Now, it’s no secret that I think the Dear America reboots are nowhere near the same quality as the original flavour—even though the original series was plenty flawed on its own. The new ones have tried to cram in so much drama and excitement to compete with everything else on the market that they ended up losing the charm of the originals, which was “slice of life history with relatable details about every day set during interesting periods or events.” They don’t need over-involved plots and manufactured drama! Generally the drama of the historical event or period is plenty without shoehorning in lots of other crap! Anyway, this is one of if not the worst offender in that regard. These reboots also tend to dump the more realistic diary format in favour of a thrilling story, but that doesn’t read well in the format. Yeah, there’s a few nods here and there, but these would be mostly just as good stories with a traditional novel format. So that’s where I sit on the reboots: fine stories, but a poor match for the format.
A City Tossed and Broken: The Diary of Minnie Bonner, San Francisco, California, 1906, Judy Blundell, 2013.
(If you are a longtime reader, Judy Blundell is the same author of the truly dreadful Brides of Wildcat County series, so that should tell you exactly where we’re headed.)
Anyway, this story bears a lot of similarities to a Dear Canada book, so we’ll discuss them in tandem with that one coming next week. Natural disasters and dark family secrets is a pretty potent combination, but it falls flat here, which is majorly disappointing.
Minnie Bonner, our surly protagonist, is the daughter of a long-suffering mother and gambling father in Pennsylvania. Her mother has just arranged for Minnie to begin as a lady’s maid to a wealthy family, since her own family is about to lose their tavern (due to Mr. Bonner’s gambling problem—thanks, Dad! What a peach you must be!). Even from the very first entry it’s very clear this story is not a good fit for the diary format, with long strings of dialogue and long paragraphs. It doesn’t ring anywhere close to realistic! OK, I’m done complaining. (That’s a lie.)
The wealthy family in question, the Sumps, are moving to San Francisco, so off they head with Minnie in tow. The whole first bit here is devoted to how awesome Minnie thinks her dad is, even though he just up and leaves for days at a time, but Minnie just can’t be mad at him! I could, because he sounds like he sucks, or possibly like he has another family somewhere. (Now there’s your story!)
Anyway, Minnie hates her life and new job, but there’s a hint of some drama—a mysterious young man comes to call on the Sumps and says he recognizes Min—and more interestingly, Lily, the Sumps’ teenage daughter, who mostly drifts around in a haze, is overheard saying “No one can help me.” Can help you what, Lily? I want to know! That sounds far more exciting than learning about the history of Minnie’s deadbeat dad.
When Minnie asks her mom about the mysterious man, her mom tells her it’s Andrew Jewell, the guy her father lost the tavern to. Then they fight, and Minnie goes to California without ever saying goodbye, as teenagers do. God, it sucked to be fourteen. Anyway, when she gets to beautiful San Francisco, she’s super impressed with the city, but Mrs. Sump is not at all impressed by the half-finished house that greets them. There are no other servants there, since they’ve all been hired away for better wages—so Minnie is all alone and doing all the work when she overhears the Sumps talking a box full of cash, a concealed safe, and two sets of books. Subtle!
A delivery boy brings by some groceries and introduces himself, and gives a whole unnecessary account of where everything in San Francisco is located. Well, thanks for that, clearly the book would be incomplete without it. Anyway, nothing too interesting happens until we get to the day of the earthquake—but even that is not written in any way that sounds roughly realistic! God, I’m bitter. There’s half a page of “omg omg so awful” and then we jump straight into a totally straight non-journal-style narrative. Come on! This makes me insane! And the drama with Lily has stolen Minnie’s things and is planning to run away—that’s totally dropped, because literally while they’re standing there discussing it, the earthquake hits. Lily is killed, somewhat ingloriously, when the stove falls on her. (God.) Minnie is buried in the house rubble, but manages to crawl out, only to find the Sumps dead as doornails as well.
So Minnie is just standing there in front of the house, kind of dumbfounded and not sure what to do next, when a car pulls up and a man introduces himself as the Sumps’ lawyer, and Minnie just starts bawling at him because she’s pretty discombobulated. At the time, Minnie is wearing one of Lily’s borrowed nightgowns, and it turns out that the lawyer thinks Minnie is Lily. Which is not an unreasonably thing to think, because she never said she wasn’t, and he’d never met the girl, and she was wearing Lily’s fancy things. Mr. Crandall, the lawyer, packs her up and takes her to his home through the ruined city—well, almost. Really he dumps her at the ferry station with some cash and tells her to figure it out. [While I’m complaining, this entire entry is like twenty pages long. No one in the heart of a tragedy writes twenty pages of cinematic story at a time.]
Minnie knows that there’s a strongbox hidden somewhere in the house and it’s probably still OK, and in that strongbox is the evidence about how her father was cheated out of the tavern—those “double books.” She makes her way back to the house on Nob Hill very slowly, given the fire raging through the city, and steals the watch off Mr. Sump’s coat because it has the key to the strongbox hidden in it. She’s having trouble finding where it’s hidden—“’He said, ‘my precious flower.’ And that’s when I saw the fleur-de-lis. The words in French mean ‘lily flower,’ and it is the symbol of the monarchy in France. My father taught me about it. He grew up in Lille, in France, and it was on that city’s coat of arms. Mr. Sumps’ daughter was his precious flower. There was only one fleur-de-lis in the tangle of gilt leaves…” Is it just me, or do most of the Dear America books not need things to be quite so egregiously spelled out for their readers? We get it. It’s wordplay. Thank you, please move on.
Anyway, Minnie finds bundles of cash and bearer bonds and the ledgers—and then Mr. Crandall comes by again, hunting through the house himself and declaring himself Minnie-as-Lily’s guardian. He claims to need those bonds and papers, throwing stuff around the house, and that it’s all because he has Lily’s best interests at heart and he’s just terribly concerned about her, you see? Man, the bad guys in this book are so subtle, you guys! I can’t figure it out!
She eventually does go to the Crandall home, where they’re panicking over the threat of fire. The fires are terrible and they are everywhere and there is just nowhere to go, and the Crandalls are planning where they’ll need to evacuate to. Minnie steals back to the Sump house and manages to bury the strongbox in the yard just before the mansion succumbs to the flames, then returns to the Crandall’s home. For a brief minute, she considers just being Lily—just taking the money and disappearing to Europe or somewhere where no one knows who she really is.
They have to evacuate to Lafayette Square, and in the midst of the fires raging everywhere, who does she see but Andrew Jewell? Of course he knows who she really is—and it’s all written in this super dramatic style—“My father’s enemy, and mine.” No. Just, no.
Minnie and the Crandalls keep pushing on further to Mission Park, away from the fires, and there Minnie runs into Jake Jennardi, the grocery delivery boy she met before the quake. She goes with him to help with the relief efforts for everyone fighting the fires, and she thinks how terrible it would have been for her to just take all Lily’s money, and not to be honest—then says she’ll tell Mr. Crandall just as soon as she can. But Mr. Crandall runs into her when she’s with the Jennardis, and Minnie realizes that she’s boned—Jake thinks she’s Minnie and the Crandalls think she’s Lily, and no matter what, sooner or later someone will figure it out.
The Crandalls take her to Mr. Crandall’s sister’s home, where Mr. Crandall asks why she hasn’t come clean about her fiancé, who has apparently been searching the city for her—who else is it but Andrew Jewell? Of course. He turns up to meet with her privately, asks what kind of scheme she’s running, and tells her straight up that he never loved Lily and was just in it for the money. I just…is it normal to confess all your dastardly schemes to someone you don’t even trust? I wouldn’t! I’m not even a criminal and I know that much! Good grief. So he declares that he and Minnie are in it together, and Minnie confesses that she had the ledger accidentally. So boom—his new plan is that they get married and take all the money, he’ll run off, and they’ll split the money. You know, I would actually read the book where they did this, and read all about Minnie’s struggles to become a wealthy society lady when it’s all a con. Wouldn’t that be interesting? This book is not, though.
So Minnie’s options are to do this or go to jail, and Mr. Crandall thinks he’s going to quash their engagement just by saying so. Of course not. But what turns up at Mr. Crandall’s sister’s home the next day but an enormous crate holding a painting—a painting of Lily that was supposed to hang in the Sump home! (There is a little lampshade-hanging about how they can’t cook a meal in their own damn homes but apparently have no problems getting a fucking painting delivered, but hey.) Anyway, suddenly things are going to be much much worse because they’ll figure out in about 0.2 seconds that Minnie is not the girl in the painting.
So Minnie flees to the park with all the other refugees, and who does she run into there? HER FATHER. Not even kidding. All this, and that’s how we’re going to end this? Her jerkish dad comes back to save the day? But it’s OK, because he’s all “I thought you were dead!” and she’s like “That’s how I knew he loved me!” But clearly not enough to, you know, stop fucking gambling and save their livelihood and save his daughter from being turned out as a maid! His story is that he managed to find Minnie’s mother back in Philadelphia, and she threw him out saying she was done with forgiveness, but threw Andrew Jewell’s card at him. So he followed Jewell to California, bought a railroad ticket for San Francisco, all in the hopes he’d be able to find his beloved daughter again.
“Diary, I love my father. I forgive him. But I do not trust him.” But I guess that doesn’t matter because she tells her dad everything about all the bonds and the ledgers lickety-split. They find Jewell playing poker in the camps, and he and Minnie’s father discuss what they’re going to do. He tells Jewell all about the buried strongbox, and devise a plan to dig it up and split the proceeds. They dig it up, and the box is still so hot that they can’t handle it—and they open it—and the cash and bonds and ledger all go up in flames. Now, paper will spontaneously ignite at 451 Fahrenheit (yes, that’s why the book is called that), and I can’t comment on how hot the conditions would have to be inside that box or the science behind it all, but I did watch several videos of firefighters starting fires, so I am basically an ignition expert now.
Jewell storms off, all pissy about the cash, and Minnie’s father takes the charred ledger and tells her that now that they have that, they’ll be fine. He says that Crandall doesn’t need to know it’s ruined inside—he just needs to know it exists as a record of bribes, and they can use it to blackmail him into giving them their tavern back. And they can go back to Philadelphia and convince Mrs. Bonner to rejoin them, but they’ll be together forever.
So all of that nonsense about how criminality is wrong, and they’re going to blackmail Mr. Crandall into fixing things?!?!?! Am I on crazy pills?!?!?
Anyway, in the epilogue, the Crandalls pay the Bonners back for the tavern, and Mrs. Bonner agrees to come to San Francisco, and they build a restaurant in downtown San Francisco called, sentimentally, Lily’s. And Mrs. Bonner doesn’t speak to her husband for thirty-two days. This is terrible—she should have stayed in Philadelphia and actually stuck to her word that her husband is a jerkass gambler and she was all out of forgiveness. Anyway, Minnie meets with Jake Jennardi again in 1915, and marries him almost instantly, and have three children who help to run the restaurant. Mr. Bonner dies at the age of 55, and Mrs. Bonner marries again and lives happily with her (hopefully not as much of an asshole) second husband.
Rating: D. I just hated this. I think I’ve elaborated at length why, but 1) the Dear America stories don’t need elaborate stories of double-crossing and drama. The San Francisco earthquake is dramatic enough. 2) Those stories don’t suit well to the diary format, and this one especially. Just…no. 3) The entire tone of this story is very little about how awful their personal drama is, and the emphasis is definitely not on the earthquake and the consequent fires! It’s more of a backdrop! Why? 4) This entire story is about Minnie figuring out that crime and deception are wrong, and it ends with effective blackmail!!!! What????
So, I guess…read this if your standards aren’t very high. Otherwise feel free to give it a pass.