Review: The Radical Element Edited by Jessica Spotswood

Title: The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes, & Other Dauntless Girls
Editor: Jessica Spotswood
Authors: Dahlia Adler, Erin Bowman, Dhonielle Clayton, Sara Farizan, Mackenzi Lee, Stacey Lee, Anna-Marie McLemore, Meg Medina, Marieke Nijkamp, Megan Shepherd, Jessica Spotswood, Sarvenaz Tash


It’s easy to use words like ‘powerful’ and ‘inspiring’ to describe The Radical Element. It takes moments in history and explores how these could have potentially shaped a young woman’s life. Just as Women’s History Month amplifies the voices of women from our past, especially those whose efforts have gone unrecognized and unsung, this anthology gathers these voices into a narrative that refuses to be ignored. By the time you get to the last page, ‘powerful’ and ‘inspiring’ might seem inadequate.

The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes, & Other Dauntless Girls is all about young women who seek change. A stevedore on a steamboat plays a dangerous game of cards and disguises as she chases her dream. A debutante in a wheelchair risks more than her reputation during the Civil War. A girl escapes war-torn Tehran finds comfort and belonging through Prince and ‘80s music. Aware of the strong premise threading these stories, I was afraid that it was eventually going to go downhill but it doesn’t. All of the stories carry a strong sense of time and place. They are fueled by complex protagonists and thoughtful discourses. The choices these heroines make are never easy; even getting to that moment when a choice becomes necessary is a product of struggle. Reading this will make you reflect on how far we’ve come—and how far we still have to go.

Another thing worth celebrating is that history documented here seems far more inclusive than what is found in most textbooks, and not just because of the main characters. Other diverse voices in our nation’s history are also represented here. My personal favorites are Better for All the World (Marieke Nijkamp), Land of the Sweet, Home of the Brave (Stacey Lee), and When the Moonlight Isn’t Enough (Dhonielle Clayton), but ask me again tomorrow and I might pick three different titles. They’re all that good.

Where the anthology truly triumphs is when it reminds us that the radical element can be found where it is least expected. Radical is a young woman who embraces her faith beyond its traditions. Radical is someone who finds strength and identity in a pair of patent leather boots. And radical, too, is the reader who seeks untold stories of the bold and the resolute, the stories of our mothers and grandmothers and all the women who have shaped us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *