Give me a book that explores historical figures in short, illustrated essay format, and I’m so there. There are a number of books that do this really poorly, it’s true, but the ones that get it right get it really, really right. Luckily, Sam Maggs’ new book, Girl Squads: 20 Female Friendships That Changed History, illustrated by the incomparable Jenn Woodall, is one of the latter.
As someone who isn’t a particularly dedicated student of history, I enjoy books like Girl Squads because they present historical figures in a digestible way that holds my interest. In this case, Girl Squads starts with “Athlete Squads”, a section I didn’t expect to love nearly as much as I did (because Sports are generally Not My Thing), then jumped into “Political & Activist Squads,” followed by “Warrior Squads, then “Scientist Squads,” then my personal favorite, “Artist Squads.” Each section features essays written in Maggs’ informative-but-approachable style, showcasing the contributions of various women in history—and their teammates, siblings, friends, or any combination thereof—to their various areas of expertise.
To my surprise, one of my favorite features in Girl Squads is actually the essay about the 1964 Japanese Olympics women’s volleyball team, labeled by their Russian rivals as “The Witches of the Orient.” Until I was randomly paired with a volleyball player for a roommate in my freshman year college dorm room, I knew very little about the sport, but it’s now become one of the few that I kind of love. Maggs’ clearly exhaustive research on the 1964 Japanese women’s team sparked a desire to learn more about them, which, in my opinion, is the mark of a good essay—especially in a collection that explores so many figures in such a short page span.
I also want to learn more about Manon Roland and Sophie Grandchamp, two politically-active French revolutionaries whose friendship, Maggs acknowledges, reads more like romance than anything else. (Just gals bein’ pals!) Roland is asumed to have ghost written most of her husband’s missives, seeing as she initially radicalized him and she was more politically savvy than her husband or the many men who organized in their Parisian home.
She once said, “I let the men do the talking—I particularly enjoy listening to old men who imagine that every word they say is a revelation to the listener and who think that all I am capable of is stitching a shirt and adding up figures.” This profile on her in The Paris Review is incredible, and I’ve added her Memoirés to my reading list for 2019. She wrote her memoirs in jail before she was guillotined, and Grandchamp smuggled the pages out and hid them where (hopefully) no one would look. I’m excited to be heartbroken over what Maggs describes as a lifelong, incredibly deep love for each other, as described in Roland’s memoirs.
Girl Squads isn’t exclusively about female friendships, though Maggs explores some of the most famous gal pals in history. Take, for example, the notorious lady pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, whose friendship (and possible romance?) is immortalized in everything from books to movies to bronze statues. Their relationship is the stuff of pirate legend, and I always get really excited when I see them included in an anthology like this one. I don’t know if Maggs could have written this book without including them, though I know there must have been some hard editorial decisions made to limit this collection to just 20 incredible team-ups.
In addition to exploring those intimate, one-on-one or small group friendships, Maggs also examines women teaming up throughout history to wreak havoc, effect change, or some combination thereof. This includes scientists, like the West Area Computers, including Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson (the incredible NASA mathematicians who were depicted in the 2016 film Hidden Figures—you know, the black women who put man on the moon?), as well as women who fought in wars, including the Red Women of Finland, a revolutionary fighting force who fought to murder members of the bourgeoisie after Russia returned Finland to full independence in the early 20th century. There are women from recent history (like, as recently as 2017) and women from ancient times. There are so many interesting women in this book. I won’t list them all, because I think you should experience their stories for yourself, but trust me: each essay is as fascinating as the last.
I most enjoyed the essays about individual friendships, I think, but the historical research in this book has sparked my interest in a big way. I love how Maggs explores the connection between women who were actively friends and women who teamed up to fight for a common cause, even if their individual relationships weren’t necessarily publicized or well-known. The balance of these different stories is great, and it makes the book flow really well.
The pacing of this book is absolutely fabulous; Maggs writes as if she’s telling you a really interesting story at a party. I didn’t want to put this book down and neither, I think, will you. Whether you’re interested in history or just stories about badass women, check out Girl Squads: 20 Female Friendships That Changed History. I think you’ll enjoy the read.
Oh, and Jenn Woodall’s illustrations? Stunning, as always. I love the way Woodall draws women and girls—I was stoked to see her name on this project and her work did not disappoint.
Girl Squads is available in bookstores October 2, 2018 through Quirk Books. I received an advanced e-galley from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Overall rating: ★★★★
Recommended for: Readers interested in history, women’s studies, and approachable essays about the two