Female wanderers wanted!
April 30, 2014 4:07 PM   Subscribe

Seeking literary fiction with a transient, often solitary, female hero, please!

I have been enjoying fiction for the past couple of years about wanderers - protagonists who forsake their homes in search of meaning, wandering alone, arriving in strange places, learning and wondering at the world, forgetting and relearning their origins, perhaps returning one day... Spiritual journeys, artistic awakenings, etc.!

Recent examples:

Lanark - Alasdair Gray
Snow - Orhan Pamuk
Dahlgren - Samuel Delany
Narcissus & Goldmund - Hermann Hesse
City of Illusions - Ursula Le Guin
Titus Alone - Mervyn Peake

It's nonfiction but The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane gave me similar wanderlust.

I do love many female authors (among them AS Byatt, Hilary Mantel, Zadie Smith and LeGuin), but none of them write books like these with female protagonists!

Some YA fantasy hits the spot (Robin McKinley's The Hero & the Crown, Garth Nix' Sabriel, even His Dark Materials) and I did love Wild by Cheryl Strayed, but I'd like more grown up, more literary, philosophical!

Thank you in advance!
posted by Isingthebodyelectric to Writing & Language (40 answers total) 80 users marked this as a favorite
Dreamsnake might suit!
posted by The otter lady at 4:09 PM on April 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

My Life in France about Julia Child might fill the bill, though she wasn't solitary.
posted by brookeb at 4:10 PM on April 30, 2014

I wonder if Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower might be interesting to you (though again, not solitary).
posted by whistle pig at 4:11 PM on April 30, 2014

Even Cowgirls get the Blues

Not fiction, but I really enjoyed it Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
posted by rudd135 at 4:12 PM on April 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Two Serious Ladies is not so much about wandering in search of meaning, but it is definitely about wandering, and is a nearly perfect novel.
posted by dizziest at 4:25 PM on April 30, 2014

Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman books!
posted by Jeanne at 4:26 PM on April 30, 2014 [6 favorites]

I would recommend The Light Bearer by Donna Gillespie. It is a phenomenal historical adventure novel set in Ancient Rome. The main character is female warrior from a Germanic tribe, and she is a fantastic heroine.
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 4:34 PM on April 30, 2014

Jo Walton's vaguely Arthurian trilogy (The King's Peace, The King's Name, and The Prize In The Game) might appeal. The main character more or less maps as a female Knight of the Round Table, with lots of hanging out around outdoor fires, swordfighting, and shaping the future of her nation.

Some nonfiction options: The Far Traveler (about a Viking explorer who probably spent some time in North America in the early 1000's) and Woodswoman (about a woman who lives on her own in the Adirondacks.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 4:34 PM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Passion switches back and forth between characters, but the sections about Villanelle would probably suit.

Also- Orlando isn't always female, but the book is a delight.
posted by dizziest at 4:36 PM on April 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

Seconding Kirstein's Steerswoman books, as well as The Far Traveler.
posted by Janta at 4:46 PM on April 30, 2014

I enjoyed The Signature of All Things recently- I think that ticks all your boxes actually. Solitary female grows up, travels, has a sort of scientific awakening.
posted by Erasmouse at 4:51 PM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's not fiction- but you should familiarize yourself with the works of Isabelle Eberhardt. She was an amazing, unique, and intrepid explorer of the world. She forsook her "home" in a way that few women from her class/origin would.

The Nomad would be a good place to start.
posted by jammy at 4:54 PM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles. Amazon: "A story about three American travelers adrift in the cities and deserts of North Africa after World War II, The Sheltering Sky explores the limits of humanity when it touches the unfathomable emptiness and impassive cruelty of the desert." One of the travelers is a woman, who becomes the focal character of the narrative and forgets herself and her origins in the process.
posted by Atrahasis at 4:54 PM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by Confess, Fletch at 4:58 PM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Beacon at Alexandria by Gillian Bradshaw. So good!
posted by mmmbacon at 5:13 PM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Prodigal Summer and The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell
posted by mibo at 5:59 PM on April 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.
posted by zizzle at 6:22 PM on April 30, 2014

Morven Callar
posted by stevedawg at 6:38 PM on April 30, 2014

Also, I wonder if you would enjoy Margaret Atwood, specifically Cat's Eye. It features the loneliest female protagonist I can think of (also one of my favorite books).
posted by whistle pig at 6:52 PM on April 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Hild by Nicola Griffith. Actually, most of Griffith's books fit your description; Hild is just the most recent one (and the one I most recently read). I've linked to that page because it also includes an extremely useful index of characters; there are a lot of them and many are quite unfamiliar to modern English speakers.
posted by Athanassiel at 6:54 PM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Off the Map
posted by ITheCosmos at 7:03 PM on April 30, 2014

The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon
posted by Boogiechild at 7:09 PM on April 30, 2014

HILD IS SO GREAT. I love it so much. I think you should read it. The only other Nicola Griffith I've read is Ammonite, also from a recommendation somewhere on here; I enjoyed it and it also meets your criteria. But I LOVE Hild.
posted by librarina at 7:53 PM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh man, Grass by Sheri S. Tepper really fits the bill.

Great question.
posted by Specklet at 8:14 PM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Valley of the Assassins, by Freya Stark. Non-fiction, but fantastic!
posted by stillmoving at 8:14 PM on April 30, 2014

I had dinner then had another thought: A Gift Upon The Shore. Don't be put off by it's terrible title, but if a post-apocalyptic theme doesn't put you off, it's an engrossing read.
posted by Specklet at 8:32 PM on April 30, 2014

The Indigo Series by Louise Cooper.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 9:07 PM on April 30, 2014

Mating, by Norman Rush.
posted by amoeba at 9:19 PM on April 30, 2014

Not fiction, but Robyn Davidson's Tracks might suit the bill as well as some of her later work about nomads.
posted by Kerasia at 10:16 PM on April 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

While Murakami's books always feature a male hero, they sometimes have a solitary female who helps the male. IQ84 and After Dark are good examples.
posted by TheRaven at 12:35 AM on May 1, 2014

Naomi Mitchison, Travel Light!
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 1:07 AM on May 1, 2014

Whit by Iain Banks is for you. I think it ticks nearly every requirement you have. An under-appreciated gem of a novel.
posted by sapien at 1:42 AM on May 1, 2014

Kij Johnson has written two books set in a supernatural Japanese past that are all about solitary women (even if they happen to have been born cats or foxes) exploring their world. They're beautifully written, hauntingly different, and I highly recommend both of them: Fudoki and The Fox Woman.

Nahoko Uehashi's novels about the Balsa, a wandering warrior for hire, are more in the YA vein, but might also hit the spot. Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is the first of two books translated into English.
posted by harujion at 4:42 AM on May 1, 2014

The Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coelho. Summary from Booklist: "Best-selling fabulist Coelho continues to transform his trademark combination of mysticism and storytelling into spellbinding examinations of the human soul. In this deceptively simple novel, a bereaved lover attempts to chronicle, dissect, and comprehend the often-twisted path followed by Athena, otherwise known as the Witch of Portobello Road. An orphaned Romanian gypsy, adopted as an infant by adoring Lebanese parents, Athena recognized and struggled with the power of her magical gifts at an early age. Spurred on by truths and passions inaccessible to most of her contemporaries, she traipsed around Europe and the Middle East in search of acceptance, enlightenment, and a truer path. Developing a cultlike following, she became the object of a modern-day witch hunt that seemingly culminated in tragedy."

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert is also fantastic. It's a story about a female botanist in the 1800s.

The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga. It's a about a woman who travels to Florence in 1966 to help save books that were damaged in the flood.
posted by Shadow Boxer at 5:13 AM on May 1, 2014

Mercedes Lacky has several books in her Valdemar series like this. The ones in the Vows and Honor trilogy which begins with Oathbound involves two women with a shared mission and a great friendship. There is a story about a relative of theirs called By the Sword that is almost compley about a woman adventuring alone.

Mercedes Lacky has atleast one more book (trilogy?) in the series with a female protagonist, but the name is escaping me at the moment.
posted by rip at 6:32 AM on May 1, 2014

Interesting 18th-Century takes on the subject are Female Quixotism and The Female Quixote.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:38 AM on May 1, 2014

Not literary fiction, more auto/biography, but there have been more of these women adventurers than you might think.
Lucy Evelyn Cheesman (1881 -- 1969) was a British entomologist and traveller.

Cheesman was unable to train for a career as a veterinary surgeon due to restrictions on women's education. Instead, she studied entomology, and was the first woman to be hired as a curator at Regent's Park Zoo, in London.

In 1924 she was invited to join a zoological expedition to the Marquesas and Galapagos Islands. She spent approximately twelve years on similar expeditions, travelling to New Guinea, the New Hebrides and other islands in the Pacific Ocean.

One hell of a badass woman and luckily, she wrote a memoir, Things Worth While. An idyllic Edwardian childhood followed by one of the most low-key accounts of risk and adventure you've ever read.

Alexandra David-Neel
, a Belgian-French explorer, spiritualist, Buddhist, anarchist,[1][2][3] and writer, most known for her visit to Lhasa, Tibet, in 1924, when it was forbidden to foreigners, wrote With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet, published in 1929. The book is out of copyright and available online.

This about her from The Adventure Journal: She spent the bulk of her life from ages 40 to 80 in Asia, chasing spiritual awakening through Buddhism and yoga while squatting in a cave in Tibet for three solid years, nearly starved to death in the Gobi desert, escaped part of WWI in Japan and Korea (only to witness the brutality of Imperial Japan two decades later during WWII in China), dined with the Dalai Lama among others, and through it all became one of the foremost experts on Tibetan culture in the world.

Anna Hinderer was a British 19C missionary wife in what is now Nigeria. She wrote a memoir, 17 Years in the Yoruba Country, again, out of copyright and available online. I haven't read it (so can't recommend it or otherwise) but I have read a book called Swelling of Jordan by Ellen Thorp, which is very readable and a compelling story. Touching, even. It was first published by the Lutterworth Press, which is a specifically Christian business, and the author was given support and assistance from church people and from the CMS. Since I'm not a Christian, and preachiness would be an issue for me, I'll just say none of that gets in the way of a good story. There are a few mistakes in it, or cultural misreadings, but I think it holds up quite well unlike some texts from the same era (1950 looking back 100 years.)

(Just in case that quote about David-Neel was a bit dry, from the same website: One of the most intrepid explorers in recent history is someone whose name you’ve almost certainly never heard. Alexandra David-Néel stood all of five feet tall and from the age of two was wandering away from her parents through the streets of Paris. At 18, in 1886, she climbed on a bicycle and rode from Brussels to Spain — without telling her parents. With Mystics and Magicians is quite an odd book. Fascinating too.)
posted by glasseyes at 8:57 AM on May 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine is doing a webcomic that might fit the bill.
posted by valrus at 9:01 AM on May 1, 2014

YA: Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey is about Menolly who runs away from home.
posted by jillithd at 11:03 AM on May 1, 2014

It's not fiction, it's a travel journal. After reading Tales of a Female Nomad, it got me embarking on a month long solo travel in Peru.
posted by gloturtle at 1:16 PM on May 1, 2014

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