To begin with, I definitely wouldn’t call historical fiction Caroline B. Cooney’s specialty. At all.
The Ransom of Mercy Carter¸Caroline B. Cooney, 2001.
She’s famous for one thing: writing thrillers and mysteries for kids too young to read James Patterson and Stephen King. I think everyone my age inhaled The Face on the Milk Carton and its million interminable sequels, and Emergency Room (which was like a novel about “nice white girl in the wrong neighbourhood” that had done a line of coke and gone way off the rails), and Flight #116 Is Down, which launched a thousand fears of flying. So no one will be surprised to learn that The Ransom of Mercy Carter reads way more like a thriller than an actual historical fiction novel.
Let’s compare to last week’s Standing in the Light. Now, where that was handled with a pretty light hand, Cooney doubles down on the “blood and horror” side of things. There’s a lot of religion, but there’s way, way, way more emphasis on Cooney’s two major wheelhouses: Family and Blood ‘n’ Gore. And I say that in the nicest possible way because I read a shit-ton of her books as a teenager and I have fond memories of my introduction to trash thriller fiction.
Here is an interesting example of a long-forgotten genre: the Captivity Narrative!
Standing in the Light: The Captive Diary of Catherine Carey Logan, Delaware Valley, Pennsylvania, 1763, Mary Pope Osborne, 1998.
Captivity narratives are stories, basically, about white people being captured by non-white people, and how harrowing and terrible their experiences are. They were insanely popular in America, both before the Revolution and well after it, until nearly 1900. Generally, they involve a lot of religious themes and ruminations on the “alien” nature of the Indians, the goodness of God, the desire for redemption, and so on. There’s a lot of scholarly literature on this topic, because they’re incredibly fascinating and say a ton about what societies value and the way they view themselves and “others,” but some captivity narratives cross the line into being not only factually incorrect, but downright cruel.
Traditional captivity narratives were proto-thrillers, real page-turners, and frequently involved romantic themes, religious themes, heroic rescues, pretty much everything you’d need for a major bestseller. It’s no mistake that a lot of crappy romance novels were on the same premise—beautiful white woman abducted by virile Indians and learns to love them—it sells a lot. Standing in the Light is sort of a junior example of the genre, and it’s equal parts icky and well done. I’m a little reluctant to call it “great” across the board, but let’s get into it.
Do you remember how the 1920s book in this series was bizarre and poorly-written and a mess? This one is worse, if you can believe it.
Grace of the Wild Rose Inn, Jennifer Armstrong, 1994.
I mentioned before how there’s a book in this series set in about 1899 or so, and it’s about one of the zillions of MacKenzie daughters who wants to go to college instead of getting married, but I couldn’t lay my hands on it so for the time being (and hopefully, for all time) this is going to be the final book in this series. And thank goodness, because it really goes out with a bang. And not a good one.
On a semi-interesting note, since there’s a relatively short (temporal) period between the 1920s book and this one, we get the interesting situation of the mother in this one being the girlfriend of Drunky Bob from the last book. If you don’t commit every one of my reviews to memory (and why not?), in Claire of the Wild Rose Inn, she has a younger brother Bob who is a hopeless sodden drunk at the age of sixteen (!) and knocks up his girlfriend, Hope, during the course of the book. That pregnancy results in the protagonist of this book, Grace, and Hope is “Mrs. MacKenzie.” I feel like one of the downsides to having a romance series about the daughters of this line is that they’re constantly marrying out of the family and screwing off to Other Stuff, so instead of being a story about mothers and daughters it’s a story about aunts and nieces. Which isn’t bad! It’s just that for a series that’s based on how special this one family is, it irritates me that they’re constantly marrying out. (Maybe the book I missed was a tour de force that eliminated all my problems with this series. But I doubt it.)
This is a genuinely Special Case for Dear America, and I won’t critique it any more than is absolutely necessary.
Survival in the Storm: The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards, Dalhart, Texas, 1935, Katelan Janke, 2002.
So, the author of this book was a 15-year-old girl who won the Dear America writing contest, therefore living out my dream in reality. This is why I won’t really criticize the writing or any of it too much, because: 15, and it’s not necessary to pick too much at the efforts of a (very talented) teenager. Katelan herself grew up in Dalhart, and based it on local stories and local lore, which I have zero problems with and turns out to be a really sweet way to do things.
This is one of the DA books that isn’t surrounding any one specific event, and there’s no overarching plot involved other than the ongoing Depression and Dust Bowl, which is fine. I tend to enjoy these books more than the ones that are detailing some important event anyway. Grace is twelve and lives with her parents and her younger sister on their farm in Dalhart, but things have been particularly difficult for the family ever since the drought began and they’re having a hard time making ends meet. Mostly, Grace bitches about the dust and how it just never stops—I like a lot of the details in here, like how they have to knead bread in a drawer because the dust blowing through the kitchen will get into their bread otherwise. She thinks her sister doesn’t do enough work around the house, and her mother is sort of permanently at the frustrated end of things (obviously), so Grace spends most of her leisure time playing with her best friend Helen.