Why 'Like A River Glorious' Author Rae Carson Takes Issue With The Phrase 'Strong Female Character'

The second installment of her The Gold Seer Trilogy, Rae Carson's Like a River Glorious brings readers back into the world of the California Gold Rush, a place where the living is dangerous, the people are even more so, and keeping a secret, at least for Lee Westfall, could mean life or death.  

Like a River Glorious, picks up where Walk on Earth a Stranger left off, with Lee and her rag-tag group of friends finally in California and ready to strike it rich. There's only one problem — Lee's evil uncle Hiram, the same uncle who murdered Lee's parents in cold blood, knows about her magical ability to sense gold, and he is willing to do anything to use it for his own wicked wants. But the more Hiram tries to control Lee and her powers, the more the young woman learns about her own strength, the depth of her magic, and the power of the friends around her. An epic novel brimming with history, magic, action, and even a little romance, Like a River Glorious is a stunning portrayal of the wild West that will make you feel like you're panning for gold in the mines, too. 

So how exactly did Rae Carson recreate the California Gold Rush in such brilliant detail? "So much research," the author tells Bustle. "I nearly drowned in research! I visited museums and libraries, read everything I could get my hands on." But she didn't stop there "[I] even hiked into the California foothills to learn how to pan and sluice for gold." Now that is an author who is willing to commit to her story.

"In other words, tolerance became a mechanism for survival."

When you do as much research, in as much depth, as Carson, you're bound to uncover something completely unexpected. For the author, it wasn't an unknown fact that surprised her, but the shattering of an expectation she held that most shocked her. "My initial assumption was that when Lee, who disguises herself as a boy, is eventually unmasked as female, she’d be tarred and feathered and run out of the wagon train for defying Victorian-era gender norms," Carson explains. "But that simply wasn’t the case. Men got sick, clothes got ruined, or a wagon train would get delayed, and suddenly everyone had to pitch in however they could, wearing whatever they could find. In other words, tolerance became a mechanism for survival."

That tolerance and sense of community in the face of hard times hits close to home for Carson – and for her characters and readers. 'We need our communities to survive, whether on the frontier or in high school," she says. "Some people, like Lee, don’t have a built-in family to rely on and have to create one. The idea of a 'found family' is very important to me, and I think it can be a powerful, transformative experience to find the people you belong with. My found family happens to be the community of science fiction- and fantasy-loving internet nerds."

"The idea of a 'found family' is very important to me, and I think it can be a powerful, transformative experience to find the people you belong with."

That's right, Carson loves sci-fi and fantasy too, something she worked into her series with skill and deft — but it wasn't easy. "It’s always a challenge to figure out exactly how much magic belongs in your realistic, historical tale," Carson explains. "Too much, and it loses a certain quality of tone and immersion, I think. Holding back was difficult for me because, even though I loved writing these books, I actually prefer epic fantasy. Give me my dragons!"

Though you won't see any fantastical beasts in Like a River Glorious, there are some new and exciting developments from book one to book two, namely the romance between Lee and her best friend, Jefferson. "Jefferson is becoming bolder about wooing Lee," Carson says. "He’s been in love with her for years, and now that they’re setting up a community and getting down to the business of living, he’s making his intentions clear." But love is never that simple, and Carson doesn't make it easy on her characters, either. "Lee can’t deny her growing feelings, but marriage would mean legally giving up control of her life and everything she’s worked hard for."

A kick-ass heroine who has escaped from murders and fended off robbers, faced bullies and dodged disease, becoming the property of someone else is the last thing a traditional "strong female character" like Lee would want to do, but Carson doesn't see it as simply as that. "I do take issue with the term 'strong female character' because defining strength is such a messy endeavor," Carson says. "Strong 'like a man?' Smart? What if a woman is a kickass makeup artist? At the same time, I recognize it can be useful shorthand for 'nuanced female character who defies sexist stereotypes.' Many of my readers are baby feminists, who are experiencing female empowerment for the first time through reading. For them, 'strong female character' sounds marvelous and emboldening. Naturally, my goal is to coax them into the light of third wave feminism, but in the meantime my readers are welcome to embrace that description of my characters, with my blessing."

"I do take issue with the term 'strong female character' because defining strength is such a messy endeavor. Strong 'like a man?' Smart? What if a woman is a kickass makeup artist?"

Feminism isn't the only thing that Carson is hoping to educate readers on with her novels, either. She is passionate about recognizing the darkest spots in America's checkered past and exploring them through her characters. "Lee observes some horrific atrocities, especially in how the indigenous population was treated. Sadly, these atrocities are not fiction," Carson says. "Genocide happened on American soil. And we almost never (if ever) hear about it." And although that genocide happened centuries ago, Carson is able to see a link from that past to our present, and even has some advice on how we can improve."Denying these facts, or erasing them from the historical record, is how current power structures stay in place, and I think that’s exactly what is happening today with the appalling 'All Lives Matter!' countermovement," Carson says. "Lee is a good person. She doesn’t want to be racist. But just like white allies today, she has to constantly examine her assumptions and become aware of her subconscious biases. She can only do this through exposure and, most importantly, listening."

"But just like white allies today, she has to constantly examine her assumptions and become aware of her subconscious biases. She can only do this through exposure and, most importantly, listening."

A brilliant novel that is more than just historical fiction or epic fantasy, a novel that is filled with hard truths and brutal honesty, unbreakable bonds of friendship and true love, and courageous characters who will stay with you long after you're done reading, Like a River Glorious will have readers eagerly anticipating the release of the final book in the series. So what can we expect from book three? "It’s a very tense, high-stakes book with more plot twists than I’ve ever written into a novel, and I know exactly how it ends," Carson says. 

Like a River Glorious is available now from Greenwillow Books

Images: Michele Daniel

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