I’ve definitely read this book with the intent of reviewing it like four separate times and for whatever reason I just get bogged down every time and forget about it and move onto something more interesting. Why? It’s not boring! It’s well-written! Maybe by the time you finish reading this recap you’ll have an answer for me.
Color Me Dark: The Great Diary of Nellie Lee Love, The Great Migration North, Chicago, Illinois, 1919, Patricia McKissack, 2000.
This is one of those books that technically takes place in two places—Chicago, at the end, and Tennessee, where it starts. Nellie is eleven and lives there with her twelve-year-old sister Erma, her parents, her uncle, and their grandparents, in the funeral home her family runs. She has an older brother, who’s still with the army, and a young uncle who’s off with the army as well. So things are relatively smooth there—they have to go to a coloured school, which isn’t great, and there are bullies, but otherwise their family is happy and things are going pretty well.
Nellie’s father and grandfather are members of the Colored Men’s Improvement Association chapter (which is an organization by the NAACP), since they’re business owners and community leaders, but this occasionally leads to some tension with the local constabulary. But this is less important than the news that Nellie’s uncle Pace is coming home on the train, and everyone is tickled to death to see him again. But the sheriff brings him home, instead—saying he was so drunk he lay down on the train tracks and was hit by a train. They’re all baffled, first, because Pace doesn’t drink, and devastated second. Erma Jean is with him when he dies, and after that she becomes mute. Just flat out can’t speak anymore. She says nothing all through the wake and funeral, even when the far-flung uncles and aunts come into town, including her uncle Meese from Chicago.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.