentless spread of disease. As the memories of her old life continue to surface, she’s forced to forge ahead in the snow-drifted Canadian Yukon, learning how to hunt and trap and slaughter. Forget the old days. Forget summer. Forget warmth. Forget anything that doesn’t help you survive in the endless white wilderness beyond the edges of a fallen world.
Shadows of the world before have found her tiny community—most prominently in the enigmatic figure of Jax, who brings with him dark secrets of the past and sets in motion a chain of events that will call Lynn to a role she never imagined.
“With elements of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and TV’s The Walking Dead, (Kirkus Reviews) The Wolves of Winter is both a heartbreaking, sympathetic portrait of a young woman searching for the answer to who she's meant to be and a frightening vision of a merciless new world in which desperation rules. It is enthralling, propulsive, and poignant.
With a Pulitzer under his belt, Colwon Whitehead has watched his reputation explode —and justifiably so. But his criminally underrated first novel features one of the weirdest plots, and most compelling heroes, you’ll probably read. The story follows two competing factions in the VERY SERIOUS Department of Elevator Inspectors: the Empiricists, who rely on mechanistic reasoning to repair elevators, and the more mystical Intuitionists, who have a quasi-psychic capacity to understand elevation technology. Lila Mae Watson, the city’s first black inspector (and a devout Intuitionist with the highest accuracy rate in the department), finds both her life and her reputation at risk when an elevator malfunctions on her watch. As West investigates, trying to clear her name, she uncovers what appears to be a vast societal conspiracy and, in the process, becomes one of the most compelling, and strange, heroes you’ll ever read.
Colson Whitehead has been much in the news these days with his latest novel, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, recently selected to be the next Oprah Book Club Pick. He burst onto the literary scene nearly 20 years ago with the marvelously inventive, genre-bending, noir-inflected novel THE INTUITIONIST, set in the curious world of elevator inspection. With a nod to Ralph Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN, Whitehead portrays a universe parallel to our own, where matters of morality, politics, and race reveal unexpected ironies.
Chief Bromden is a gigantic mute American Indian, and war vet, who sees the psychiatric ward to which he’s been committed for what it is: a brutal, life-quashing machine designed to zombify its residents. Randle McMurphy is a boozy, charming, politically incorrect practical joker who joins Bromden when he claims to be insane to get out of a prison sentence. Their struggle to rise up against Nurse Ratched and the psychiatric industrial complex shed light on inhumane conditions at so-called mental hospitals when the novel was first published, and led to policy changes relating to involuntary commitment, electroconvulsive therapy, and state-sanctioned lobotomization.
A mordant, wickedly subversive parable set in a mental ward, the novel chronicles the head-on collision between its hell-raising, life-affirming hero Randle Patrick McMurphy and the totalitarian rule of Big Nurse. But McMurphy's revolution against Big Nurse (aka Nurse Ratched) and everything she stands for quickly turns from sport to a fierce power struggle with shattering results.
All the freaking elephants in Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone
The novel is literally narrated by an elephant named Mud who roams sub-Saharan Africa with her tribe. It’s beautiful and amazing and . . . elephants. ’Nuff said.
Sonchai Jitpleecheep from Bangkok 8 by John Burdett
Sonchai is a half-Thai, half-white police officer in one of Bangkok’s most corrupt precincts who pairs good old fashioned detective work with Buddhist philosophy to solve some of the grisliest crimes on this side of Jo Nesbo.
Grendel from John Gardner’s Grendel
Gardner flips the script of one of literature’s oldest surviving epics, casting the saga’s villain, Grendel, as the existentially fraught hero of his retelling of Beowulf.
Unlikely heroes . . . antiheroes . . . Same thing? No? Well, we’ll give these girls a pass. Follow three women in their fast-paced mission to escape Cuba in twelve hours, with just a few million dollars of dirty money stuffed into a briefcase. Alex de Campi and Victor Santos have created an incredible graphic novel crime-noir that will leave you on the edge of your seat, rooting for these unexpected heroines.
During World War II, women across Britain showed support for their country by helping the war effort. Light Over London follows one of these women, Louise, who after enlisting in the auxiliary branch of the British Army is chosen to be a part of the anti-aircraft-gun unit as a “gunner girl.” Author Julia Kelly captures the forgotten history of the heroic gunner girls in her newest historical fiction debut.
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