The Staircase

This is one of those books from my own collection that appears to be very well-loved, but I remember exactly nothing about it. That’s my problem with a lot of Ann Rinaldi books—I remember either nothing or one very specific fact about them, so I think when I read them they just washed in one ear and out the other.

The Staircase, Ann Rinaldi, 2000.

the staircase

Also it’s obvious this book is from 2000 because it has one of those obnoxious fake-warning labels on the back that says “WARNING: This is a historical fiction novel. Read at your own risk. The writer feels it necessary to alert you to the fact that you might enjoy it.” CRINGE SO HARD. I was twelve when I read this for the first time and even then I was thinking “wow, that’s not cool at all. How lame is that?” and it does NOT hold up. Anyway, if you’re not familiar with the basic story of The Staircase, it’s a retelling of how the mysterious staircase at the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe came to be built. The staircase twists like a helix, but has no means of support, and the nuns attributed it to St. Joseph. (This is not a spoiler, this is the basic premise of the book.)

Interestingly, Ann Rinaldi’s books are usually based on something a bit broader than “this one freaky staircase,” but it does have a lot of detail about life in the Southwest in the period, and there are some interesting bits about convent life. However, the worst part of this book is that the protagonist, Lizzy, is a textbook I’m Not Like Other Girls, Other Girls Are Just Stupid girl. And I hate that—I think it’s a genuinely poisonous attitude that is pernicious in a lot of fiction, especially and particularly historical fiction from this time period. (By which I mean, the 1980s/1990s/2000s, not…the mid-to-late Victorian period.) It’s a cheap and easy way for the author to signal that the protagonist or whoever is active, modern, and up-to-date in thoughts and attitudes (by the fact that other girls are “stupid” or “simpering” or what have you thanks to their interest in temporally-accurate activities like sewing or cooking), but it’s really presentist and I also really hate how it pits young women against each other. I have a lot of things to say about this, but there’s a full article in there and I don’t want to get too far off track of this specific review.

At the outset, Lizzy is traveling west towards Santa Fe, and her mother has just died. Her father, recently returned and scarred from the Civil War, has agreed to take the great-niece of the Santa Fe bishop from her home in Missouri to Santa Fe for a fee, and get paid for emigrating to New Mexico into the bargain. However, when Lizzy’s mother dies of a fever en route, he changes his mind and opts instead to leave Lizzy at the convent school under the protection of the nuns—Lizzy is beyond horrified at this and Elinora, the bishop’s great-niece, is—okay, not thrilled, since they don’t like each other, but pleased at the idea that Lizzy will be “saved” under their care.

Right off the bat we’re definitely instructed to think that Elinora is a spoiled brat and Lizzy is a smart and capable girl, which is fine, but it’s handled so clumsily. With a cheery touch of racism! “I have some Blackfoot in me. Mama always said it was the part of me that didn’t cry when other girls did.” Nice. By which I mean, not nice at all, and gross. When they’re almost to Santa Fe, they stumble into an Arapaho man (who isn’t ever given a name, by the way), who serves literally no other purpose than to put his hand on Lizzy’s head and say “This one is wise. This one has an old spirit. She has been among us before.” And then it literally says that no one ever spoke of him or the incident again! What! Why? Why is any of this included when it serves absolutely no purpose?

Anyway, before I get too derailed again, they reach Santa Fe and Lizzy’s father opts to leave with the wagon train in the middle of the night and just…abandon her at the convent. She finds out and throws the mother of all hissy fits, which kind of lends credence to her dad’s idea that she would freak out if she found out about it. On her first day, at Mass, she runs out to find her horse, where one of the convent maids randomly gives her a pan of cornbread and directions to “una madre,” and Lizzy just rides off and finds herself in a cemetery with a deranged woman who’s spent the night next to her dead son’s grave. This woman, Violette Lacey, is the kind of “mentally ill” that pops up in fiction and manifests itself only as a way to be charmingly whimsical and yet help the protagonist in some way.

For her punishment, Lizzy is instructed to take Mrs. Lacey to and from the cemetery every day, which is what she wanted anyway (in nice little bit of manipulation that we are undoubtedly supposed to cheer for). (Also I will note that at this part in the recap I took like a week’s break because reading this book is so damn frustrating.) Mrs. Lacey is friends with a young woman, Delvina, who is pregnant and married to an abusive jerk, but the nuns have already planned on looking after Delvina when she gives birth. (This becomes important.)

For all Lizzy thinks Elinora is an uptight bitch, she’s been sneaking out at night, and eventually asks Lizzy if she wants to come with her. They sneak out to see Dolores, a “good witch,” and while on the way they run into a mysterious man with a sack of tools, who says he’s a carpenter looking for work. Lizzy tells him to come to the convent, which Elinora freaks right out about, saying that the novena will never work if they get randoms to come and work on the building. She tells everyone that she has a calling to become a nun, which Lizzy doesn’t quite believe, but more to that Elinora tells everyone that it’s Lizzy’s fault they were out all night and Lizzy gets switched for it.

The bishop, however, turns out to be a pretty nice guy, relation to Elinora notwithstanding. He even gives Lizzy a kitten after he finds out she had to leave hers back home, and he agrees to allow the carpenter to stay and do some work around the convent. Delvina gives birth to her baby earlier than expected, and she and the baby come back to the convent to stay for a while out of reach of her husband. Elinora and the other girls are highly displeased that the bishop is allowing the carpenter, Jose, to work on the place when they’re saying a novena, saying that obviously St. Joseph is never going to do anything for them if they hire someone else. Lizzy ignores this and befriends the carpenter anyway, talking to him about how unhappy she is and how she’s angry with her father, and he counsels her with a lot of mysterious talk about how eventually, all children must leave their parents. (The foreshadowing in this book is….not the most subtle, let’s say.)

Mrs. Lacey becomes ill, but asks Lizzy to go out and put a candle on her son’s grave regardless, and while she’s returning from the graveyard a young man bumps into her and asks her to pass a message to Elinora. His name is Abeyta and he goes to the boys’ school, and Lizzy is flabbergasted to find that Elinora has been sneaking out to meet him at night. He gives her a note to give to Elinora, and when she gets back to the convent, she learns Delvina has died. Jose, the carpenter, builds her coffin, and the bishop asks him to hold off on the staircase for a bit longer to “allow the novena to work,” which Lizzy thinks is nonsense. But instead of giving Abeyta’s note to Elinora, she gives it to Mother Magdalena, the mother superior, and Elinora is found out and punished severely.

Things go downhill pretty quickly for Lizzy after that—while the nuns trust her to look after Elena, Delvina’s baby (although I have to admit that all the looking-after Lizzy does seems to consist mostly of cuddling her, since they’ve already engaged a wet nurse, it seems pretty minimally challenging), Elinora and all of her friends shun Lizzy for being a traitor. It’s all very Mean Girls, except worse. They bitch at Lizzy for snitching and bringing Jose to the convent, and opt to go on a hunger strike until the bishop agrees to send Jose away.

That Sunday, when the girls are doing embroidery and Lizzy’s kitten is playing in her lap, Elinora notices and snatches her away. Then, just to underscore the fact that she’s a horrible person, she blinds the kitten with her needle and drops her out the window, and then tells Lizzy she’s lucky it wasn’t any worse. Mrs. Lacey is slowly dying, the girls are on their hunger strike making everyone upset and frustrated, Lizzy’s kitten is blind, things are just generally crap. The bishop gives in and asks Jose to stop, but he also punishes Elinora for blinding the kitten, so I suppose things even out a bit. Lizzy and her kitten go see Jose, and he pets the kitten for a bit and counsels Lizzy about her father and the other girls.

Then he disappears one morning, after the staircase does not miraculously appear, and Elinora and the other girls are all disappointed that they have to go back to eating. Mrs. Lacey dies, and the night after the funeral Lizzy is unable to sleep and sees Elinora, fully dressed at the window, preparing to elope with Abeyta. But suddenly the wind rushes in through the open window and it isn’t Abeyta at all—it’s Ramon, the late Delvina’s husband, looking for his kid. Lizzy smashes a statue of the Virgin over his head and he collapses, and Elinora is found out.

The bishop recalls Jose to finish the staircase and Mrs. Lacey is buried, and then Elinora goes on and on about how Lizzy rescued her and is so great and she swears up and down that she never blinded her cat. And she isn’t blind—she can chase after strings and curtains and stuff, which apparently escaped Lizzy’s notice until Elinora pointed it out to her. Lizzy’s father is installed as an important ranch hand on a Texas ranch, and they try to see if Elena can go there, out of reach of her father, and Lizzy and Elena are due to set off—but not before Jose finished the staircase, which of course he does. It’s a beautiful double spiral without any support at all (or railings), made entirely with pegs instead of nails. The sisters all declare that it must have been St. Joseph all along—which Lizzy starts to consider herself after Elinora tells her that actually, she lied before, and she did blind the kitten, but the carpenter held her and must have cured her. Then Lizzy sets off for Texas with Elena to reunite with her father.

Rating: C-/D+. Wow. Okay, this did not hold up well in the wash. At all. Not one bit. For starters, the plot is equal parts thin (they want a staircase and a mysterious man comes) and convoluted (all kinds of wild subplots about Elinora, the kitten, Mrs. Lacey, Delvina, her husband, you name it), and half of them are not wound up properly in the end. Which is frustrating. What’s more frustrating, though, is the fact that the character development is ridiculously poor. Elinora has no redeeming qualities except her singing voice—that’s it—and she doesn’t have a single good personality trait. She lies and manipulates everyone around her, and the other girls who surround her are just the same. The bishop is A Good Man, Jose is (of course) A Saint, the other nuns are extremely flat, and even Lizzy herself exhibits very little growth. The book is full of her complaints about the convent and Catholicism, and barely anything changes for her throughout the book, despite the last few pages being her describing how she’s learned so much and blah blah blah. It’s a classic case of Told, Not Shown, because Lizzy continues to act the same way from the beginning to the end. There’s also a fair amount of vague racism—Ramona, their cook, speaks in that sort of broken-English-mixed-with-Spanish from movies, and the only other Hispanic characters are Delvina (who dies with only like, three sentences), the evil villain Ramon, and the good witch Dolores, and the Latin lover Abeyta.

All in all, it’s a collection of parts that never add up to a cohesive whole. The story of the staircase itself is an interesting one, and there’s a lot of potential there for an interesting story, but this just isn’t it. This is the story of a whiny, self-centered girl, Lizzy, who never really manages to learn or understand anything about other people. It’s kind of a mess.

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