cover image Wild Girls: How the Outdoors Shaped the Women Who Challenged a Nation

Wild Girls: How the Outdoors Shaped the Women Who Challenged a Nation

Tiya Miles. Norton, $22 (192p) ISBN 978-1-324-02087-5

With insight and imagination, Harvard historian Miles (All That She Carried) explores the ways in which the natural environment presented “new possibilities” for 19th-century women and girls expected to acquiesce to the confines of a “restrictive domestic sphere.” During the 1820s and 1830s, Harriet Tubman labored in the forests and swamps surrounding the Maryland estates where she grew up. She had rejected indoor work at an early age, having realized it provided her enslavers more of an opportunity to surveil her. Outdoors, she taught herself survival skills that she later used to free herself and others. In the 1830s and 1840s, future Little Women author Louisa May Alcott thrived on nature walks in the New England countryside. According to Miles, Alcott’s nature writing became her “subtle tool of social commentary,” a way of critiquing and subverting prescribed gender roles. Dakota writer Gertrude Simmons Bonnin attended an American Indian boarding school in Indiana in the 1880s and later described the Indigenous girls’ “wild freedom” when playing basketball outdoors; their participation provided a double-edged opportunity to accommodate and resist the school’s curriculum, which was designed to erase Native cultures. Miles concludes her evocative and unique study with a chapter expressing concern that growing barriers for marginalized groups to outdoor spaces will hinder social progress. It’s an inventive take on what inspired people to challenge norms and agitate for change. Illus. (Sept.)