This book was a surprisingly enjoyable reread and trip down Memory Lane! However, I have never found anyone who’s ever even heard of it, which is truly bizarre to me. I don’t think they even had it in my childhood library—I don’t even know where my copy came from. Someone must have given it to me as a gift WAY too young, because I have a very clear memory of trying to read it in Grade 2 at age eight and being in way over my head and then stowing it away in my desk. I didn’t pick it up again until sometime in high school, I think.
Quest For A Maid, Frances Mary Hendry, 1988.
I’m not a big fantasy person, but this book has exactly the right amount for me. Meg, the protagonist, is the nine-year-old youngest of seven sisters, all daughters of a reasonably wealthy Scottish shipwright in Inverkeithing in the 13th century. Her oldest sister, Inge, is a witch, and a witch of some power to boot. We start right in on the action when Meg hides in her sister’s storehouse and watches as an elegant court lady asks for a favour from Inge—asking her to kill the king, Alexander III, to clear the way for her own family to assume the throne. Inge does it by appearing in a spectre before the king as he rides during a dark night’s storm towards his queen—and then Scotland is, predictably, plunged into a horrorshow.
One of the things that’s so great about this book is that Hendry is a terrific writer, and the book moves right along at a terrific clip considering at 270 pages it’s a pretty hefty tome for a YA novel. And the second great thing is that it relies pretty heavily on plenty of Scots dialect words, but it doesn’t come off as pretentious and annoying like so many others do. I think it’s due to the fact that Hendry uses it extensively throughout the book, rather than just sprinkling in a few words here and there for “effect,” and the fact that it doesn’t distract from the story itself. It’s used along with sentence structure evocative of Scots that’s period-appropriate, so instead of just being a twee little affectation, it’s a major, and excellent, part of the book.
I wanted to hate this book so badly but I just couldn’t. Who knows, maybe I just had a particularly good week, but as stupid and ridiculous as this book was (and trust me: it was) I couldn’t hate it as much as I hate most of the Sunfire books. (I.e., enjoyable hatred.)
Margaret, Jane Claypool Miner, 1988.
This book came out the year I was born and has a sticker on the back that says “PRICE 25¢” and I have no idea when it dates from. But at one point this book also passed through the Book Rack (locations in Arlington and Richland Hills, Texas) and cost $1.25 there. Check out this cover—Margaret is a spoiled, naïve little girl, but it’s impossible to hate anyone who wears a hat so jauntily with an expression of such clueless self-satisfaction. Also, her outfit bears a suspicious resemblance to the American Girl, Addy’s school outfit (and as I Googled this I discovered they changed it and now it’s not as cute anymore! WTF, this is what happens when Mattel just fucked up everything), just look at it!
Anyway, look at the other men on the cover: there’s a hayseed wearing a suspiciously sharp-looking blue shirt and jeans and suspenders; and a nattily-dressed youth in a striped tie and straw boater, and he and Margaret are embracing in the bottom corner and gazing into each other’s eyes. Now normally this is a giant honking clue as to who the main character will end up with, but I suspect not in this case because usually the richer the guy is, the more of a douchebag he is. Let’s see.
Margaret here is the wealthy orphaned daughter of a Chicago family, who’s grown up with her aunt and uncle in the lap of luxury. But she’s decided (and it is never fully explained why) that she wants to dump all of that and become a schoolteacher in Nebraska. Also not fully explained: how she found out about this town, how they came to offer her a teaching position, any of this. Whatever, it’s not really important, clearly, because by page 13 Margaret is off on a train to Nebraska. Ridiculously, apparently she spends only “eight hours” on the train between Chicago and Nebraska, which is blatantly stupid because it takes longer than that right now in 2016 to go between Chicago and Omaha. In 1886 that would definitely not be an eight-hour trip. I’m so confused.
This book is so boring it took me forever to get through it. It’s been on my shelf since I started this blog a year and a half ago and I keep putting it off because I remember it being so dreadfully boring as a kid! I’m becoming more and more convinced that the only reason Ann Rinaldi sold so many books was that there were no other “serious” historical fiction books aimed at this age bracket until Dear America came along, and possibly because these books were required by law to be in the library of every American classroom, just waiting to be assigned to an unwitting kid.
A Break With Charity, Ann Rinaldi, 1992.
If you’re keeping track, this is “the one about the Salem witch trials.” This isn’t going to be a super in-depth recap, because this is 284 pages of dense, dense, dense story. It’s such a shame, because the story of the witch trials itself is such an interesting one, but it’s just been done so much better and in so much more INTERESTING ways (like Lisa Fraustino’s Dear America book)! This reads like a vaguely fictionalized historical book, which it kind of is—the protagonist is a real person, 99% of the characters are real people, the events and timing are all real. But oh god. This is a trial all by itself.
Susanna English, the narrator, is the teenage daughter of a wealthy merchant in Salem, who feels largely left out from the general social run of things. She notices that a group of girls about her age have been gathering at the home of the parson with his slave, Tituba, who is teaching them fortune-telling and “little sorceries.” Because she’s left out of this, she’s jealously (and creepily) hiding in the woods when Tituba’s husband, John Indian, notices and invites her in. Tituba tells Susanna that she’s not doing anything evil, she’s just bringing some love and excitement into their lives because they’re frustrated—caught between girlhood and adulthood and not allowed to do much of anything.
Oh, come on. Did anyone seriously think that I would not buy and review this book immediately, as soon as it came out, with great fanfare and excitement? It’s the latest Dear Canada installment!
These Are My Words: The Residential School Diary of Violet Pesheens, Northern Ontario, 1966, Ruby Slipperjack, 2016.
Ruby Slipperjack, the author, is a survivor of a residential school herself, and this book is based loosely on her experiences of growing up in a remote area and going to a city school beginning in Grade Five. When I heard DC was putting out a book about residential schools, I was super excited, but I also thought they would be setting it on the prairies between, oh, the 1880s and 1930s or so, which I think is what people tend to associate with the “classic” residential schools experience. But, rightly, Scholastic Canada probably figured they had a bunch of books set during that time period, and they were due for one set in a more recent period and they could focus on the residential school experience in the “modern” era, which is a lot less popular. Although it has been gaining some media exposure with the movement towards reconciliation, I think it forms much less of the popular conception.
I’m not going to do a full recap of this book, because it’s so new and I don’t want to spoil it, but it was shockingly, astoundingly hard to read in places, and amazingly different in tone from any other book in any other Dear America/Dear Canada/Royal Diaries/I Am Canada/My Name Is America/etc. series that I’ve ever read. I think the only one that it even comes close to in tone is Where Have All The Flowers Gone?, the Vietnam War era DA novel, and that’s only because it deals with some slightly mature themes in roughly the same time frame. But this book is so much more intense than that. Not in the sense that it has an extraordinarily heavy plot—in fact, it’s fairly light on the plot—but the subject matter is hardcore.
I’ve definitely read this book with the intent of reviewing it like four separate times and for whatever reason I just get bogged down every time and forget about it and move onto something more interesting. Why? It’s not boring! It’s well-written! Maybe by the time you finish reading this recap you’ll have an answer for me.
Color Me Dark: The Great Diary of Nellie Lee Love, The Great Migration North, Chicago, Illinois, 1919, Patricia McKissack, 2000.
This is one of those books that technically takes place in two places—Chicago, at the end, and Tennessee, where it starts. Nellie is eleven and lives there with her twelve-year-old sister Erma, her parents, her uncle, and their grandparents, in the funeral home her family runs. She has an older brother, who’s still with the army, and a young uncle who’s off with the army as well. So things are relatively smooth there—they have to go to a coloured school, which isn’t great, and there are bullies, but otherwise their family is happy and things are going pretty well.
Nellie’s father and grandfather are members of the Colored Men’s Improvement Association chapter (which is an organization by the NAACP), since they’re business owners and community leaders, but this occasionally leads to some tension with the local constabulary. But this is less important than the news that Nellie’s uncle Pace is coming home on the train, and everyone is tickled to death to see him again. But the sheriff brings him home, instead—saying he was so drunk he lay down on the train tracks and was hit by a train. They’re all baffled, first, because Pace doesn’t drink, and devastated second. Erma Jean is with him when he dies, and after that she becomes mute. Just flat out can’t speak anymore. She says nothing all through the wake and funeral, even when the far-flung uncles and aunts come into town, including her uncle Meese from Chicago.
We’ve had a couple weeks of respite from these, so let’s get back into the trash fire that is Sunfire. Other trash fires just don’t compare to this glory of these books.
Rachel, Vivian Schurfranz, 1986.
The premise of this book is not, by itself, horrible. (That’s pretty high praise for one of these books, I know.) Unfortunately, it is ground that has been trodden very well in a zillion other books, including not one but two different Dear America books and a whole slew of others. Why is the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster so endlessly popular for kids’ and YA fiction? This seems like a strange choice to me! There have been (unfortunately) many, many, many factory disasters, and there’s no end of trade union drama during that part of American history, but the Triangle disaster is like catnip for mediocre fiction writers.
Anyway, our titular Rachel is a Jewish immigrant from Poland, which you can tell because we start right in on Page One with the horrifyingly bad writing. “This day, August 11, 1910, was a momentous occasion!” Yeah, that is uncalled for. We launch right into discussions of pogroms on Page Two, see the Statue of Liberty on the same page, and have awkward introductions to her parents and younger brother on Page Three. I see we’re wasting no time here and we have hit all of the standards so far in “This Is A Book About Immigration, How Many Cliches Can We Hit?” Do you think there will also be a tense scene with the Ellis Island officials? (Spoiler: duh.)
It’s okay, after this book there’s only one left in the series and we can put these tragic books away. But rest assured: out of all of them, this one is by far the one that made me go “WTF?” the most. By a long shot. And that is saying something, considering all the others have not exactly been classics of English literature.
Audacious: Ivy’s Story, Jude Watson, 1996.
The “plot” of this one (if plot isn’t too strong a word—we might alternately go with “vaguely thought-out premise” for the same idea) is that Ivy Nesbitt, the sister of Mattie Nesbitt (in the last terrible one of this series I reviewed), is a sad, sad, sad, sad, sad, sad and lonely, oh so lonely, broken spinster-woman. At the old, old, old, extremely elderly age of eighteen. It’s OK if you just threw up your hands and made a face at the computer. That’s the face I made at the book the whole time I was reading it.
Ivy and her sister are from Maine, where after the death of their parents they made a stab at keeping the family farm, but it eventually failed. They had no money and only a maiden aunt left, so they headed off to become miners’ brides after seeing the “Brides Wanted” ad. Ivy spent the whole time weeping and wailing and sobbing because of her broken heart, though. She had been in love with a boy, Jamie, her whole childhood, and everyone thought they were going to get married one day until they went for a sail, got lost in the fog, and had to spend the night on an island alone with no chaperone. Jamie then decided he wanted to be a sailor and left just after that, which meant everyone in their town was convinced that he’d Had His Way With Her and then fucked off. In fairness, that’s a pretty reasonable assumption.