REVIEWS: 3 books paint vivid pictures of formidable women

Joanne Kelly reviews Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt, Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi, and The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay

Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt, Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi, and The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay

Ami McKay is the author of The Virgin Cure.

Nicole Maines was born one of a pair of identical twin boys in 1979, but she always knew she was a girl. Bird Whitman was born with dark skin to a family passing as white in 1950s America. And Moth Fenwick was born in the slums of New York City in the late 1800s and sold into a life of prostitution.

These three young women — one real, two fictional — take on the challenges life deals them at birth, then take readers on a journey from pain to hope. All three are set within a specific historical context, but their stories touch on timeless issues of racism, sexism, poverty, oppression and finding your place in the world.

Nicole Maines never had any doubt about her place. It was the rest of the world, mostly adults, that had to catch up. And that included her dad, who took years to fully accept his daughter.
Amy Ellis Nutt is the author of Becoming Nicole. (Published by Random House)

While Becoming Nicole is a presented as a non-fiction book about the real-life transition of Wyatt Maines to Nicole, it is also a story about love, acceptance and fighting for what you know is right. It is a heartfelt and inspiring book for all ages. It would be an ideal introduction to transgender issues in middle or high school.

Author Amy Ellis Nutt, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, delves into both the family dynamic and the science of gender. The most fascinating research explores how identical twins could end up genetically different.

Nicole may be in the title and on the cover, but mom Kelly Maines is the heart and soul of the book. She is fierce in her determination to help Nicole becoming fully self-actualized as a young woman, despite starting out not knowing or understanding anything about people who are transgender.

Nutt follows Kelly as she grasps for any research, news stories or real people she can connect with and learn from. Her absolutely unqualified love for her children will leave readers in tears.

Equally heart-rending is Nicole's father Wayne, who clearly loves his child, but who is so wracked by guilt, embarrassment and shame that he retreats from the family and leaves Kelly to fight for Nicole's rights on her own — until the moment he "gets it" and becomes the father Nicole needs.

The book follows the family as they deal with bullies, unsympathetic school officials and protestors. Through all the ugliness, Nicole's strength and personality shine through as she stands firm in her journey.

In Helen Oyeyemi's Boy, Snow, Bird, touted as a modern retelling of Snow White, three young women deal with issues of race and identity.
The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay is the story of a girl raised in poverty in 1870s Manhattan. (Published by Knopf Canada)

Boy is a young girl with an abusive father and an absent mother who runs away, turns her back on true love and marries a widowed father. She becomes a loving stepmother to the beautiful Snow Whitman.

While Boy grapples with the consequences of secret identities in her own past, she gives birth to a daughter. Bird is clearly black and exposes her family's three-generation secret: The Whitmans are a black family passing as white.

Among sly references to fairy godmothers, glass slippers and Prince Charming, Oyeyemi cleverly uses mirrors and reflections to explore the effects of racism, vanity and shame on identity, as in this passage from Bird's perspective:

"For reasons of my own I take note of the way people act when they're around mirrors. Gammy Olivia avoids her own gaze and looks at her hair … Dad looks quietly irritated by his reflection, like it just said something he strongly disagrees with. Mom locks eyes with hers. She's one of the few people I've observed who seems to be trying to catch her reflection out, willing it to make one false move."

Life is anything but a fairy tale in 1871 for Moth Fenwick. In Ami McKay's The Virgin Cure, Moth's mother sells the 12-year-old to an abusive society lady who needs a maid. When Moth runs away, she ends up in the temptingly cushy clutches of a brothel owner who wants to sell her virginity to the highest bidder.
Boy, Snow, Bird by prizewinning author Helen Oyeyemi (Published by Riverhead Books)

The title of the book is a reference to the fact some men thought sex with a virgin would cure syphilis and other diseases. That, of course, meant a market in vulnerable street girls with no one to protect them.

McKay's great-great-grandmother, a doctor who worked with women and children in the slums of New York in the 1800s, is the inspiration for the novel. McKay has done her research, weaving in fascinating medical, historical and society tidbits from the era.