Books, Women and Motorcycles – Reviews

For the female motorcycle enthusiast who also loves to read, here are some classic titles and a few fresh ones, mainly non-fiction with the exception of one novel. If you can’t get out on your bike (mechanical issues? nasty weather?) simply curl up with one of these books, and your spirits will rise!Debenham sisters

Motor-Cycling for Women (1928) by B. & N. Debenham

I received this delightful book written in 1928 for Christmas last year. It is a reproduction of a book by two British sisters named Betty and Nancy Debenham, who were poster girls for BSA motorcycles and wrote exclusively for “the lady driver, side car passenger, and pillion rider.” The introduction explains that this was a golden period, as women had received the vote and “there were more motorcycles on the road than cars and anyone could ride a motorcycle at 14 without passing a test or wearing a helmet.” The chapters are both inspiring and humorous, and regularly feature their dog Poncho who joins in on the adventures.Debenham book 1928

The stories are wonderful, and I could even empathize with the sisters on one roadtrip when they stopped for petrol at a little cottage and got stumped when their bike suddenly stops running. “We kicked and kicked, took out the plugs, found them perfectly clean, and put them back; wondered vaguely about the magneto and carburettor, and fell back on kicking again” (9). Turned out this kind old lady had poured in a can of paraffin, not gasoline! Yikes.

Some aspects I couldn’t relate to, but still found super funny… On a chapter on “Frocks and Frills,” the enthusiasts write, “We soon discovered how important it was to be suitably dressed when motor-cycling, and we came home after our first motor-cycle ride feeling perfect frights, as well as incapable idiots, for we had gone off in our wide-brimmed hats and silk stockings” (29). As well, apparently riding in the rain is “splendid for the complexion” although some rose water, vanishing cream and face powder are necessary protection from the weather, hahaha!Debenham sled

Overall, the Debenham sisters are just awesome and the vintage photos alone are reason enough to buy their book. I particularly like the winter photos, as one of the sisters pulls children on a sled through the snow. They had an incredible spirit for adventure and are worthy of hero status!

Gasoline Gypsy (1953) by Peggy Iris Thomas

Peggy and MatelotObviously this book means a lot to me considering the name of this blog, and it is a dream to someday own a first edition copy of Gasoline Gypsy (also known as A Ride in the Sun, or as A Dog is a Girl’s Best Friend). I received a second edition copy a few years back on my birthday, and was just so impressed by Peggy Iris Thomas. The second edition also contains photographs, to get a better sense of the bike, the dog and the rider.

Essentially, Peggy buys a 125cc BSA Bantam, which she nicknames Oppy and decides to plunge into it by boating her bike and her gear over to Canada from Liverpool, along with her Airedale dog named Matelot, a typewriter, and $60 in her pocket. This is between 1950 and 1952, and she rides across Canada, through the U.S., and into Mexico solo. She rides through snow, ends up tenting in many random places, has some frustrating breakdowns and flat tires, and even some celebrity moments, stopping at times to make some money as an office assistant, apple picker, diner waitress, and factory labourer.

Peggy in CanadaI love dogs, and imagining doing this epic ride with a furry friend really appealed to me even if he caused some mischief at times, like chasing a cat while Peggy is crossing a bridge into Mexico! She meets all kinds of characters (including a whole fleet of firemen who had her over for dinner!) and also has lonely moments, but that’s simply another reason why this book is so wonderful. Peggy wasn’t hindered or distracted by folks who might have deterred her for not being prepared enough or knowledgeable enough about mechanics. If we keep waiting around to be “enough” then nothing will ever happen.

Even though the 1950s was probably a safer era to be going on such an adventure, Peggy still took great risks in pursuing this roadtrip. For example, when she finds a camping spot in Los Angeles… “Finally I discovered a small, dark vacant stretch stuck between a large car-wash building and a tourist home. I found myself in what had once been an orange grove; the trees grew close together and they were overgrown with weeds now, but an abundance of ripe oranges hung from their stems. I only had to stretch a hand out of my tent to pick a juicy, sweet-tasting fruit. It was lovely lying there sucking oranges in my sleeping bag, while the downtown Los Angeles traffic roared past my ear. How surprised some of the pedestrians on the pavement would have been, if they had known a girl was sleeping in a tent only a few yards from where they were walking” (55).

Peggy campingPeggy eventually arrives in New York after a minor confrontation with a cop, and then a personal escort by a taxi driver into the heart of the city. There is magic, beauty, and drama throughout and Peggy writes so well, that you can’t help but root for her. The best part is that her adventure is achievable. She doesn’t set herself up as a hero or an expert, but someone simply with curiosity and optimism, and I admire that greatly.

Elsie and Mairi Go to War: Two extraordinary women on the Western Front (2009) by Diane Atkinson

Elsie and Mairi coverWhile this book isn’t entirely about women and motorcycles, motorbikes do play a feature role in the identity of these two British women who went to Belgium during the First World War. Elsie (30) and Mairi (18) had met as motorbikers, ripping round the Hampshire and Dorset lanes, competing in trials events. Atkinson explains that “Elsie was nicknamed ‘Gypsy’ because of her love of the open road and membership of the Gypsy Motor Cycle Club” (2). She had two motorcycles being a Chater Lea with sidecar and a Scott. Elsie was a brave woman, and mother, as she was one of few women who pursued divorce from a violent and unfaithful husband. Elsie (like the Debenham sisters) often popped up in The Motor Cycle and Motor Cycling magazines with advice for lady motorcyclists. Elsie was known for entering every trial event, including a twelve-hour non-stop run, and had a few wild rides with mechanical breakdowns.

Mairi was also a rebel, as she took after her brother who competed in rallies and Speed Trials. Her dad bought her a Douglas in 1913 despite her mother’s very vocal disapproval. “Mairi spent her spare time in the stables wearing her brother’s overalls, stripping down motorbikes and repairing them, and riding hard” (2). Mairi was a proper tomboy and became a really good mechanic, and originally was her brother’s mechanic while he raced.Elsie_Harry_Mairi_motorbike_sidecar

The war meant that Elsie had to cancel a 120 mile trial event, so she wrote to Mairi and suggested they go to London to join the Women’s Emergency Corps, again resulting in a family feud with Mairi’s mother. She grabbed some belongings, hopped on her motorbike and ditched home. It was Mairi’s motorcycle style that caught the eye of a Dr. Hector Munro (socialist, vegetarian, suffragette and nudist – haha!) who invited her to join the Flying Ambulance Corps to help wounded Belgian soldiers. Both Mairi and Elsie were excited to show that women were brave and capable, so they went for it.

Elsie and Mairi motorbikeThe book then goes into detail exploring the upbringing of the two women, and the circumstances (both personal and historical) that led them to be part of the Western Front. During the war they were the most photographed women of the time, appearing on their motorcycle and side-car in soldier’s clothing, known by journalists and photographers for their courage. They ended up with seventeen medals for bravery and self-sacrifice. Most of the book focuses on family history and the war, but still a really wonderful read of two adventurers who wanted to do what was right in troubled times.

The American Motorcycle Girls 1900 to 1950: A photographic history of early women motorcyclists (2010) by Christine Sommer Simmons.

American Women 1This beautiful, coffee table book combines historical photos, biographies and advertisements featuring American women who rode motorcycles. The author speaks with authority as a long-time rider herself and co-founder of the magazine Harley Women, among other contributions. The book is incredibly well-researched and vibrant. Simmons breaks up the chapters into six historical periods beginning in the 1900s when bicycles and motorcycles were just emerging into mainstream popularity. With each new era the reader gets to meet a variety of characters from American farm girls and Motor Maids, to actresses and stuntswomen who find joy and identity through motorcycles.

I love these vintage photos and ads because it is so refreshing to see the combination of motorcycles and women have absolutely nothing to do with sex. Sure there are some posers on motorbikes, but nothing compared to today’s lame over-used and predictable “sex sells” approach with some bimbo on a bike. The oldschool companies genuinely wanted to appeal to women riders as a valid market, and the magazines thought nothing of it to feature a lady rider on the cover.

Mrs. John Lang mechanicThere’s definitely some real heroines in the book. I have some serious lady crushes on the likes of Margaret Gast, Bessie Stringfield, Della Crewe, the Van Buren sisters, Olive Hager, (etc.) and various unknowns who are just ruling way before their time, rocking men’s trousers in 1912, working as mechanics, and tearing across the country without fear. This is a “must-have” in your book collection, as it is overwhelming to take in at a single sitting, and is worth returning to repeatedly for inspiration. Nice work Christine Sommer Simmons!

The Flamethrowers: A novel (2013) by Rachel Kushner

This novel is so damn cool! It begins in New York in 1975, where we meet a woman named Reno who is an artist. The reader is introduced to a crew of weirdos, who are lost and arrogant, and their incestuous art scene in the East Village. The way Kushner describes them and their conversation is very believable, sincere and humorous. Meanwhile, Reno decides to combine her love of motorcycles and speed into an art project. She manages to enter the land speed trials on the Bonneville Salt Flats, riding her “Moto Valera” from Nevada to Utah. Everything is fictional, but Kushner’s writing transcends and I just got absorbed in the descriptions of the desert, the people, the race. After a spectacular record for being the fastest woman, Reno gets sponsored and recruited to go to Europe for a promo, but her travels don’t quite evolve as planned.TheFlamethrowersKushner

Reno finds herself in Italy, due to her affluent boyfriend, and when she ditches Sandro, she finds refuge with a group of radicals in an underground movement that was active in Italy during the 70s. Again, as a reader I could completely imagine a young, adventurous woman getting into these situations and the characters, their vibes and behaviour are so intense and true. Reno faces blatant misogyny in one community and then a kind of old school European sexism in another, but still manages to maintain her dignity throughout. Reno is just one ruling young woman, and the way Kushner writes with a foundation of deep research, but letting the characters and plot carry the reader, is enviable. The Flamethrowers is one incredible accomplishment, whether you ride motorbikes or not, you can’t help but admire this piece of fiction.

For a more thorough review, check out The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/04/08/youth-in-revolt

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4 comments

  1. Melly · · Reply

    YES!

  2. Victoria · · Reply

    Thank you!! Can’t wait to read The Gasoline Gypsy now!!

    1. Thanks for checking in and hope you enjoy the book!

  3. […] To honour that festive literary tradition, take a look at this booklist which will inspire the gasoline gypsies in your life. (For earlier book reviews, specific to motorcycles check this post!) […]

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