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Certain books and movies leave an indelible impression, especially those with characters that make a lasting contribution to the way we understand our place in the world. Some of these people are singularly courageous in love and life, others are fragile and even broken, yet they shine with undeniable gifts bubbling just beneath the surface.
Today I’d like to share with you ten of the book-and-movie heroines that have made a lasting impression on me. Some are historical, others are characters … all have some quality or characteristic or conviction that is sure to inspire.
1. Most recent discovery: Evelyn Ryan in The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. (The image above is from this movie.) The book was based on the true story of the author’s mother, Evelyn Ryan (Julianne Moore), an enterprising Catholic wife and mother of ten who used her pen to keep her family afloat during the “contest era” of the 1950s and 1960s. Married to a broken and disillusioned man (Woody Harrelson), Evelyn nevertheless raises her children in a home full of love and warmth, instilling in them the sense of adventure that she willingly set aside for herself.
Evelyn was a woman who was overshadowed by her circumstances. When her husband’s paycheck goes to pay for liquor instead of the family milk bill, Evelyn struggles to care for her children without shaming their alcoholic father – or losing herself. Refusing to resort to blaming or other indignities, she continues to show her husband patience, love, and respect … and wins the love, admiration, and deeply rooted loyalty of her children in the process.
2. Most unforgettable romance: Davy Vanauken in A Severe Mercy. When I managed to reach my mid-thirties without finding lasting love, I persevered largely because I knew such a love could indeed exist because I had read about it here. Though the story is (in the “Love Story” sense) tragic, it was a light for me because Vanauken paints a detailed roadmap not just of the “is” of love … but the “how” as well. In the next book, Under The Mercy, Vauauken paints the story of his journey into the source of all true Love. (The second book is on my “must reads” for converts.)
3. Most unforgettable love story: Amy Carmichael, who was the subject of Elisabeth Elliot’s biography A Chance to Die. This Scotch Presbyterian spinster, the soul sister of Blessed Mother Teresa, nearly single-handedly rescued hundreds of Indian children from a fate worse than death as “temple children” and raised them at mission school she founded, Donavhur Fellowship. Like Mother Teresa, Amy did it by taking on herself the culture and ways of her host culture; unlike the dear saint of Calcutta, she did it without coming into the fullness of the faith. (Even so, I took “Amy” as my confirmation name, since her hymns were such a significant influence to my journey into the Church.) In movies, I get a similar rush from Ingrid Bergman in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.
4. Love stronger than death: What Dreams May Come. When Annie Nielsen loses her husband and two children in separate auto accidents, she loses her mind and then takes her own life … and yet her husband Chris braves the very forces of hell to find her, knowing that even heaven would be empty without her. Rarely do you see the afterlife portrayed so vividly, with consideration of how one’s actions in this life have real consequences in the next. Second Glance, by Jodi Picoult, does the same thing in book form. The Great Divorce (C.S. Lewis) for those needing a good resource to give loved ones who don’t believe in Purgatory (or who don’t believe Lewis had Catholic tendencies).
5. Best Dog Story: Jenny Grogan in Marley & Me. I give this book to friends who have lost a pet. It cheered me up when nothing else could after Missy (my border collie) died. There is one scene in particular that is worth the price of the book: When Jenny miscarries, Marley instinctively comforts Jenny in a way even her husband could not.
6. Best Story I Wish I’d Written Myself: The title character in Christy (go for the book; the movie series didn’t do it justice). Young and impressionable, Christy Huddleson breaks out of the comfortable, upper-middle class mold in which she is raised to find herself in a most unexpected place: among the mountain people of Appalachia. Based on the life story of the author’s mother.
7. Saints I’d most like to follow around in heaven: St. Teresa of Avila, second only (maybe) to St. Scholastica (St. Benedict’s twin sister). To find out why, pick up a copy of her biography Teresa of Avila: An Extraordinary Life by Shirley du Boulay.
8. Best Story of Trust: These Strange Ashes, by Elisabeth Elliot, recounts the year of mission service before she and Jim were married. Every time I find myself in a no-win situation, I think of the anecdote in the final pages of this book.
9. Best Friendship: Fried Green Tomatoes. Despite the unhappy images of married life this movie contains, it reinforces the importance of having a good friend to lean on when life gets hard.
10. Family at Its Best: Cheaper by the Dozen. While the book is infinitely superior to either movie version, the earlier (black and white) is preferable to the 2003 Steve Martin/Bonnie Hunt disaster. About the only thing it has in common with the original book is the title. But Mrs. Gilbraithe … now there was a real Catholic woman.
Care to share your list? If you’d like to order any of these, I’ve put them in my “resources” section at “Mommy Monsters.”