Review of A Tyranny of Petticoats by Jessica Spotswood
A Tyranny of Petticoats
by Jessica Spotswood
Women don’t need me to say this, because they know this, and many have said this themselves, but I’ll boost it: the thing about representation is that it isn’t enough to give people one character, one story, one thing and say, “There, you’ve representation, job done.” So I was excited when I received A Tyranny of Petticoats in a Book Riot Book Mail box. Those of you who have read my reviews for a while (thank you, reader, no matter how poorly you’ve chosen to use your time) know that I’m not that enthusiastic about anthologies. Short stories are not my jam the way novels are. So it means a lot when I’m saying that I loved this anthology.
You want to talk about representation? A Tyranny of Petticoats spans from 1710 to 1968 and features a diverse group of authors writing about a diverse group of women who embody the idea of a “strong” female character in so many ways. It’s not just stories about white girls having adventures. If I remember correctly, 9 of the 15 stories in this collection feature protagonists who are Black, Indigenous, Chinese, mixed-race, or otherwise non-white. Although not all of these stories are #ownvoices, many of the authors are also, as far as I can tell, non-white. Additionally, several of the protagonists are queer or questioning their sexuality. These are 15 stories about young women who are different and who are literally refusing to conform to what their world, their time, expects of them. It is, in my opinion, quite empowering, though obviously my opinion here isn’t the one that counts. I’m a fairly empowered, privileged person already.
I don’t usually like to review story-by-story, but I want to do that here. I love these stories so much.
“Mother Carey’s Table” by J. Anderson Coats
Set in 1710, Jocasta “Joe” is a Black girl who must dress as a boy while she and her father work aboard a pirate vessel. I appreciate how this story does not sugarcoat or romanticize what it means to be a pirate or the kind of life sailors lead.
“The Journey” by Marie Lu
Set in 1723, Yakone is an Inupiat girl whose world is rocked by the invasion of European settlers. After losing her father and then mother in short succession, Yakone finds herself stranded on the tundra with only her dog and her people’s stories to guide her and help her to survive. I don’t know enough about Inuit stories to know if Lu has done the culture justice; as far as I can tell, she highlights many of the elements of Inuit culture, such as the reverence for and reliance upon dogs, that are important to remember given how much Europeans tried to suppress them.
“Madeline’s Choice” by Jessica Spotswood
By the editor, this story is set in 1826. Madeline is Black, although of mixed blood in an era and setting (Louisiana) where this was a huge deal. She falls in love with a dandy who often passes as white and wants to marry him in defiance of her parents. Spotswood highlights both the folly of youth and the constrictive ways in which parents behave with their children while also keeping the mother figure sympathetic. I really enjoyed the nuance here. Trigger warning for historical language and terms that may nowadays be offensive.
“El Destinos” by Leslye Walton
Set in 1848, the protagonists of this story are incarnations of the Three Fates from Greek and Norse mythology. This is a very creative and fun take on these mythical creatures—in this time period, they are teenage Mexican girls living in Texas shortly after the end of the Mexican—American War. Despite liking the premise, I didn’t enjoy this story quite as much. Most of the plot and character development was predictable.
“High Stakes” by Andrea Cremer
As with the previous story, this tale set in 1861 Massachusetts and Mississippi features more overt supernatural elements than most of the other stories in this book. Klio herself has a supernatural heritage, though Cremer skillfully only drops hints until the very end. You’ll figure it out, but it’s very artfully done. And that’s about how I feel here: the story itself is good, just not great.
“The Red Raven Ball” by Caroline Tung Richmond
Lizzie is a debutante living in 1862 Washington, D.C. Charged by her uncle to help him identify a Confederate spy in D.C. who only goes by the name the “Red Raven”, Lizzie sleuths around her Grandmama’s ball until she discovers the shocking truth. The spy thriller aspect of this story wasn’t as exciting as it wants to be, but the characters are excellent. Lizzie, her sister, and her Grandmama are all so believable in their motivations. Richmond reminds us why some women internalize and accept their role in a patriarchal society because of how they have grown up and what they believe.
“Pearls” by Beth Revis
It’s 1876 and Helen is fleeing Chicago for the wild west of Cheyenne, Wyoming. She takes a position as a schoolteacher rather than marry her rapist in disgrace. The rape itself is neither depicted nor described; it happened before the start of the story. I loved this story! Helen grows into herself, makes decisions based on her needs, and her relationship with her charges is interesting and deep. I love, love the ending.
“Gold in the Roots of the Grass” by Marissa Meyer
Another more supernatural story, set in 1877, Deadwood. The protagonist, Sun Fei-Yen, is Chinese (or of Chinese descendant) and has inherited the gift (or curse) of seeing ghosts. She turns this into a trade, albeit not always a safe or reliable one, until her desire to help a recently-made ghost puts her into even more danger. Like many of the other stories in this book, this one goes beyond depicting a great female character and challenges other tropes of American storytelling—it acknowledges that the United States is on stolen land and does not shy away from depicting the calculated racism with which people grabbed for power in frontier times.
“The Legendary Garrett Girls” by Y.S. Lee
Set in 1898, this is Alaska during the gold rush and settlement. The Garrett girls are being muscled out of their bar. I didn’t love this one, but I like that it didn’t necessarily go the way I expected. It just felt a little more frivolous—because it was kind of like a legend—so I didn’t get to enjoy the protagonists as much as people.
“The Color of the Sky” by Elizabeth Wein
It should come as no surprise that I loved this story, because I love Wein’s books. She has written about female pilots before, albeit not Black pilots. In 1926, Tony sees her idol, Bessie Coleman, die in a horrible test-flight accident. Tony has always wanted to be a pilot, and despite the additional challenges placed upon her by being both female and Black, she takes the first steps towards forging this path. The story is inspirational and moving.
“Bonnie and Clyde” by Saundra Mitchell
Set in 1934, this story has more introspection and narration from the protagonist. She leads a very fascinating double life. I love how Mitchell uses the backdrop and setting of the Great Depression to provide the protagonist with this motivation to pull off such dangerous acts in order to help her family.
“Hard Times” by Katherine Longshore
Set in 1934, Washington State this time instead of Indiana like the last book, this follows two … urchins? Homeless children. And an older boy, just barely a man, trying to prove himself at his father’s newspaper by writing about the dispossessed, homeless youth who don’t have a job. It’s interesting, because it’s a perspective on this part of the Depression I haven’t read much myself. The story itself didn’t grab me as much.
“City of Angels” by Lindsay Smith
Set in 1945, the protagonist (who is I believe of Native American heritage) is a riveter and falls in love with a female coworker. This relationship exposes her to a side of Los Angeles living she never otherwise would have discovered. Both women have beaus overseas, however—one in Europe and one in the Pacific—and the spectre of what they will do when these men return, if they return, looms large in this story. Smith manages to shows us how women worked and lived independently during war while also showing young readers a lesbian relationship that is full of as much happiness, doubt, and pain as any other relationship.
“Pulse of the Panthers” by Kekla Magoon
Set in 1967, in rural California, the protagonist tells us about a weekend in which her father hosts young members of the Black Panthers on his farm. She watches as he teaches them how to use firearms to defend their communities, and she flirts with a young Panther who tries to convince her to come to the city and join the movement. This one felt very slow, plot-wise, but was a great, different look at the Black Panther movement from what you might typically see.
“The Whole World is Watching” by Robin Talley
Closing out this book, Talley’s story takes place in Grant Park, Chicago, in 1968, during anti-war protests. The protagonist a Black (though, being from the south, she has grown up thinking of herself as “Negro”) woman questioning her sexuality—she has embraced what she calls “radical lesbian feminism”, and although she pretended to date a male friend when her father came up to visit, she has been seeing a mutual female friend on the side. I’m ambivalent about how this relationship is depicted and the terms here. I don’t think Talley is trying to portray lesbianism as a deliberate, feminist, or misandrist choice but is rather trying to show how the climate of the late 1960s gave a lot of women who experienced these types of attractions the opportunity and vocabulary to act upon these attractions rather than repress them or see them as shameful. There’s an intense mixture of action in this book, stemming from political, racial, or feminist conflicts. It’s an interesting, if a bit heavy, story.
So there you have it. A Tyranny of Petticoats is well worth reading, or worth giving to a young woman who wants to read about more young women like her throughout American history. I love the idea of a tyranny being the collective noun for a group of women in petticoats. Rock on.