When I decided to write a novel about the Spanish Civil War, I discovered (surprise, surprise) that most of what had been written about it was from the point of view of the men who had fought in it. The best-known voices belonged to two hyper-machos: Hemingway and Orwell. I discovered in my research that they had consciously concealed some of the darker aspects and horrors of the time in order to make an argument for, in Hemingway's case, the Communists, and in Orwell's, the anarchists.
There was no doubt that the most hideous actors were the Fascists, but the internecine fights between the anarchists and Communists resulted in a lot of interfamilial bloodletting. I was interested in a female, non-combatant perspective, and to my great pleasure I discovered three books that gave me exactly what I wanted.
The Starched Blue Sky of Spain, by Josephine Herbst
This first book led me to the discovery of a marvelous and seriously under-read writer, Josephine Herbst, a woman who fearlessly inhabited male terrains of politics and travel writing. She was a "new woman": professionally ambitious, sexually liberated (she married a younger man and had both male and female lovers), and fearless in taking her place in the world's danger zones. Herbst spoke the truth, even if it went against the positions taken by powerful men. Her memoir The Starched Blue Sky of Spain gave me priceless insights and images that made me feel the reality of the war in a potent, complex way.
The Portable Dorothy Parker, edited by Brendan Gill
A great surprise was the discovery that Dorothy Parker, who I had always thought of as the smart-ass girl allowed at the (boys') round table at the Algonquin, is the bitter author of short stories like "Big Blonde" and was passionately committed to left-wing causes. Her essay "Incredible, Fantastic, and True" (one of the treasures to be found in The Portable Dorothy Parker) provides a searing glimpse into the daily life of the ordinary people surviving the war's brutalities.
For Us It Was Heaven, by Angela Jackson
A fascinating book, published by the small, academic press University of Sussex, is For Us It Was Heaven, chronicling the life of Patience Darnton. Beginning as the ultimate good girl — religious, obedient, a well-behaved nurse — Darnton transformed herself into a political radical, first working in Spain and devoting herself in her late years to serving in China after Mao's ascent. This gave me insight into the moral and physical courage displayed by women who, in other times, might have been "just ordinary," but created themselves as heroes.
Mary Gordon is the author of eight novels, including There Your Heart Lies, Final Payments, Pearl, and The Love of My Youth; six works of nonfiction, including the memoirs The Shadow Man and Circling My Mother; and three collections of short fiction, including The Stories of Mary Gordon, which was awarded the Story Prize.