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
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).
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.
Bad Girls by Alex de Campi and Victor Santos
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.
Light Over London by Julia Kelly
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.
Photo Credit: RyanKing999/iStock