Seeds of Hope

I’ve tried to recap this book like fifty different times, I’ve read it several times! At least three times I’ve read it specifically on airplanes! But I just cannot seem to get my act together to recap it.

Seeds of Hope: The Gold Rush Diary of Susanna Fairchild, California Territory, 1849, Kristiana Gregory, 2001.


This is actually semi-connected to Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie, in that Susanna and Hattie are distant cousins (and her aunt Augusta is mentioned in this book), because Kristiana Gregory wrote them both. That has nothing to do with anything, it’s just an interesting fact.

Why can’t I seem to get myself truly interested in this book? Kristiana Gregory is a great author, I generally very much enjoy her books, her characters are interesting and the stories are engaging, but for whatever reason I just cannot with this book. It almost reminds me of another, similar book? But I can’t put my finger on what—maybe it’s that atrocious Hearts and Dreams book, Heart of Gold, that it reminds me of? Although the resemblance there is very thin. I could just be dreaming it. Tell me in the comments if I’m losing my mind.

This is a pretty sad book, too, because it’s one of those awful books where you learn that Adults Aren’t Infallible. The very first page starts out on the clipper ship outside of Peru, and there’s some vague faffing about loss and how seasick her mother was for most of the trip, and how distraught her father is, blah blah, then we learn a little bit about how sailing is super miserable and everyone in Peru seems to be talking about gold. Susanna and her sister, Clara, befriend a Peruvian woman, Rosita, who’s traveling to California with her brothers, but every time they come near land there’s hundreds and hundreds of men trying desperately to get on board their ship to go to California, too—because Polk has declared that there is gold there.

Continue reading


Oh my God, this book is awful. It’s so atrocious.

Do I really have to go into more detail than that? OK. But you will regret it. (Or if you are awful like me, you will enjoy the evisceration of a book.)

Megan, Vivian Schurfranz, 1986.


I thought I had read every Sunfire novel before, but this one must have escaped me or not been part of my library’s collection or something. I know for sure I would have read it if I had had access to it, because the girl on the cover is wearing an enormous white fur hood and I would have been There For That at age 13 or whatever.

The basic premise of this book is “1980s girl transported back in time to 1860s.” OK, that’s not the actual premise, but it may as well be, because everyone in this book would be exactly at home in 1986, the publication date, and no one acts anything like someone in 1867 should act. Not one person. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so awful. We will start with the name Megan, which was not at all common ANYWHERE in the 1850s, partially because it was a nickname for Margaret for the longest time and partially because it just wasn’t popular. You know when it WAS popular? THE 1980S. I had a quick browse through some data that covered about 90,000 women’s names in the 1850s, and you know what was on there in the top 700 names? Besides the obvious ones? Permelia, Sophronia, Jerusha, Melvina, and Hulda. You know what WASN’T? MEGAN.

Okay, the actual premise of this book, apart from being an excuse for me to complain, is that Megan is the daughter of a man who has been sent to Alaska immediately following the Alaska Purchase in order to be the government liaison for the United States there. So he is a bureaucrat, basically, but it specifically says on the back cover that Megan “gives up a life of luxury in Washington, D.C.,” which is great except no one in her family actually acts like it. In one of the worst cases of “sure, whatever, it’s fine” that I have EVER seen, Megan’s mom is A NURSE. A nurse who WORKS OUTSIDE THE HOME. Oh my god. Nurses in the 1860s who weren’t battlefield nurses were definitely lower-class and poor women who didn’t have any other way to feed their families, and there weren’t even any nursing colleges until the 1880s! Nursing was a low-class, low-status job, and the wife of a Washington DC bureaucrat WOULD NOT HAVE WORKED ANYWAY. She just wouldn’t have. There is no way around this. This is the epitome of one of those books that says way more about the time it was written in than in the time it’s set.

Continue reading

West to a Land of Plenty

Interesting twist: I hated this book as a kid, and enjoyed it way, way more as an adult. Who knew?

West To A Land of Plenty: The Diary of Teresa Angelino Viscardi, New York to Idaho Territory, 1883, Jim Murphy, 1998.


A few things I was mistaken about: this is one of the earliest DA books published (number eight out of thirty-six!), and it’s set a bit earlier than I thought (1883), and it’s one of the very few written by a man. Jim Murphy also wrote Land of the Buffalo Bones, which I hated, and Barry Denenberg wrote five (for which my tally was one good, one mediocre, three awful). While it’s well-written, it drags in places and has some uneven pacing. The characterization is great and makes up for some of the shortfalls—but one of the biggest shortfalls is that this is intended to be about utopian, planned communities in the Western US, but that barely comes up at all. Which is such a shame! I would have loved it if that aspect had been a bigger, more important part of the story, but instead it comes across as more of a basic crossing-the-country story, which is already amply covered.

As a kid, the only thing I liked about this book was that it was pretty. (It’s ivory! Pretty!) Other than that, I hated Teresa, the protagonist, and her irritating little sister Netta. I thought they were both annoying and deserved to be unhappy. As an adult, I found it surprisingly enjoyable. Rather than annoying, I found it enjoyable and entertaining and realistic. I don’t know what it says about me that when I was actually among the target audience I hated it but now that I’ve aged out of it I like it better. Or what it says about the book. Who knows.

Teresa, at fourteen, is en route from her home in New York to a planned community in Idaho with her parents, her three younger siblings, her grandmother, and a number of aunts and uncles and cousins. “I hate this train and its tiny wooden seats and the cacarocielu crawling everywhere! And the rain. I HATE IT!!” So you know it’s shaping up to be great so far. She’s extremely upset at having to leave her home and her friends in New York, and the fact that the train is slow and miserable and dirty has not made things one bit better for her. I don’t know why I didn’t like this growing up—this is 100% accurate how most kids feel when being forced to move. The structure of this diary is a bit different, because Teresa shares it with her twelve-year-old sister Netta, who writes in it almost as much as Teresa does. It’s a really interesting shift—Teresa tends to write more about their days and who is doing what, and Netta writes a bit more about her feelings and thoughts and plans for the future. It’s subtle, but nicely done.

Continue reading


It’s finally time!!! I hope you guys have been waiting with intense anticipation for these books, because I certainly have.

Amanda, Candice Ransom, 1984.


In case anyone is unfamiliar with the Sunfire series, you are in for a REAL TREAT. These were a series of romance novels published by Scholastic in the 80s, which basically paved the way for all teen historical romance of the following two decades. They’re extremely derivative and often very unimaginative, and they almost all follow the same exact formula: very pretty young woman in interesting historical period is forced to choose between two attractive suitors. Frequently there is also some kind of interesting conflict forcing her hand as well. If you have never experienced these books as a teenager, you’re missing out on the absolute crack-like addictiveness of them, and we probably sound insane because being quite honest: they are not great books. But they are intensely nostalgic and frequently hilarious, and they are the reason we have so many actually-excellent YA historical books. They sold like hotcakes.

Unfortunately, they were deemed to be trash almost immediately, and consequently they can be hard to find! Lots of libraries trashed them (including my childhood library, much to my extreme disappointment, because I would have gladly taken them off their hands. I probably took them out about twenty times each in my youth anyway) and they can be hard to find in used bookstores as well. Luckily, that is why we can buy used books online, so I can bring you all of these delightfully stupid joy. And on a side note, this book once belonged to “Jami Conley” as a birthday gift from the Mackinaw PTO, and she wrote her name in it several times including “Jami – n – Jason” in true 1980s fashion. It’s amazing.

Anyway, one of the things these books pioneered was “young women during interesting historical periods” as a plot device. This one is the first in the series, and it’s about the Oregon Trail, and here I will pause to ask why this is not a popular theme for adult books like it is in children’s books! Why? There could be so many interesting stories! Like this one! And while I’m at it, check out the cover. Amanda looks like a CHILD, is wearing what looks like frosted lipstick, and you know she’s going to end up with the rough-and-tumble Western guy because they’re walking together on the cover. God, these books are great.

Continue reading