Well written, compelling, enjoyable female characters? In THIS day and age? How scandalous!
As a young woman who also happens to be an avid reader and writer, I have lately found myself rolling my eyes at how female characters are being written in many modern books, movies, and TV shows. What the words “strong female character” mean to many Hollywood writers is a one dimensional “Mary Sue” who is a jerk to everyone around her in the name of false female empowerment.
I was beginning to lose hope in mainstream movies and books which contain any female character described as “strong.” If you’re like me, you feel much more empowered by female characters who are allowed to struggle and fight their way to glory and victory on the journey to becoming a warrior. Or, in the case of the book I have chosen for you all today, are forced to rely on their wits, deductive reasoning, and their friends to outsmart their enemies and to get what they want most out of life.
I was beginning to worry deeply about how our youth of today are going to fare with the kind of female characters depicted in most media. That girls may grow up thinking that the only way to be a strong woman is to be cruel, show no mercy, and rely on nobody but herself. And that boys may grow up thinking that if a girl is mean to him and insinuates that he is naturally inferior to her, that she is right and that he is wrong without exception and that because he is not a girl he really must be inferior. And then I found The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry, and the fading hope in my heart was rekindled.
This book was everything that I was looking for in a true “girl power” story. Berry leans in to the notion that girls don’t need to be a “perfect lady” in order to be a successful woman, while also letting us know that you don’t need to discard a kind heart, love for dresses or taking care of yourself and others around the house to be a strong woman… all while unfolding a thrilling murder mystery!
Prickwillow Place follows seven young ladies at an all-girls boarding school in the little town of Ely, England, in the year 1890. The girls: Smooth Kitty, Disgraceful Mary Jane, Stout Alice, Dull Martha, Dear Roberta, Dour Elinor, and Pocked Louise do not have happy lives at home. They are either ignored, tormented, or simply unwanted, and all seven of them were sent to this school to become proper young ladies. Their school days come to a screeching halt when their sour old headmistress Mrs. Plackett and her odious brother Mr. Godding unexpectedly drop dead in the middle of dinner. With their deaths comes two unpleasant realizations. The first is that without the headmistress, the school will be closed down, and all of the girls will have to be sent away, forever parted from each other. The second realization is even more chilling- the deaths weren't an accident. They were murdered!
Determined to keep the “sisters” together, Smooth Kitty hatches the plan to bury Mrs. Plackett and Mr. Godding in the backyard and to hide their deaths from the world. If they do this, they can not only stay together, but also run the school on their own terms, and learn what they want to learn in order to follow their respective dreams. And so their "scandalous sisterhood" is born as this wonderfully clever and colorful band of girls work together to try and run the household and stay together- and to catch the murderer before they strike again.
Julie Berry's writing style is very reminiscent of Agatha Christie's, and yet it has a unique wit and charm of its own, helping readers envision the pretty little town of Ely and the stress and worry of the girls as they rush to protect their secret and solve the mystery.
The sisterhood is my favorite part of the book. Each girl, from the clever and collected Kitty Heaton down to the sharp mind and fiery spirit of little Louise Brealey is distinct from the others, and each one is rich with character and fun. They have likes and dislikes, they have crushes, strengths and weaknesses- all written impeccably. In short, these girls are strong, smart, kind, and brave, but they are also allowed to be the teen girls and children that they are. They're allowed to be strong while also being feminine.
Best of all, each character is flawed. Readers can connect with and root for characters far more easily when they have relatable flaws and make some mistakes. Grounded in reality, we see characters struggling to overcome their weaknesses and achieve their goals rather than perfect cardboard cutouts waltzing effortlessly through every problem they face. The mystery itself is very engaging and melds perfectly with the conflict of trying to run the school themselves and stay together. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s extremely satisfying. On top of it all, this book is absolutely hilarious, which is the perfect icing to go on top of this delicious literary cake. If you’re concerned with your daughter’s fictional role models, I recommend asking her to give this book a read. In fact, I recommend it to anyone of any gender. Since it is a bit complicated and following lots of characters at once, I would steer this one more towards teens or tweens. I give Prickwillow Place a solid ⅘ stars, and I hope any of you who read this one are just as happy as I am to have your faith in the future of female protagonists restored.