Do you remember the first and third books I recapped in this series last year? They were pretty bad. (You could have probably figured that out.) The second one is oddly hard to lay my hands on, although I remember enjoying it more than the others when I read it. Maybe other people thought the same thing, which is why it’s hard to find now? No, we should be so lucky.
Carrie: Heart of Courage, Cameron Dokey, 1998.
This is a book about the Chicago fire of 1871, which confused me a lot when I looked at the book for the first time because the hat Carrie is wearing on the cover is supposed to be a fancy summer hat, but looks more like a cowboy hat from a strange angle. Doesn’t it? Yes, it’s being held onto her head with a pink sash and she’s wearing a party dress, but I can’t be responsible for my initial impressions of the cover.
The whole first bit of this book is mostly Carrie whining about how she’s a shy, terrified little flower and her whole family is full of “strong Kelly women”—her great-grandmother participated in the Boston Tea Party, her grandmother was kidnapped and almost was caught in the burning of Washington in 1812, her mother traveled halfway across the world, and her older sister is an ardent suffragette. It’s not pointed out until much later in this book that excepting her sister, none of those women were Kellys by birth, so it should probably be just “strong women.” Anyway, Carrie’s trying to break out of her shell by going to a suffragette rally with her annoying friend Jessica, who’s telling her the whole time that she’s afraid of everything and paranoid. You know, given everything that happens to Carrie in this book, she is kind of right to be worried about stuff.
Carrie is avoiding her mother and sister at the rally because Jessica had to lie to her own parents, and Carrie wanted to go with her friend instead. You know, there’s an interesting theme in this book about how strong women should be in charge of their futures rather than just taking care of their families (very 90s Girl Power), but Carrie’s nature is otherwise, and there could be an interesting subversion in showing that Carrie can be just as strong in her own quiet way without having to take on great adventures. But that is shot all to hell. She has adventures. We’ll get there.
At the suffragette rally, it’s packed and there’s tons of men protesting outside saying how awful all those women are, but they wangle their way in only to spot an incredibly gorgeous man. This is oddly ironic. “The lines of his face were so pure, they could have been carved from solid marble. An angel would have a face like this one, Carrie though.” Good grief. Dial it back about sixteen notches. While Carrie is alternately goggling at the man and listening to the speaker, someone hurls a glass bottle bomb onto the floor right in front of her. She freezes—which is NOT UNREASONABLE—and the handsome young man smothers it with his coat before it can set the place on fire. There’s a stampede to leave the place, and the man grabs Carrie and Jessica and hauls them out. Then he proceeds to yell at Carrie for not stomping out the fire. He tells her she’s vapid and thoughtless and he thought she was different, and she has no business going out in public if she has to have other people take care of her.
Let’s just get this clear once and for all: even if he’s handsome, this guy, John Stapleton, is a massive dick. Fuck him. He’s the love interest but he’s a terrible one. Do not date people who insult you massively after first meeting you! Fucking tell them to get out!
Anyway, Carrie’s mother runs into her coming home, and Carrie confesses that she always knew her mother would have preferred a spirited daughter like Jessica, and Stephanie yells at her for saying such a thing. Carrie lies around in bed thinking about how weak and pathetic she is, and how she doesn’t deserve to be a member of her own family, and everything about this says that Carrie deserves some serious therapy.
So, it turns out that Jessica is quite taken with Jerky John, who’s the son of a major textile manufacturer who incidentally employs workers under terrible conditions. She sets her cap for him, and manages to snare him into courting her, and there’s a lot of oddly mixed metaphors about the eyes of the unprotected heart that see truly. I don’t know, it’s weird. So Carrie’s family is invited to Jessica’s family’s party, as is Jerky John, and it’s all awkward and uncomfortable between everyone. Jessica’s parents are wealthy snobs, and Carrie’s family are all into reform, and Jessica is subtly bitchy and everyone has a terrible time. The following week, the girls go to a department store and have a fight, and that’s more or less the end of things between them. Which is OK.
When Carrie leaves from the department store, she spots a young boy who falls in the street in front of a runaway carriage, and throws herself into the street to save him. And who’s there to see but Jerky John? He turns up at the most inopportune moments! Then he starts yelling at Carrie that there was no need for her to risk her life when there are plenty of men around! Carrie points out, correctly, that he can’t have it both ways—she can’t be both a shrinking violet and an amazon, so fucking pick one, and John goggles at her all bewildered. He doesn’t seem too bright. So Carrie storms off and then realizes she has no idea where she is. John chases after her and offers to take her home, and Carrie has no other way to get there, so agrees—and the little boy is in the carriage, too, so they take him home first.
On the way home, the two of them chat, and when the carriage tosses them together, they kiss. Why??? I know he’s good-looking, but aim higher, Carrie! Aim for a guy who DOESN’T yell at you every single time you meet him! Fuck this guy. When they get to Carrie’s parents’ house, Jessica is there, who announces that she and John are engaged, which looks like it takes John by surprise. Everything about this is idiotic. Either he’s engaged to Jessica, in which case he’s a dirtbag for kissing Carrie, or he’s not and too weak to say anything to her, in which case he’s a weenie.
Stephanie gives Carrie her hope chest, in recognition of her brave efforts, and they talk about how you have to understand yourself before you can love someone else, and then they’re interrupted by Carrie’s father announcing the city is on fire.
Fake out! It’s not the big one. It’s big enough to muck up some stuff, though, and Carrie starts collecting some clothing with her mother and sister for the people who lost their homes. Jessica sweeps in and makes fun of her (why does she even bother?), and blathers about her engagement, and Carrie points out that they were never really friends to begin with because friends should be equals. Why didn’t this happen much earlier? Both in the book and their lives, I mean.
The next night while Carrie is taking a walk with her family, they hear about a dreadful fire and in the space of about thirty seconds it goes from “pleasant evening walk” to “we need to get away from the fire before we die,” and while it seems to me that they would have figured it out well beforehand, perhaps the Kellys aren’t as observant as they should be. But this is the real fire, and suddenly they’re overtaken with thousands of people fleeing the fire. They join the fleeing crowds, and Carrie gets separated from her parents.
For a while she follows the crowd as best she can, but she finds a woman with a little boy struggling with a puppy, and Carrie takes the puppy off their hands. She gets pushed off to the side and into an alley, where she falls, and realizes the alley is blocked with rubble and she’s trapped between the rubble and the fire. She stays there, cuddling the puppy and praying and beating out cinders, until the fire passes and she’s trapped by rubble on both sides. She climbs over, with the puppy in tow, only to find that her rescuer is none other than JERKY JOHN. I’m not even kidding. I hate this guy.
He and Carrie spend the rest of the evening, as long as they can, looking for Carrie’s parents with no luck. Then in the days following, they both begin working for a relief agency, and John’s parents are located after several days. But he doesn’t go to them, and instead he and Carrie keep working together and having all kinds of romantic tension and struggles because both of them are unable to just say words. Then, out of the blue, Carrie’s father shows up—he and Stephanie had been staying at their older daughter’s in-laws’ home in the country.
The bad news is that Jessica and her mother are dead. This is kind of good news for Carrie, though, because now John isn’t engaged anymore, which I’m guessing she sees as a good thing. The good news is that Stephanie saved the hope chest (obviously), and Carrie thinks this is clearly a sign. So she accompanies her father into the city to meet with John, who admits that his entire engagement to Jessica was a lie and blown out of proportion, which I’m not entirely convinced about. He confesses that he knew all the time he’d never be happy with a society wife like Jessica, and working with Carrie all those days made him realize that he loved her and didn’t want to say anything if she was mourning her friend. Then, ta-da—they agree they love each other after all and should get married so they can go on helping people their whole lives.
Rating: C+. Ugh. Well….this wasn’t completely irredeemable. The writing isn’t bad. Carrie is a genuinely interesting character—I really enjoy it when a character doesn’t have to fit the “fiery outspoken girl” stereotype, especially in YA fiction, even if Carrie negates that by doing a lot of adventurous things. I mean, the entire romance arc is pretty terrible and John seems like a gigantic jerk, but that’s not unusual for a YA romance. There’s some actually-interesting musings on grief and friendship, which could be fantastic if they were just explored and fleshed out a tiny bit more, which they are not. It’s just…it’s less than the sum of its parts, somehow. It just doesn’t fully get anywhere. It’s just…frustrating, more than anything, far more so than the other books in the series.