How do we change?

by Briony Penn, November 2010

Delicious revenge or deep forgiveness? We have apt role models for each.

There are two good women on my mind this month: Lisbeth Salander, the girl who played with fire and Helen Stewart, the woman who aches for beauty. They have nothing in common. Yet, they have everything in common. Both are sick of the relentless exploitation of the vulnerable. 

One is a fictitious Pippy-Longstocking-turned-punk-hacker who takes out the bullies with cunning and force in a gritty crime novel set in urban Sweden. The other is a real mother-artist-turned-naturalist-writer who endures great loss and destruction by calling on the restorative quality of nature and art in a children’s book set in the forests of BC. 

Lisbeth Salander, of The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo fame, had a heinous childhood and is determined to mete out the punishment, eye for eye and tooth for tooth. Stewart, on the other hand, had a loving childhood and seeks to fill children’s lives with a similar beauty and resilience for the rocky roads that lie ahead. Yet both rail against corruption in the institutions set up to protect the voiceless—but which all too often exploit them instead. 

It would never have occurred to me to link these two women in any way, except that the two books lying by my bed—Stieg Larsson’s phenomenal bestseller, The Girl who Played with Fire and Helen Stewart’s latest book, Tree Song—are fighting for my allegiance. 

I’m not alone in being utterly captivated by Salander’s aggressive pursuit of justice. Yet, I’m completely torn between Salander’s delicious revenge and Stewart’s deep forgiveness. 

The world that Stewart describes and draws so beautifully in both her children’s books and her memoir is one of ecological complexity, natural cycles of growth, decay then renewal, and cultural values of interconnectedness (see

As a trained artist from Berkeley, she was brought as a young bride in the ’60s to manage a marginal sheep farm in the Rockies by her anthropologist husband, whom she describes as detached and nomadic. She struggled along largely by herself, raised children and animals, grew food and learned to live with the various predators. 

In Stewart’s meagre spare time, she observed and drew the forest around her, which was rapidly succumbing to industrial interests. She drew strength from her neighbours who came from Mennonite and First Nation traditions. Eventually she moved to Victoria where she finished raising her five children, and where she now writes and draws about the forest in children’s books and prints, teaches art in nature to children, holds salon-like gatherings, and volunteers her time to fight her growing despair about the destruction. Stewart has every reason to embrace revenge but rejects it for the less charged energy of ecological equilibrium. Stewart’s sensibility has been the dominant one, for decades, of the environmental and social justice movement in BC, of which she has been a quiet champion. Today, those forests and children are threatened more than ever and Stewart, like all of us, knows that something has to change.

Enter Lisbeth Salander. Salander has seized the imagination of even my most Buddhist of friends, as the female archetype who puts out fires with fire. American writer David James Duncan posed the question ten years ago that if the monasteries are burning, wasn’t it time for the monks to stop contemplating beauty and put out the fires? This decade, Stieg Larsson poses the same question, but with a heroine for the job. 

Without the Salanders is there any hope for a Stewart-type sensibility to continue? And without the Stewarts to nurture a vision of beauty, ecological restoration and hope, how do we prevent our children becoming as damaged as the Salanders? What is the correct or “good” action for a woman to take today? 

In 1938, German playwright Bertold Brecht wrote a play called The Good Woman of Szechwan while exiled in the United States from a fascist and rapidly-corporatizing Germany. The good woman was Shen Teh who, forced into prostitution at a young age, struggles to lead a life that is “good” by the morals of the day. She is being exploited in a brutal fashion by an increasingly materialistic society, so she takes on an alter ego of a male “cousin” who acts the ruthless patriarch to protect Shen’s interests. Donning the male mask, she provides the cold and calculated actions that right the wrongs done to her. Over time, she realizes she can’t survive unless she continues the pretence of playing both genders representing opposing economic systems. Her psyche is so compromised that she asks the gods in desperation to arbitrate for her what is “good” behaviour. Brecht, as god, didn’t give her an answer. He wanted the audience to realize that pre-war German society was at a critical juncture where the only way to resolve Shen Tey’s untenable problem was to change society. 

Brecht finished the play half way through World War II. A lot of changes went on to improve civil society, especially in countries like Canada and Sweden. But two generations later, we are sliding backwards and rapidly approaching another globally critical juncture on the environment. The 2010 version of The Good Woman of Szechwan is of a society where “good” women are being forced to contemplate the irreconcilable lives of two archetypal women—a Stewart or a Salander. One is out in nature, nurturing the Earth and children, trying to ameliorate corrupt forces. The other is wired into a computer and armed with a taser, destroying corrupt forces. Read them both, ask your friends where their hearts and minds are at; pull out your Brecht and ask the question: How do we change?


Briony Penn PhD is a naturalist, journalist, artist and award-winning environmental educator. She is the author of The Kids Book of Geography (Kids Can Press) and a A Year on the Wild Side.