Tempestuous: Opal’s Story

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.

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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.

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A Line in the Sand

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.

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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.

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A City Tossed and Broken

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.

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(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.)

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Valley of the Moon

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.

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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.

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Margaret

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.)

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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!

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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.

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Audacious: Ivy’s Story

It’s okay, after this book there’s only one left in the series and we can put these tragic books away. But rest assured: out of all of them, this one is by far the one that made me go “WTF?” the most. By a long shot. And that is saying something, considering all the others have not exactly been classics of English literature.

Audacious: Ivy’s Story, Jude Watson, 1996.

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The “plot” of this one (if plot isn’t too strong a word—we might alternately go with “vaguely thought-out premise” for the same idea) is that Ivy Nesbitt, the sister of Mattie Nesbitt (in the last terrible one of this series I reviewed), is a sad, sad, sad, sad, sad, sad and lonely, oh so lonely, broken spinster-woman. At the old, old, old, extremely elderly age of eighteen. It’s OK if you just threw up your hands and made a face at the computer. That’s the face I made at the book the whole time I was reading it.

Ivy and her sister are from Maine, where after the death of their parents they made a stab at keeping the family farm, but it eventually failed. They had no money and only a maiden aunt left, so they headed off to become miners’ brides after seeing the “Brides Wanted” ad. Ivy spent the whole time weeping and wailing and sobbing because of her broken heart, though. She had been in love with a boy, Jamie, her whole childhood, and everyone thought they were going to get married one day until they went for a sail, got lost in the fog, and had to spend the night on an island alone with no chaperone. Jamie then decided he wanted to be a sailor and left just after that, which meant everyone in their town was convinced that he’d Had His Way With Her and then fucked off. In fairness, that’s a pretty reasonable assumption.

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Jessica

This book, like all Sunfire books, is more or less bizarre, but one of the most bizarre things is that on the back cover, the Indian guy is wearing blue jeans. And on the front cover, he’s the whitest-looking Indian guy I’ve ever seen, he looks like Scott Baio, complete with a 1980s shag cut and a ponytail. Not sure if that’s better or worse than Jessica’s poufy ponytail.

Jessica, Mary Francis Shura, 1984.

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Like all the books, Jessica has two men fighting over her love, but since one of them is an Indian guy you know automatically he’s not going to win. This book was published in 1984, you just know he isn’t going anywhere. Unfortunately, she hooks up with an asshole, but that seems to be the way of all these books, so hey, whatever.

Jessica lives in Kansas just after the Civil War, with her father, stepmother, and two younger brothers. She’s being courted sort of half-heartedly by a guy named Roy Blanding, who is really bland. (Never say these books lack subtlety.) She’s complaining about how her parents don’t treat her like an adult while she heads over to the new neighbours, Will Reynolds and his pregnant wife, to bring them a basket as they’ve just moved in. They’re from Chicago, and are extremely rude to Jessica, and Will tells her to fuck off because they don’t need her running around telling them what to do, and get the fuck out because he knows everything, blah blah blah. He has known her for ONE MINUTE. And claims that they don’t need charity. How rude.

Later that week Jessica is wandering through town reflecting on how Indians don’t kill more than they can eat, as you do when looking in shop windows, and I would like to introduce her to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and yes they did because they were just people, not saints. But this is the 80s, and the Magical Indian trope is in full effect, and this is foreshadowing because: never let it be said that these books are not SUPER SUPER SUBTLE. CAN YOU HEAR HOW SUBTLE THEY ARE?????

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