Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book (1992) won critical acclaim as a Hugo and Nebula Award winner. At once science fiction and historical fiction, this book instantly won my heart when I read it in college, because I was a double major in creative writing and history. I’m reading it again, with high school students I work with, and am loving it more seeing their reactions.
In Willis’ imagined future, time travelers are historians, who go back to physically study history and literally experience the life and culture historians of today can only read about. The hero, Kivrin Engle, insists on going back to the early 1300s to study the Middle Ages, despite the fact that no one has ever gone back that far in time. From the start of the novel, Kivrin stands on her own, making it clear she is capable, despite being an undergraduate student. And even when her mentor, Mr. Dunworthy, claims it’s too dangerous to send a woman, she doesn’t care.
But Kivrin’s plans go awry when she finds herself in 1348, at the height of the Black Death, instead of 1320, as intended.
The novel reads as a response to all the masculine centered stories of the Middle Ages, where the women are oppressed or the love interest (or both!). Kivrin is neither. Yet, I would not consider her a feminist figure. She does not try to change the conditions around her which would force a girl of twelve to marry a fifty year old man. Yet, her lack of grand feminist heroics, make her a believable character who is not meant to represent feminism. She’s not meant to represent anything, except a woman striving to survive and aid those she cares about.
And while she nurses the villagers around her, dying of plague she doesn’t take on the job because of her gender. She takes on the job because she is the most qualified. She’s the one who knows about viruses and medicine. She’s the one who knows that the world isn’t ending.
Above all, Kivrin is a survivor. And no matter what century, we should honor women with such grit.