This book is so weird. It feels like it goes on for ages and ages and ages and never actually manages to go anywhere interesting? Thankfully, it’s the last one in this trash fire of a series, so buckle up because this is a bad one.
Tempestuous: Opal’s Story, Jude Watson, 1996.
This is the Very Special Episode of this series, because it’s about a Black Woman, and while it makes a good effort at actually talking about race relations, it mostly falls flat because the writing isn’t all that good and the characters are hilariously flat and also Opal kind of sucks. She is the classic example of “Maybe the grass is greener on the other side? No it isn’t! It sucks over there! Maybe my first boyfriend will take me back!??!”
Also, let’s talk about the cover art. Opal is a seamstress, so she should be wearing a beautiful hand-sewn creation she made for herself, but I swear to God this outfit looks way more like buckskin and a skirt over trousers. I get that it’s a trick of shadow, but like…that’s the best outfit you could give her? It’s not even a colour. It’s non-colour with an orange stripe. Opal, you can do better than this.
The only thing—literally the only thing at all—I remembered about this book was the cover, because there was a copy in my library growing up and I thought the girl on the front was a vengeful ghost spirit or something. Can I also note that the cover blurb “Related with all the impact of a hard-hitting documentary” is A) false and B) not a great pull quote, either?
I Am Regina, Sally M. Keehn, 1991.
As this blog goes on and on we delve deeper and deeper into the realms of “that book? Who even remembers that book?” and this falls pretty squarely into that category. I know I read it as a kid because I remembered the cover, but I had zero memory of it. It was for the best. Now I’ve read it as an adult and I have to have the memory of it forever, which may possibly be worse.
First of all, everything about this book is strange. It’s based on an allegedly true story, which is that Regina Leininger, who was a Pennsylvania German girl taken from her family home during an Indian raid and lived in captivity with a tribe for many years, and was returned to her mother after many years and recognized her only after her mother sang “Alone Yet Not Alone Am I,” which was a hymn the family had sung together. That’s it. That’s the whole story. Now, you may think that it’s ripe for drama and entertainment, but this story fails to deliver any of it. But don’t worry, let me tell you all about it in detail.
For some reason this is always lumped in with the classics of the Dear America canon, but I have to say that it never really grabbed me for some reason. Maybe the reason is that I’ve never set foot in Texas and don’t understand the folklore of the Alamo, or possibly that I don’t know a whole lot about the Alamo in general (I don’t know why I don’t just start off every blog entry with “I know almost nothing about this,” because it’s pathetic and true).
A Line in the Sand: The Alamo Diary of Lucinda Lawrence, Gonzales, Texas, 1836, Sherry Garland, 1998.
The story of the Alamo is tied up in the story of Mexico versus Texas versus the United States, which means there’s already a lot of moving parts going on here. Lucinda, our 13-year-old writer, lives in the most distant Texas colony imaginable, so far away that supplies come in only twice a year by wagon. Her family farms cotton—parents, two older brothers and one younger, and Lucinda in the middle. Lucinda goes to school with a few other girls, including her best friend Mittie, but other than that very little happens in their sleepy town until war talk starts sparking up. Their part of Texas belongs to Mexico, but there are far more Americans settled there. Mexico has a more powerful army, but lots of Texans are agitating for their independence, even if it means a mean and bloody war.
Do you want a classic ur-example of “I’m a princess and people keep trying to marry me off to people I don’t want to marry?” Here you go.
Isabel: Jewel of Castilla, Spain, 1466, Carolyn Meyer, 2000.
This was a nice break, because I don’t usually like Carolyn Meyer’s books, but I did like this one. Also notable: reading this book at twelve or thirteen or whatever was the first time I realized that Isabel is the Spanish version of Elizabeth. Never tell me these books don’t teach us anything. I mean, besides teaching us about the lives of young royals, especially when they are particularly important ones like Isabella, the first queen regnant of Spain and key player in unifying Spain with her husband, Ferdinand.
Now, usually her name is rendered as Isabella, but Meyer here has opted for Isabel so I guess we’ll go with that for the duration. This is one of those books where the biggest problem is the attempt to skip through a large chunk of time in a relatively short book, which seems to be far more common in the Royal Diaries books, maybe in an effort to fast-forward through the boring parts. Which seems to me to be a bit of a failure, because I have always felt that the details about daily life and habits to be the most interesting parts of all of these books! Let’s face it: if you want to read a book about the youth of Elizabeth I or Isabella I or Anastasia or Victoria, you can find it, and it will give you far more detail than you ever cared to know about political intrigues and all that nonsense. But books like this, with details about how people lived their lives and what they did with their time and celebrated and mourned—even though they’re fictional, in a lot of ways it gives a more full and holistic portrayal of a life.
Why did I never get this book as a kid? I would have been full-on obsessed with this book. I feel like half this blog is me reading stuff I knew well as a kid and half of it is me discovering books and going “HOW IS THIS SO AWESOME? Some kids are so lucky!”
The Birchbark House, Louise Erdrich, 1999.
Man, Louise Erdrich is so great. Is there anything she can’t do? Her adult books are transcendentally wonderful, and I knew vaguely about the Birchbark House books but didn’t actually sit down and read them until, uh, last year. I know, shame on me. They’re so good! They’re usually compared to the Little House books, in that they’re stories about a young girl growing up and the details of her daily life, but they really pull no punches. In the Little House books you’re three or four books in until you really start to get a sense of some of the danger and fear in the Ingalls’ lives, but in Birchbark House? No such luck. Smack in the face with the hardship of life! No messing around!
But with all the really harsh harsh harshness, there’s Erdrich’s beautiful writing and some wonderful scenes that are just remarkably well put-together. Omakayas is such a fun and realistic little girl—she really wants to do good and help her family, but she’s like, eight, so she screws up and fights with her siblings and does other dumb kid stuff. It’s just so, so, so well put-together. Omakayas is actually adopted—her real family died in a smallpox epidemic when she was a small baby, and she was rescued by Old Tallow, the eccentric old lady who’s a friend of her family, and adopted by her parents.
Buckle up, it doesn’t get much darker than this.
Pieces of the Past: The Holocaust Diary of Rose Rabinowitz, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1948, Carol Matas, 2013.
I feel like Dear Canada’s normally-depressing books just weren’t depressing enough, so Scholastic said “let’s just go for broke and write a Holocaust book to really round it all out.” But how would they write a book about the Holocaust—which, as you’ll remember, took place in Germany—in Canada? Easy, they’ll write a book about a horribly-traumatized girl adopted out as a refugee to a Canadian family in Winnipeg! Too easy. (Spoiler: Nothing in this book is easy. It’s brutal.)
One of the things I like the most about this book is that Rose, our protagonist, isn’t really all that likable. This is something that YA and children’s books have started to steer away from now, but when I was growing up, it seemed like every protagonist of every book was fun and smart and kind and if not popular, still had a core group of amazing friends. There were not a lot of books about girls or boys who were mean or lonely or dumb or just kind of sucked. Not that Rose is any of those things—she’s not—but she’s severely traumatized and not really interested in making friends or socializing with anyone except the other orphans she knows. Which is a very refreshing point of view, if that’s not too strange of a word to use here.
One of my most absolute favourite things ever is when I get to discover new books that I missed as a kid! Granted, this one is because I did not grow up a child in the UK, but you know, details.
War Nurse: A Second World War Girl’s Diary, 1939-1940¸ Sue Reid.
I totally adored this book. It’s sweet and heart-wrenching, and I think oddly enough that spunky is the word I’d put to it. It totally personifies that can-do, chin-up spirit that is so thoroughly and irrevocably associated with the Brits of the Second World War, and it’s blended so beautifully with sadness that it feels very real. It’s a book about an older girl targeted at younger girls, which can be a pretty tricky task, but it’s done fairly well here!
Kitty, whose friends and family call her Kitten, is a member of the VAD—Voluntary Aid Detachment, or a sort of emergency nursing corps who have been instructed to turn up as soon as war is declared. And we waste no time getting there on the very first page! Her brother Peter is joining up with the army, and she’s off to the military hospital at Standhaven, and while she thinks she ought to feel noble and brave, she’s mostly just scared and homesick and lonely without her best friend. Her roommate introduces herself only as “Nurse Mason,” and seems to be very tidy and serious—unlike the other girls who Kit went to nursing school with, who are all jolly and friendly and excited. Ugh, you just know it’s going to be tragic and sad, isn’t it? Of course it is, no WWII stories end well.