Can you believe I’ve reviewed almost every book in the Dear America series? Unfortunately that means we’re down to the books I didn’t like all that much. Or, in the case of this one, the books that were a complete waste of paper and ink. Oh yeah. Strong words for a DA book! That’s because it’s horrifyingly bad!
My Heart Is On The Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, A Sioux Girl, Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania, 1880, Ann Rinaldi, 1999.
Oh boy. I might as well start off by linking to a much better review that points out the millions of things wrong with this book: besides the numerous factual errors, like the fact that a girl from this specific nation would have never described herself as Sioux (way to put that on the COVER), the fact that Captain Pratt is treated as a model of reason in the book, while in real life he was a bully and an autocrat who tried to beat the Indian out of the students at the Carlisle Indian School. Well. Anyway, just go read this, it’s going to point out that fifty bajillion factual errors, while I’m going to focus on everything that’s wrong with the book from a literary standpoint. Spoiler: IT’S A LOT. Ann Rinaldi wrote this book! What the hell?
Nannie is a Lakota girl sent to the Carlisle Indian School with her brother, Conrad, in order to learn the “white man’s ways” and “bring honor” to her people. I know. It’s already awful. Stay with me. If you wanted to read an accurate and well-written book about Lakota girls growing up, you should have picked a better one. This is one of those books where the premise is “someone who doesn’t write English learns to do it better.” The same thing is done in Dreams of the Golden Country, except better. All of this is done in terrible stereotypical English, where she calls her diary “talking leaves” before she learns the word “die-eerie,” and I’ll point out that no one says “diary” like that, and also that’s not at all a phonetic spelling.
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.
Can you believe I only have a few more of these novels? I have enjoyed the Royal Diaries so much more as an adult than as a kid, when I thought a lot of them were kind of boring.
Nzingha: Warrior Queen of Matamba, Angola, Africa, 1595, Patricia McKissack, 2000.
My first complaint with my specific copy of this book is that the library pasted a huge sticker of the world with some reading-around-the-world challenge nonsense on it, and….why would you make that permanent? You know other people will read this book after the challenge ends, right? But that’s my own specific complaint.
Anyway, Patricia McKissack is a great writer, so my first complaint is that this book is so short. Some of the Royal Diaries books are behemoths and some of them are skinny little things, and this one clocks in at just eighty-six pages of story. That’s barely anything! That’s not enough! The tricky thing with some of these books that are about women in cultures without a tradition of writing is that they have to come up with a gimmick to make it work (some are better than others—when I get to Weetamoo, you’ll see), and this one works particularly well. Nzingha is being taught to read and write in Portuguese from Father Giovanni, a Portuguese captive in the royal court of Nzingha’s father, Kiluanji, the ruler of the Mbundu kingdom. The Portuguese have begun to make dramatic inroads in what is now Angola in an effort to conquer more land, and while Nzingha hates what they stand for, she thinks it isn’t a terrible idea to know more about what they’re thinking.
This book is so weird. It feels like it goes on for ages and ages and ages and never actually manages to go anywhere interesting? Thankfully, it’s the last one in this trash fire of a series, so buckle up because this is a bad one.
Tempestuous: Opal’s Story, Jude Watson, 1996.
This is the Very Special Episode of this series, because it’s about a Black Woman, and while it makes a good effort at actually talking about race relations, it mostly falls flat because the writing isn’t all that good and the characters are hilariously flat and also Opal kind of sucks. She is the classic example of “Maybe the grass is greener on the other side? No it isn’t! It sucks over there! Maybe my first boyfriend will take me back!??!”
Also, let’s talk about the cover art. Opal is a seamstress, so she should be wearing a beautiful hand-sewn creation she made for herself, but I swear to God this outfit looks way more like buckskin and a skirt over trousers. I get that it’s a trick of shadow, but like…that’s the best outfit you could give her? It’s not even a colour. It’s non-colour with an orange stripe. Opal, you can do better than this.
The only thing—literally the only thing at all—I remembered about this book was the cover, because there was a copy in my library growing up and I thought the girl on the front was a vengeful ghost spirit or something. Can I also note that the cover blurb “Related with all the impact of a hard-hitting documentary” is A) false and B) not a great pull quote, either?
I Am Regina, Sally M. Keehn, 1991.
As this blog goes on and on we delve deeper and deeper into the realms of “that book? Who even remembers that book?” and this falls pretty squarely into that category. I know I read it as a kid because I remembered the cover, but I had zero memory of it. It was for the best. Now I’ve read it as an adult and I have to have the memory of it forever, which may possibly be worse.
First of all, everything about this book is strange. It’s based on an allegedly true story, which is that Regina Leininger, who was a Pennsylvania German girl taken from her family home during an Indian raid and lived in captivity with a tribe for many years, and was returned to her mother after many years and recognized her only after her mother sang “Alone Yet Not Alone Am I,” which was a hymn the family had sung together. That’s it. That’s the whole story. Now, you may think that it’s ripe for drama and entertainment, but this story fails to deliver any of it. But don’t worry, let me tell you all about it in detail.
For some reason this is always lumped in with the classics of the Dear America canon, but I have to say that it never really grabbed me for some reason. Maybe the reason is that I’ve never set foot in Texas and don’t understand the folklore of the Alamo, or possibly that I don’t know a whole lot about the Alamo in general (I don’t know why I don’t just start off every blog entry with “I know almost nothing about this,” because it’s pathetic and true).
A Line in the Sand: The Alamo Diary of Lucinda Lawrence, Gonzales, Texas, 1836, Sherry Garland, 1998.
The story of the Alamo is tied up in the story of Mexico versus Texas versus the United States, which means there’s already a lot of moving parts going on here. Lucinda, our 13-year-old writer, lives in the most distant Texas colony imaginable, so far away that supplies come in only twice a year by wagon. Her family farms cotton—parents, two older brothers and one younger, and Lucinda in the middle. Lucinda goes to school with a few other girls, including her best friend Mittie, but other than that very little happens in their sleepy town until war talk starts sparking up. Their part of Texas belongs to Mexico, but there are far more Americans settled there. Mexico has a more powerful army, but lots of Texans are agitating for their independence, even if it means a mean and bloody war.
Do you want a classic ur-example of “I’m a princess and people keep trying to marry me off to people I don’t want to marry?” Here you go.
Isabel: Jewel of Castilla, Spain, 1466, Carolyn Meyer, 2000.
This was a nice break, because I don’t usually like Carolyn Meyer’s books, but I did like this one. Also notable: reading this book at twelve or thirteen or whatever was the first time I realized that Isabel is the Spanish version of Elizabeth. Never tell me these books don’t teach us anything. I mean, besides teaching us about the lives of young royals, especially when they are particularly important ones like Isabella, the first queen regnant of Spain and key player in unifying Spain with her husband, Ferdinand.
Now, usually her name is rendered as Isabella, but Meyer here has opted for Isabel so I guess we’ll go with that for the duration. This is one of those books where the biggest problem is the attempt to skip through a large chunk of time in a relatively short book, which seems to be far more common in the Royal Diaries books, maybe in an effort to fast-forward through the boring parts. Which seems to me to be a bit of a failure, because I have always felt that the details about daily life and habits to be the most interesting parts of all of these books! Let’s face it: if you want to read a book about the youth of Elizabeth I or Isabella I or Anastasia or Victoria, you can find it, and it will give you far more detail than you ever cared to know about political intrigues and all that nonsense. But books like this, with details about how people lived their lives and what they did with their time and celebrated and mourned—even though they’re fictional, in a lot of ways it gives a more full and holistic portrayal of a life.