Last year I reviewed A Tyranny of Petticoats, which came on my radar because I received it in a Book Mail box from Book Riot. When I saw The Radical Element on NetGalley, I wanted to see how the second volume of this anthology series compared. Thanks to NetGalley and Candlewick Press for the eARC! I adored this book for what it is, and while I didn’t love every story, it was a great end-of-the-week read.
The Radical Element is also edited by Jessica Spotswood, but you don’t need to have read A Tyranny of Petticoats to read this book. All of the short stories are self-contained and separate from the stories of the first book. The concept is much the same, however: the 12 stories herein are all about girls who are in some way “radical” for their time and place, and they typically follow a structure of the girl taking agency over her life and choosing, whether by striking out or striking back or some combination, to stand against society’s constraining expectations for her.
I’m not going to review each story individually, as I did last time. Honestly, the first few stories were OK but didn’t enthrall me. Part of that was just the settings—I have little interest in nineteenth century America, in the so-called “wild west” milieu, so those stories were already at a disadvantage with me. I know it had an effect, because I became much better-disposed towards the stories by the time we hit 1943. And I think the last story, “Take Me With U”, by Sara Farizan and set in 1984 Boston, was my favourite, both because of the time and the plot.
That being said, whatever your mileage on the various stories and their periods, the concept as a whole is well done here. By showcasing a different setting in each story, Spotswood reminds us that women have always fought. Women didn’t suddenly become scrappy, strong, liberation-minded people in the 1920s or 1930s or 1940s or whichever decade you personally want to stick a pin as the “start” of feminism or whatever. Women and girls have always fought for recognition, independence, autonomy, and we do them a disservice if we generalize our history to say, “Back in the ____, women had no power”. It is always, always more complicated than that.
In a similar vein, different stories feature different ways of fighting back. Some of the protagonists are physically combative; they defend themselves and use force, if necessary, to get their way. Some use wit, charm, or reasoning. Others find allies and escape, or simply slip away, an apologetic note all they leave as a trace of their presence. The Radical Element reminds us not to reduce “strong women” down to a single phrase or single idea. There are so many ways to be strong.
Also, this is a very diverse book, both in terms of its authors and its characters. There are Jewish, Mormon, Christian, and Muslim protagonists. There are white girls and Black girls and Mexican girls. There are abled and disabled girls. It’s a refreshing pantheon.
My critiques for the book aren’t really of the book itself, just areas where it doesn’t align with my own particular interests. Like I said above, not huge on some of the historical periods. Not huge on the focus on the United States (but again, that’s just the premise of the whole anthology, so I’m not here to criticize that). I really liked the one or two stories that include a little bit of magic in them, because I found that interesting. Magic always improves my historical fiction! Again, these are all just personal preferences, so if yours differ, you might love this book to bits. Or hate it entirely!
Still, if you at all are interested in 12 dynamic stories featuring 12 diverse girls in 12 different time periods in the United States, then really, you should give The Radical Element a shot. I want to see more books like this, more stories like these ones. Even if they aren’t always to my tastes, I know there are readers out there who will find these stories inspiring and entertaining. These are stories that should be told, and I am here for that.