Hearts of Fire

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In his previous book, GREAT AMERICAN FOLKLORE: LEGENDS, TALES, BALLADS, AND SUPERSTITIONS FROM ALL ACROSS AMERICA (1986), Kemp Battle compiled stories about American folk heroes. When his young daughter asked why there were no stories about women, he realized that American folklore largely excluded them. In HEARTS OF FIRE: GREAT WOMEN OF AMERICAN LORE AND LEGEND, he attempts to fill that void with true and mostly true accounts, including Native American legends. These, says Battle, are “the stories I want her to hear.”

Entries are grouped around specific areas of women’s lives such as childbirth and marriage, as well as their experiences on the frontier, in war, and in society. An article from 1782 offers “Directions for Fainting Elegantly.” Author Lydia Marie Child advises mothers to teach small children to become useful by braiding straw for hats or picking berries for profit. In the Klondike, physician Luella Day seeks gold and adventure but finds instead a mining camp filled with plague. A black Alabama midwife reflects on her career, while suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton recalls her father’s cry: “Ah, you should have been a boy!” Many tales concern lesser-known women who reveal their quiet courage.

Perhaps the most fun comes with untidy heroines like Mother Jurgenson, Queen of the Bull-Whackers; Chloroform Kate, named for her drug of choice, who was buried at sea from a garbage scow; Cattle Kate, the first female rustler to be hanged in Wyoming; and ladies with such colorful labels as Snake-Hips Lulu, Squirrel-Tooth Alice, old Mother Featherlegs, and the aptly named murderer Sally Skull. An index provides helpful reference. This is a book worth keeping around.