Now for a classic, and another edition of “I Can’t Believe I Didn’t Read This As A Kid!” It’s even a Newbery Medal winner! Again: I was maybe too busy rereading every book in the extended Baby-sitter’s Club universe rather than reading books that would improve my moral fiber or whatever.
A Gathering Of Days: A New England Girl’s Journal, 1830-32, Joan W. Blos, 1979.
Now, I didn’t have this exact edition, but I know every elementary-school library had a copy with a pattern of leaves around the edges. For some reason my passion for historical fiction and diary-style books never led me to this one in particular. God only knows why. I think for a long time I was possibly confusing it with Catherine, Called Birdy, which was the other diary-style book I never quite managed to crack open. They couldn’t be more different, though, because while Catherine, Called Birdy is irreverent and humorous and wittily charming, A Gathering of Days is much more plodding and frankly, depressing. It’s realistic, which is nice—wonderful verisimilitude is never something to sneeze at—but it feels much more like School Assignment Reading. As usual, here is the question: would I have enjoyed this more as a kid?
Anyway, we also have a Catherine as our protagonist, here, and I wonder if part of the reason I don’t recall reading it as a kid was that I read the first page and watched as the story stalled out before even going anywhere. Books like this are the reason every story I wrote as a kid started out with an exhaustive recounting of the protagonist and their family and their life story. Because that’s how this one starts out—Catherine lives with her father and younger sister Matty in New Hampshire, her best friend Cassie lives on the adjoining farm, and they go to school together with a strict but good teacher. I’m bored already.
I was somewhat disappointed in this one—I’ve so enjoyed most of the My Story books I’ve read so far, but this one left me cold. Which is too bad, considering that “novels about the Plague” is usually a genre I really like! Is that a weird thing to say? I don’t know, I enjoyed Year of Wonders and The Doomsday Book so very much that they’ve ruined me for anything else.
The Great Plague: A London Girl’s Diary, 1665-1666, Pamela Oldfield, 2012.
So I don’t start out sounding like I completely hated it, there were some very nice aspects to this book! Alice, our heroine, is a reasonably well-off girl living with her aunt and father in London, along with her little dog and their maidservant. Alice does grow up and mature during the book—kicking and screaming all the way, which is pretty darn realistic. Oldfield isn’t tempted to make Alice more mature or brave than she needs to be, and it doesn’t come across as false or over-done.
The problem, of course, is that stories about the plague are very, very well-trodden territory, and generally follow a very predictable pattern: rumours about a dangerous disease fly, some people flee to the country but most scoff and hope it’s nothing, before long people are getting sick and dying in the streets, and then it’s too late and the plague has overtaken the city. Unsurprisingly, this is exactly what happens here—rumours are flying that the plague has come to the city, and Alice’s father wants to send her to their family in the country, thinking she’ll be safer there. But she doesn’t want to go be with her cousins, whom she doesn’t like, so they just all stay in the city and worry and go on with their normal lives—going on excursions and going to church and having singing lessons and so on.
This is honest-to-goodness one of my favourite books in the entire Dear Canada/Dear America series. Jean Little, as I have mentioned before at length, is an absolute national treasure, and writes so beautifully with so much feeling and attention to detail, and nothing ever comes across as deliberately tugging on the heartstrings or using anything as a teaching moment. I think this one is the crown jewel of all her books in the Dear Canada collection, possibly because it’s drawing on her own experience of growing up during the Second World War. It’s wonderful.
Exiles from the War: The War Guests Diary of Charlotte Mary Twiss, Guelph, Ontario, 1940, Jean Little, 2010.
You know, to start with, the whole concept of war guest children is viscerally upsetting, and barely covered but at all in American history curriculums. I think the only place I ever encountered it as a kid was in the American Girl Molly books, which was a pretty milquetoast version. And then in university I did a major term paper on perceptions and memory among children who were sent away from London during the Blitz, and read Goodnight Mister Tom (among others), and cried and cried and cried. It was hard enough for kids who were sent away to the English countryside, but I cannot even imagine being sent to another country. The entire concept is deeply upsetting for everyone involved: the parents who are sending their children away in the hopes it will protect them; the kids who have to leave their homes for new ones for an indeterminate length of time; the families who are taking in total strangers.
The British My Story series has a book from the point of view of a girl sent to the countryside, but Exiles from the War opts to use a Canadian protagonist—which I think is a very interesting way to look at it. Charlotte, our protagonist, lives with her parents and elder sister Eleanor in Guelph, while her older brother George has gone to work at a farm, when she learns that her parents have applied for a War Guest child—and hopefully a girl around her own age, so the girl will have some company. Before this, the war seems fairly distant—dramatic, of course, and scary and exciting—but ultimately something that’s happening a long, long way away.
I can’t believe it’s been so long since I did a Sunfire novel! I am way behind on my quota of trashy romance. Would you believe I didn’t completely and totally hate this one with the fire of a million suns? It’s true!
Sabrina, Candice F. Ransom, 1986.
This cover is…you know, a little weird. The artist made a game stab at how Sabrina is described in the book, but then whiffed big-time on the outfit, because half of this book is Sabrina’s complaints about how she doesn’t have anything nice to wear. At one point she borrows a fancy dress from her cousin, but why would that be the cover? Also, check out Sabrina and Greencoat there in the corner—he looks like he’s trying to bore into her with his eyes and she’s going “Uhh…I think I’m getting a call, you’re going to have to excuse me,” and then there’s Fringey in the other corner. Good show.
What I did enjoy is that this is a Revolutionary War book, but it’s set in South Carolina, instead of the 15 million books from that era that are set in Boston and maybe New York if you’re super lucky. So points for that. And I didn’t completely loathe Sabrina! Although I will note that there’s an error on the back cover blurb—it says that Sabrina “lives and works in her uncle’s shop,” when she…just works there and lives somewhere else, which is actually a fairly major plot point. But I get ahead of myself.