Rachel

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.

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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.)

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Audacious: Ivy’s Story

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.

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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.

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With Nothing But Our Courage

Does it still qualify as a Revolutionary War book is it takes place just slightly afterwards? Sure, why not. This takes place juuuust as the war is finishing up and then just after.

With Nothing But Our Courage: The Loyalist Diary of Mary MacDonald, Johnstown, Quebec, 1783, Karleen Bradford, 2002.

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I have to say I’m not the biggest fan of Karleen Bradford, and this isn’t even my favourite novel by her. But it’s still really interesting to visit the postwar period from a non-American perspective, since the Dear America novels on this period focus on the war itself and even the Loyalist novel takes place at the very beginnings of the war.

The Revolutionary War is one of those mish-mashy things that encompassed a bunch of different combatants (did you know Spain was involved???) and brought a generally rocky start to the United States. So the book’s setting, in 1783/84, is right in the thick of the nonsense. The protagonist, Mary, lives in Albany with her Loyalist parents and grandmother and two younger siblings—her older brother Angus being off fighting with the King’s army. A group of Patriots—including former friends of the family—take her father and tie him to a mule and parade him through town, telling him to get out of town or else.

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Love Thy Neighbor

Let’s do another Compare and Contrast of one historical event: Loyalists in the Revolutionary War in both Dear America and next week, Dear Canada!

Love Thy Neighbor: The Tory Diary of Prudence Emerson, Green Marsh, Massachusetts, 1774, Ann Turner, 2003.

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I’m not crazy about Ann Turner as an author, and this book really didn’t do anything for me. It’s more childish in tone than a lot of the other entries in the series, which I think works against it. A tone that could have worked for a less fraught period really doesn’t function incredibly well here, and ends up inadvertently minimalizing the issues at hand. The protagonist of the novel for the opposite perspective, The Winter of the Red Snow, is even younger, but the general tone of that book is much more mature. I would love to say that it was a stylistic choice, but I doubt it.

Prudence, the narrator, lives in a small village in Massachusetts with her family (two parents, two brothers, three sisters) on the eve of the Revolution. They’re Tories, but Prudence’s best friend is Abigail, a girl whose family are all Patriots. That doesn’t last very long, since on Page 9 Abigail tells Prudence that her father has forbidden them to socialize with one another any more. In an effort to give some of the basics behind the war, Prudence wonders why it isn’t a good thing to be loyal to the king, or why anyone would want to do anything else, or why they should change. I get it—it’s just a bit heavy-handed. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just strikes me as vaguely odd.

Another thing that aggravates me about this book is that it features that classic trope of Girl Who Hates Typical Feminine Chores So Modern Readers Can Relate. (I need a catchier title.) And another thing (while I’m at it) is that Prudence keeps complaining of her “corsets,” and that she can’t breathe. They were called “stays” in the eighteenth century, not corsets, they weren’t called corsets in English until the 1830s. And stays were much less restrictive than corsets and were not intended to inhibit breathing, but only to support the breasts and back. Things like this make me pretty irritated with the lack of research and makes me fret for the rest of the novel.

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Jessica

This book, like all Sunfire books, is more or less bizarre, but one of the most bizarre things is that on the back cover, the Indian guy is wearing blue jeans. And on the front cover, he’s the whitest-looking Indian guy I’ve ever seen, he looks like Scott Baio, complete with a 1980s shag cut and a ponytail. Not sure if that’s better or worse than Jessica’s poufy ponytail.

Jessica, Mary Francis Shura, 1984.

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Like all the books, Jessica has two men fighting over her love, but since one of them is an Indian guy you know automatically he’s not going to win. This book was published in 1984, you just know he isn’t going anywhere. Unfortunately, she hooks up with an asshole, but that seems to be the way of all these books, so hey, whatever.

Jessica lives in Kansas just after the Civil War, with her father, stepmother, and two younger brothers. She’s being courted sort of half-heartedly by a guy named Roy Blanding, who is really bland. (Never say these books lack subtlety.) She’s complaining about how her parents don’t treat her like an adult while she heads over to the new neighbours, Will Reynolds and his pregnant wife, to bring them a basket as they’ve just moved in. They’re from Chicago, and are extremely rude to Jessica, and Will tells her to fuck off because they don’t need her running around telling them what to do, and get the fuck out because he knows everything, blah blah blah. He has known her for ONE MINUTE. And claims that they don’t need charity. How rude.

Later that week Jessica is wandering through town reflecting on how Indians don’t kill more than they can eat, as you do when looking in shop windows, and I would like to introduce her to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and yes they did because they were just people, not saints. But this is the 80s, and the Magical Indian trope is in full effect, and this is foreshadowing because: never let it be said that these books are not SUPER SUPER SUBTLE. CAN YOU HEAR HOW SUBTLE THEY ARE?????

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Elisabeth: The Princess Bride

Fine. I’ll review this, but I won’t like it, and I’ll complain about it the entire time, because apparently What A Waste Of Potential is my biggest problem. Too bad I am not a teacher and can’t torture children by going on at length about their wasted potential, like I can with this book!

Elisabeth: The Princess Bride, Austria-Hungary, 1853, Barry Denenberg, 2003.

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First of all, the illustration on this cover is awful. Elisabeth, or Sisi, really was a famously beautiful woman, and the existing photographs of her show this! Why is the painting of her on the cover making her look like a disgruntled schoolteacher who resembles her own horse? Especially since practically this entire book and almost all of Sisi’s social capital rested on how beautiful she was! Seriously!

Second of all: This book is impossibly short! It clocks in at just ninety pages of story! You can’t tell me that Laurence Yep got approval to write an incredibly long story about Lady Xian, but Barry Denenberg got only ninety pages to blow through a story about a misunderstood monarch who is a bang-on perfect subject for a YA novel about royals? She literally has everything: incredibly difficult expectations placed on her without the framework to deal with them, a whirlwind mistake romance, anorexia and stress disorders, and the unreasonable expectations of beauty and femininity! This is tailor-made for a really good YA novel and THIS is not it. I should write it, I’d do a better job.

We open the book in July at Possenhofen, Sisi’s childhood home, where her older sister Helene is being summoned to Vienna by their aunt Sophie–the Archduchess of Austria and mother of Franz Joseph, the Austrian emperor. Now, Helene has long been picked out at Franz Joseph’s eventual bride, and their mother is dead-set on this, and her father doesn’t give a crap. I get a very strong Mr. Bennet vibe off of Sisi’s father–he doesn’t seem to care too much about his children’s futures, and is more concerned with dicking around at home. But as usual, we are expected to think that Sisi’s mother is awful and controlling for wanting to arrange her daughters well, and Sisi’s father is wonderful because he’s so indulgent. I already hate this book.

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To Stand On My Own

I’ve been skipping out on the Canadian content lately! I must remedy that. I’ve been wanting to do this book for quite awhile because it’s just so interesting and extremely readable, and it’s nearly impossible to find books targeted at kids that deal with epidemics of disease where the focus isn’t the acute fear of the disease, but the aftermath.

To Stand on My Own: The Polio Epidemic Diary of Noreen Robertson, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, 1937, Barbara Haworth-Attard, 2010.

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A couple of things of note about this: I love that it’s set in Saskatoon but the focus isn’t on how terrible life in the prairies is–it just happens to be the setting. This is Haworth-Attard’s second Dear Canada book, and while I hated the first one, I really loved this one. Mostly because I thought her first one, A Trail of Broken Dreams, was unfulfilling and depressing and lacked focus, but also because it was one of those novels where you don’t get a terrible clear picture of the narrator? This one is much more direct. And secondly–it’s set in 1937, but it has a very “modern” feel, which I know is strange for a historical novel, but it’s much more directly relatable than, say, Not A Nickel To Spare, which is set just five years earlier and which I really hated. That one feels ancient–this novel is so much more relatable!

So this diary’s protagonist, Noreen, is twelve years old and lives in Saskatoon with her parents and her two brothers. Her grandfather lives nearby, as does her aunt and uncle and cousin–who are not so badly affected by the Depression, like Noreen’s family has been. They’re limping along OK, not great, but not in the poorhouse either, and it’s summer and very hot and things are kind of dull at home. So Noreen hangs out with her friend Bessie and go goof off around town, or stays home to read and help her mother clean–“Mother is forever complaining about the house being dusty and it is. I know because I’m the one who has to dust it.”

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