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Sustaining the American Spirit:
Courage and Conviction in Novels by American Women

In celebration of the theme "Sustaining the American Spirit," The Newark Public Library offers this list of novels demonstrating myriad models of female courage and conviction.

Look for these books at the Main Library or at your neighborhood branch. Library staff will help you to find the book you want, and, if it is checked out, to reserve it or borrow it from another library.

--Leslie Kahn, compiler, Arts & Humanities Center

Ahab’s Wife, by Sena Jeter Naslund.   An obsessed Ahab, in the classic Moby Dick, sought death and destruction, while this heroine from the same stormy setting finds harmony with a benign and exhilarating universe.  Fiction N2545ah


Autobiography of a Family Photograph, by Jacqueline Woodson.  The narrator of this coming-of-age story matures through the heartbreaking difficulties of her parents’ marriage, a brother’s efforts to affirm his gay identity, another brother’s suspicious lack of resemblance to their father, and challenges to her own emerging desires and dreams.  Fiction W8955au


Back When We Were Grownups, by Anne Tyler.  A woman wonders if her life might have been more satisfying, had she only followed her early plans to become a university professor instead of marrying into a boisterous family in the business of planning and hosting parties.  Lobby Fiction T9815ba


Bastard out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison.  As determined as she has been to record her daughter’s birth as legitimate, a woman does not recognize the child’s abuse by her new husband.  In spite of the violence and misery, young Ruth Anne develops into much more than a victim.  Fiction A4386ba


Blue Diary, by Alice Hoffman.  A man everyone thought perfect committed an unspeakable crime before he entered their lives.  Has he reinvented himself?  Can he be forgiven?  His wife must learn the truth and act upon it.  Lobby Fiction H6995bL


The Bonesetter’s Daughter, by Amy Tan.  An American-born woman finds what is bred in the bone, as she reconnects with her immigrant mother, who is plagued by Alzheimer’s Disease.  Lobby Fiction T1615bo


Caucasia, by Danzy Senny.  In a beautifully written novel, two biracial sisters, one light, the other dark-skinned, struggle for connection in spite of other people seeing them as unrelated.  Fiction S4783ca


The Coldest Winter Ever, by Sister Souljah.  The pampered, superficial, and ruthless daughter of a drug-dealer realizes that she has been a pawn in the games of self-serving men and that she needs to take responsibility for her life. African Am. Fic. and Fiction S7235col


Crooked Little Heart, by Anne Lamott.  Just into her teens, missing her deceased father, and feeling like a loser in every respect, Rosie, a tennis player, is impatient with her mother’s warnings about a man who appears to be stalking her.  Fiction L2355cro


Dolley, by Rita Mae Brown.  As the War of 1812 strikes the nation, President Madison’s society hostess wife grows into a brave leader, sustained by the love of her husband and by friendships of the women around her.  Fiction B8795do


The Edge of Heaven, by Marita Golden.  “She was my mother. I knew they would take her away from me. We would all pay for what she had done."  This gripping story of a Black family’s mending after the death of a child traces the intersections of justice, forgiveness, redemption, and love.  Fiction G6168ed


Evensong, by Gail Godwin.  In a story of psychological and spiritual affirmation, a woman pastor comforts and inspires her congregation, listens openly to the young people in her life, stands up for her religious beliefs, encourages her husband, who is inclined to depression, and shows hospitality toward an elderly stranger with a checkered background.  Fiction G5915ev


Fire in Beulah, by Rilla Askew.  The transgressive relationship of an African American and a white woman is examined in the midst of the notorious Tulsa riots that met their nadir in the burning down of “Black Wall Street.”  Fiction A8351fi


The Good Negress, by A.J. Verdelle.  A young woman from rural Virginia adjusts to the pace of big city life and weighs family duty against self-fulfillment through education.  Fiction V4835go


The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros.  With daring and humor, Esperanza, a Chicana girl, overcomes “the shame of being poor, of being female, of being not-quite-good-enough."  Fiction C5795ho


I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, by Maryse Conde.  Based on a true story, this historical fiction allows Tituba to meet Hester Prynne and to be freed by a scorned Jewish man, but the prevailing fury and panic of the trials mean certain execution for her. African Am. Fic. C7454i


I Was Amelia Earhart, by Jane Mendelsohn.  A beautifully rendered fictional account of the ambitious aviator’s last journey.  Fiction M5377wa


Liliane, by Ntozake Shange.  The story, in many voices, of the political, esthetic, and romantic development of an African American artist.  Fiction S52853li


I Loved You All, by Paula Sharp.  Eight-year-old Penny watches as her sister, Mahalia, grows attached to conservative Isabel Flood, while their widowed mother is in rehabilitation for the alcoholism that overtook her when she became a single mother.  A nightmare to library lovers is depicted when Isabel destroys the local high school library because she disapproves of a book there.  Fiction S53187i


The Magician’s Assistant, by Ann Patchett.  During her marriage, Sabine knew and accepted that her husband was also involved in a gay relationship, but only after his death does she become acquainted with the family he said he did not have.  Fiction P2945mag


Memory Mambo, by Ache Obejas.  The heroine of this both witty and poignant novel unravels the tangled nostalgia of her Cuban-born family in a search for true stories and true love.  Fiction O1235mem


Objects in the Mirror Are Closer than They Appear, by Katharine Weber.  Newly in love, a successful photographer visits a friend engaged in an affair with a married man, ponders her own family history, and emerges with astonishing self-insight. Fiction W3747ob


Redemption Song, by Bertice Berry.  Marrying romance and African American history, a man and a woman come together as they read a slave woman’s memoirs.  African Am. Fic. and Fiction B53425red


Rich in Love, by Josephine Humphreys.  A teenager is forced to learn why her mother precipitously deserted her family and how a balance of self-love and solicitousness for others solidifies relationships.  Fiction H9277ri


Rocking the Babies, by Linda Raymond.  As they care for the infants, two apparently dissimilar African American women volunteers in a neonatal clinic describe their successes and losses—and come to care for each other as well.  African Am. Fic. and Fiction R2695ro


Sea of Light, by Jenifer Levin.  “Whatever we put our most into, like our time, and sweat and blood, well that is the thing we make our own.”  Through mutual support, three competitive swimmers surmount obstacles and claim their individuality.  Fiction L6657se


Sights Unseen, by Kaye Gibbons.  In spite of the challenges of mental illness in the family, the Barnes women, mother and daughter, hold their heads high in a town that sometimes fails to embrace differences.  Fiction G4415si


Working Parts, by Lucy Jane Bledsoe.  Lori hates libraries—entire buildings devoted to books she cannot read—because she is illiterate.  At the library, however, she enrolls in a reading program, and, as her self-esteem rises, she is also able to help her tutor, whose marriage is crumbling.  Fiction B64625wor


The World Below, by Sue Miller.  Reeling from the incongruities of a bumpy romance, a young woman learns the real foundations of her grandmother’s marriage. Lobby Fiction M6515wo


Yo!, by Julia Alvarez.  Everyone is telling tales about ebullient Yolanda, a writer, who has used their lives as material for her books.  The stories do not hurt her or anybody else, though.  In illustrating family and community ties, the recollections strengthen them. Fiction A4733yo

For more reading suggestions, please consult:

  • Fiction Catalog. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942- . R016.82 W6917
  • NoveList, at
  • What Do I Read Next, at
For discussion and analysis of some of the best women’s literature:
  • Consider these books:

    Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels, Rachel Brownstein. NY: Viking, 1982. 823.009352 B82

    The Female Hero in American and British Literature. Carol Pearson and Katherine Pope. NY: Bowker, 1981. 823.009352 P31

    Heroines: Demigoddess, Prima Donna, Movie Star, Norma L. Goodrich. NY: HarperCollins, 1993. 809.89287 G62

    Masterplots II: Women’s Literature Series. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 1995. Arts & Hum. Ref. 809.89287 M39

    Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States. NY: Oxford, 1995. Arts & Hum. Ref. 810.9928703 Ox2

    Saints, Sinners, Saviors: Strong Black Women in African American Literature, Trudier Harris. NY: Palgrave, 2001. Weeq. 810.9352042 H243sa

  • Consult the library catalog under such subjects as "American literature--Women authors," "Women and literature," "Women in literature," and "Women authors."
  • Additional resources are provided in the Library’s guide to websites concerning women.


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