Monday, 27 January 2020

'The Unstoppable Letty Pegg'

I've been banging on for about a decade now about my enthusiasm for novels about the suffrage campaign and, more specifically, novels aimed at younger readers about the suffrage campaign. In recent years, what with the centenary in 2018 of some women getting the vote, there has been an outpouring of such books and I have been delighted to see this. Not least because a fair few of them have been more adventurous than the standard narrative of: working-class girl bumps into upper-class lady who educates her in the ways of suffrage, introduces her to Emmeline Pankhurst, there's a force feeding scene and a chaste romance with somebody's brother. 

But this new novel by Iszi Lawrence is one of the most imaginative, inventive suffrage books I've read to date, and the first to tackle the - true- story of the women who learned jiu jitsu so that they could defend themselves from the police and others who tried to do them harm in their campaign. 

The Unstoppable Letty Pegg (published on 6 February 2020) has the unusual premise of a suffragette who is married to a policeman, while bringing up a pre-teen daughter who, of course, gets caught up in the fight for the vote. But this is very much Letty's story. 

While following her mum to a suffragette march one day (which becomes the infamous Black Friday), Letty witnesses the appalling police brutality and sexual assaults rained down upon these women (sadly based on fact), and she ends up meeting the small but mighty Edith Garrud (a real woman) who runs a dojo in Soho where she teaches jiu jitsu to women to help them stay safe. And this is the central point around which Letty's story centres. Although there are also sub-plots concerning a mixed-race friend, a misogynist teacher, family secrets and a disapproving grandmother. 

The fact that Iszi is herself a jiu jitsu practitioner (is that the right word?) only lends credibility to the descriptions of the fights and moves as Letty comes to them, and Iszi's experiences really shine through. The reader can totally visualise the scenes, even if - like me - you don't know the first thing about jiu jitsu. 

It's fantastic to see a different aspect of the struggle for women's suffrage being highlighted, and in a novel that does not glamourise the militant suffragettes, who many historians have issue with. Indeed, in The Unstoppable Letty Pegg, at times Iszi seems to urge caution in the reader against only seeing the purple, white and green of the Pankhursts' campaign and she instead points out some of the other groups who peacefully lobbied for the vote. And for this alone I salute Iszi. The historical details and accuracy here are also fantastic, and don't lean back on tired old myths like some books I've read. 

Now, the next suffrage novel I want to read is one set pre-1903 that makes no reference to suffragettes, Pankhursts, prisons or force-feeding, and instead focuses on the peaceful sheroes who had been at this for decades beforehand. It'll be a hard sell into a publisher but, my word, those stories are there to be told and they will make a damn fine read.

In the meantime, grab yourself a copy of 
The Unstoppable Letty Pegg (it is aimed at readers aged 9-13, though there's nothing to stop older people in, say, their 40s enjoying it, ahem) and buy one for the youngsters in your life. And not just the girls. These are stories boys need to know as well. Thanks, Iszi. 

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