We’re back in the Birchbark House for the third installment!
The Porcupine Year, Louise Erdrich, 2008.
OK, so The Game of Silence was pretty depressing, let’s see if the third book will be any better. At this point, Omakayas is twelve and her family has moved from their original home, and it looks like things might be stabilizing a bit. But clearly not all that much, because as we open Omakayas and her younger brother Pinch are in the process of being washed away in a canoe down some rapids. But they end up lost and alone further down the river without a good idea of how to get home.
They find a baby porcupine which looks delicious, but in the process of hunting it, Pinch gets quilled badly in the face—but instead of eating it, Pinch vows to spare the porcupine’s life. So even though Omakayas would rather not, they bring it with them to camp and then head out the next morning, porcupine riding comfortably on Quill’s head. The rapids that they lived through are so dramatic and awful that they’re sure that a protector spirit helped them through it, and Omakayas sacrifices her red beads that her grandmother gave her in thanks.
Well, here we are again. With a book that I’m not totally convinced about, but we’re coming to the end of these books (amazingly!) so I had better get this one out of the way.
The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Diary of Sarah Nita, A Navajo Girl, New Mexico, 1864, Ann Turner, 1999.
Ann Rinaldi’s turn at this (My Heart Is On The Ground) was absolutely dismal. This one is better, but I couldn’t find a review or critique written by an actual native person, so I can’t speak to anything regarding the actual facts about the Navajo experience from their perspective. Could be completely off-base! I have no idea!
Since our protagonist, Sarah Nita, isn’t/wasn’t literate, the gimmick behind this book is that it’s the transcription of her stories by her granddaughter, who was sent to a white school. (So there you go. She doesn’t die!) It’s always interesting to see the different devices they come up with for books written by illiterate protagonists—I think the Royal Diaries book Weetamoo: Heart of the Pocassets uses the idea that she’s making line drawings on birch skin. Is this better? Yes, but it certainly doesn’t read like “memory,” it reads exactly like any other DA novel, except with “stories” instead of dates. Maybe I’m just being unnecessarily picky! I don’t know. (90% of this blog is just me going “I don’t know.”)
Look! We’re back again with Omakayas for the second edition, Darker and Worse. It’s great, but I’m not going to lie: if Birchbark House was depressing to you, you’re probably not going to like this.
The Game of Silence, Louise Erdrich, 2005.
The very, very, very first chapter of this book, before we get into anything, straight-up tells you it’s going to be a bad time. A group of ragged, starving people reach Omakayas’s family’s settlement—their leader is Miskobines, the uncle of Fishtail—a family friend. They’re all starving, and Omakayas’s mother takes a baby that no one could identify but the starving people brought with them, who becomes Omakayas’s new little brother, Bizheens. She gains a cousin, too, one of the quiet and angry-looking boys who goes to live with her other cousins.
There’s a game the adults play with the children when they need them to be quiet—the adults all contribute a gift to a pile, and the children stay silent as long as the adults are talking, and the one who lasts without talking the longest gets to pick first from the pile of presents. They know something is terribly wrong when it’s a miraculous pile of gifts. Turns out what the adults are talking about is how the white men are moving in and forcing the Ojibwe to leave their ancestral homeland and move west. They agree to send scouts to see what’s happened—maybe there’s been a treaty dispute or an Ojibwe killed a white man and this is retribution. Fishtail agrees to go out, as do a couple of other men, and Angeline (Omakayas’s very beautiful older sister) sends Fishtail off that summer and no one knows exactly what will happen when they come back. Omakayas is afraid they’re going to be forced to leave the only home she’s ever known, and even knowing that she won’t be separated from her family isn’t enough to soothe her fear.
I always complain that these books about boys are boring and dull, but this one was not. Probably because it’s a Kathryn Lasky book, so it’s going to be a good bit above the general run, but I was still genuinely surprised! Incidentally, this book was rereleased with a new title and cover, and you tell me which one is more engaging.
The Journal of Augustus Pelletier, The Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804, Kathryn Lasky, 2000.
So, here you go. The initial title looks exactly like every other single My Name Is America book, which is not super thrilling, but the reissue is…it’s a little bit pulp-fiction-y, isn’t it? I’m not an 11-year-old boy so I’m probably not the target audience here, but am I wrong? The expressions on everyone’s faces here are hilarious—grinding fury, complete irritation, and what looks like the guy in the back who may have just heard the world’s most hilarious joke. I don’t know what’s happening here.
Gus here, our teenage protagonist, is preparing to secretly follow the Lewis and Clark expedition in search of a little adventure, and his brilliant plan is to wait until they’re too far along to tell him he has to go back. As stupid of an idea as that is, and believe me it is truly dumb, it is definitely something a teenage boy would come up with. He’s half French and half Omaha, calls himself a half-breed, and speaks French, Omaha, and English, which as you imagine might come in handy. He immediately begins complaining about how slow the whole expedition is going, which is not surprising considering that they’re a good bit more clunky than a single teenage boy and his knapsack.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
I had about zero memory of this book. I know I must have read all the Dear America books at some point in my misspent (not) youth, but upon rereading this book I realized I didn’t remember a damn thing about it. Who knew? And it was quite good!
Valley of the Moon: The Diary of Maria Rosalia de Milagros, Sonoma Valley, Alta California, 1846, Sherry Garland, 2001.
I’m also embarrassed to say just how far I got into this book before realizing this takes place around San Francisco, since apparently the Sonoma Valley is in the Bay Area. (I grew up in the Midwest and never set foot in California until earlier this year, so my California geography is limited to “LA is in the south and San Francisco is in the northern part???” without too much other nuance. To say the least.) And I’m confident that if I knew even a tiny bit about California history besides the obvious, I would have figured out right from the cover that this is a book about John Fremont and the Bear Flag Republic. Who knew? Not me!
But it doesn’t matter anyway, because the book is great and well worth reading even if you’re like me and completely ignorant about Californian history. Although weirdly, my used copy was clearly well-loved and filled with some stranger’s cookie crumbs, which at least gave me the nostalgic feel of getting a stack of library books only to discover at least one was full of some other kid’s dirty thumbprints and peanut butter smudges. Rosalia here is an orphan and servant in the home of the Medina family, a wealthy ranching family in the Sonoma Valley. She’s half Indian and half Spanish, as is her younger brother Domingo, and they’ve been with the family for almost ten years, staying with Lupita the cook and Gregorio, who oversees the men who tend the ranch.
I wanted to hate this book so badly but I just couldn’t. Who knows, maybe I just had a particularly good week, but as stupid and ridiculous as this book was (and trust me: it was) I couldn’t hate it as much as I hate most of the Sunfire books. (I.e., enjoyable hatred.)
Margaret, Jane Claypool Miner, 1988.
This book came out the year I was born and has a sticker on the back that says “PRICE 25¢” and I have no idea when it dates from. But at one point this book also passed through the Book Rack (locations in Arlington and Richland Hills, Texas) and cost $1.25 there. Check out this cover—Margaret is a spoiled, naïve little girl, but it’s impossible to hate anyone who wears a hat so jauntily with an expression of such clueless self-satisfaction. Also, her outfit bears a suspicious resemblance to the American Girl, Addy’s school outfit (and as I Googled this I discovered they changed it and now it’s not as cute anymore! WTF, this is what happens when Mattel just fucked up everything), just look at it!
Anyway, look at the other men on the cover: there’s a hayseed wearing a suspiciously sharp-looking blue shirt and jeans and suspenders; and a nattily-dressed youth in a striped tie and straw boater, and he and Margaret are embracing in the bottom corner and gazing into each other’s eyes. Now normally this is a giant honking clue as to who the main character will end up with, but I suspect not in this case because usually the richer the guy is, the more of a douchebag he is. Let’s see.
Margaret here is the wealthy orphaned daughter of a Chicago family, who’s grown up with her aunt and uncle in the lap of luxury. But she’s decided (and it is never fully explained why) that she wants to dump all of that and become a schoolteacher in Nebraska. Also not fully explained: how she found out about this town, how they came to offer her a teaching position, any of this. Whatever, it’s not really important, clearly, because by page 13 Margaret is off on a train to Nebraska. Ridiculously, apparently she spends only “eight hours” on the train between Chicago and Nebraska, which is blatantly stupid because it takes longer than that right now in 2016 to go between Chicago and Omaha. In 1886 that would definitely not be an eight-hour trip. I’m so confused.