Jumping on board a runaway train

Every time I mention the book They Went Whistling: Women Wayfarers, Warriors, Runaways and Renegades to another woman, her eyes widen with interest (even if she's on the phone. You can tell these things), and she asks to hear the full title again. When she hears the categories, along with the rest of the chapter titles — Radicals, Grandstanders, Outlaws, Menswear, Exiles and Seekers — the wheels spin in her brain and she thinks out loud, "I wonder which one I would be."

I had done the same thing. Aside from Xena, Warrior Princess, who is a fictional character, we just don't hear much about female radicals, seekers and wayfarers. And the desire to imbue a cubicled, domesticated or otherwise stayed life with a little of their romanticism is instantaneous.

It's easy to jump the runaway trains of these women's lives through the vivid biographies author Barbara Holland draws from their indomitable spirits. Some, like Joan of Arc and Cleopatra, are well known to us at least by name; and Holland fills in the details that Hollywood may have left out. Others, like the Irish pirate Grace O'Malley or Confederate spy Belle Boyd, are names many of us may be hearing for the first time. But all are women who looked at their predetermined roles — stay home, marry, have children, be good — then laughed and ran away. Actually, some seem not to have noticed that there was even a role for them to play in the first place, and they ad libbed their time on the world stage as they damn well pleased.

Some of the stories echo the finest adventures the movies have ever offered, like that of Queen Boudicca of Britain, whose tale and battle cry of "Death before slavery!" echoes nothing short of Bravehart. While the Romans were marching into Britain and civilizing it, she managed to raise a peasant army and fought valiantly against the mighty empire, actually winning a few battles before seeing that the cause was lost and choosing to take poison over defeat.

Down the historic road a bit there was Deborah Sampson, who dressed as a man and fought in the American Revolution. She was wounded twice before coming down with a fever, but — thanks to a kind doctor who kept her secret — was eventually discharged from service with no one the wiser. Eventually she married but, Holland says, her husband "had never served in the army and she always looked down on him as a bit of a slacker."

Grace O'Malley came from a 400-year line of seafaring merchants in Ireland and, though she was married with three children, "as a sideline ... [would] swoop down on plodding merchant ships, offering safe passage for a price, or if they objected, board and plunder." She also fought the English for control of Irish lands and — to make the very long story of her wild life short — she eventually charmed her way into the heart of Elizabeth the Great, "perhaps the shrewdest and most powerful monarch" in history, who released Grace's son and nephew from prison and "freed Grace to fight our quarrel with the world." Upon meeting, both women were in their 60s.

There was Marianne North, born in 1830, who managed to travel to locales like Brazil, Canada, Jamaica, California, Japan, Borneo, Java, Ceylon and Australia, to name a few, for the love of painting tropical plants. "Her gallery at Kew holds 832 oil paintings," Holland writes. "Vermeer, who worked comfortably in his studio ... left us only 42."

Then there was Gertrude Bell, born in 1868, who ran off to the Middle East, was pronounced "an honorary man" by the Arabs, translated Persian poetry and explored the northern Arabian deserts for the sheer love of it, eventually becoming an intelligence agent in World War I because of her singular knowledge of the land.

Parisian-born Alexandra David-Neel became a Buddhist scholar and, after a fantastically arduous four-year trek to Lhasa, became the first Western woman to see that city in 1924. "What had I dared to dream?" she wrote. "Into what mad adventure was I about to throw myself? ... Who knew?"

Mad adventures of every kind fill each page of They Went Whistling; and Holland's sharp, observational writing style enables her to bring story after story to vibrant life. She weaves them together with constant reminders of the social obstacles, stigmas and perils these women endured for simply being women, underscoring the sheer nerve it took to live as they liked.

If ever inspiration is called for to endure a glass ceiling, a good-old-boy network or a self-sabotaging attitude, this book is brimming with it. Fortunately, the only thing these women did not defy was description.

Liz Langley writes for the Orlando Weekly. E-mail [email protected].

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