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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Seeds of Hope

I’ve tried to recap this book like fifty different times, I’ve read it several times! At least three times I’ve read it specifically on airplanes! But I just cannot seem to get my act together to recap it.

Seeds of Hope: The Gold Rush Diary of Susanna Fairchild, California Territory, 1849, Kristiana Gregory, 2001.

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This is actually semi-connected to Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie, in that Susanna and Hattie are distant cousins (and her aunt Augusta is mentioned in this book), because Kristiana Gregory wrote them both. That has nothing to do with anything, it’s just an interesting fact.

Why can’t I seem to get myself truly interested in this book? Kristiana Gregory is a great author, I generally very much enjoy her books, her characters are interesting and the stories are engaging, but for whatever reason I just cannot with this book. It almost reminds me of another, similar book? But I can’t put my finger on what—maybe it’s that atrocious Hearts and Dreams book, Heart of Gold, that it reminds me of? Although the resemblance there is very thin. I could just be dreaming it. Tell me in the comments if I’m losing my mind.

This is a pretty sad book, too, because it’s one of those awful books where you learn that Adults Aren’t Infallible. The very first page starts out on the clipper ship outside of Peru, and there’s some vague faffing about loss and how seasick her mother was for most of the trip, and how distraught her father is, blah blah, then we learn a little bit about how sailing is super miserable and everyone in Peru seems to be talking about gold. Susanna and her sister, Clara, befriend a Peruvian woman, Rosita, who’s traveling to California with her brothers, but every time they come near land there’s hundreds and hundreds of men trying desperately to get on board their ship to go to California, too—because Polk has declared that there is gold there.

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West to a Land of Plenty

Interesting twist: I hated this book as a kid, and enjoyed it way, way more as an adult. Who knew?

West To A Land of Plenty: The Diary of Teresa Angelino Viscardi, New York to Idaho Territory, 1883, Jim Murphy, 1998.

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A few things I was mistaken about: this is one of the earliest DA books published (number eight out of thirty-six!), and it’s set a bit earlier than I thought (1883), and it’s one of the very few written by a man. Jim Murphy also wrote Land of the Buffalo Bones, which I hated, and Barry Denenberg wrote five (for which my tally was one good, one mediocre, three awful). While it’s well-written, it drags in places and has some uneven pacing. The characterization is great and makes up for some of the shortfalls—but one of the biggest shortfalls is that this is intended to be about utopian, planned communities in the Western US, but that barely comes up at all. Which is such a shame! I would have loved it if that aspect had been a bigger, more important part of the story, but instead it comes across as more of a basic crossing-the-country story, which is already amply covered.

As a kid, the only thing I liked about this book was that it was pretty. (It’s ivory! Pretty!) Other than that, I hated Teresa, the protagonist, and her irritating little sister Netta. I thought they were both annoying and deserved to be unhappy. As an adult, I found it surprisingly enjoyable. Rather than annoying, I found it enjoyable and entertaining and realistic. I don’t know what it says about me that when I was actually among the target audience I hated it but now that I’ve aged out of it I like it better. Or what it says about the book. Who knows.

Teresa, at fourteen, is en route from her home in New York to a planned community in Idaho with her parents, her three younger siblings, her grandmother, and a number of aunts and uncles and cousins. “I hate this train and its tiny wooden seats and the cacarocielu crawling everywhere! And the rain. I HATE IT!!” So you know it’s shaping up to be great so far. She’s extremely upset at having to leave her home and her friends in New York, and the fact that the train is slow and miserable and dirty has not made things one bit better for her. I don’t know why I didn’t like this growing up—this is 100% accurate how most kids feel when being forced to move. The structure of this diary is a bit different, because Teresa shares it with her twelve-year-old sister Netta, who writes in it almost as much as Teresa does. It’s a really interesting shift—Teresa tends to write more about their days and who is doing what, and Netta writes a bit more about her feelings and thoughts and plans for the future. It’s subtle, but nicely done.

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Amanda

It’s finally time!!! I hope you guys have been waiting with intense anticipation for these books, because I certainly have.

Amanda, Candice Ransom, 1984.

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In case anyone is unfamiliar with the Sunfire series, you are in for a REAL TREAT. These were a series of romance novels published by Scholastic in the 80s, which basically paved the way for all teen historical romance of the following two decades. They’re extremely derivative and often very unimaginative, and they almost all follow the same exact formula: very pretty young woman in interesting historical period is forced to choose between two attractive suitors. Frequently there is also some kind of interesting conflict forcing her hand as well. If you have never experienced these books as a teenager, you’re missing out on the absolute crack-like addictiveness of them, and we probably sound insane because being quite honest: they are not great books. But they are intensely nostalgic and frequently hilarious, and they are the reason we have so many actually-excellent YA historical books. They sold like hotcakes.

Unfortunately, they were deemed to be trash almost immediately, and consequently they can be hard to find! Lots of libraries trashed them (including my childhood library, much to my extreme disappointment, because I would have gladly taken them off their hands. I probably took them out about twenty times each in my youth anyway) and they can be hard to find in used bookstores as well. Luckily, that is why we can buy used books online, so I can bring you all of these delightfully stupid joy. And on a side note, this book once belonged to “Jami Conley” as a birthday gift from the Mackinaw PTO, and she wrote her name in it several times including “Jami – n – Jason” in true 1980s fashion. It’s amazing.

Anyway, one of the things these books pioneered was “young women during interesting historical periods” as a plot device. This one is the first in the series, and it’s about the Oregon Trail, and here I will pause to ask why this is not a popular theme for adult books like it is in children’s books! Why? There could be so many interesting stories! Like this one! And while I’m at it, check out the cover. Amanda looks like a CHILD, is wearing what looks like frosted lipstick, and you know she’s going to end up with the rough-and-tumble Western guy because they’re walking together on the cover. God, these books are great.

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Impetuous: Mattie’s Story

I will never, ever, ever learn. These books are tragic and they’re all the same!

Impetuous: Mattie’s Story, Jude Watson, 1996.

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This book has a lady dressed in suspiciously well-cut and ladylike men’s clothing, including FRINGED PANTS. Unforgivable. So you know that right away this is a Girl Dresses In Dude’s Clothes kind of story, and it’s going to involve a shoddy romance plot at some point as well. Realistically that’s all you need to know, but I’ll go through with it anyway.

I already know I’m going to hate it when Mattie is one of those horrible YA protagonist who’s all “I hate frilly feminine things!” and packs herself up to move to California by herself at sixteen. I normally don’t like to critique how historically realistic these books are, but this is not. It’s just not. No 16-year-old girl who was as gently raised as Mattie is said to be would sail to California, by herself, with no escort, before the Civil War. This is already appalling on zillions of levels. But okay. Whatever. So Mattie and her older sister, Ivy, opted to go to that mining town and become miner’s brides, although it’s never fully explained why a 16- and 17-year-old girl wanted to do so in the first place. But whatever, they’re there, and Ivy is “a newspaperwoman,” and Mattie does odd jobs hauling….stuff in a wagon? But she doesn’t even own her own so she just borrows them from friends to haul stuff? This is all so weirdly and poorly explained.

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Survival in the Storm

This is a genuinely Special Case for Dear America, and I won’t critique it any more than is absolutely necessary.

Survival in the Storm: The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards, Dalhart, Texas, 1935, Katelan Janke, 2002.

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So, the author of this book was a 15-year-old girl who won the Dear America writing contest, therefore living out my dream in reality. This is why I won’t really criticize the writing or any of it too much, because: 15, and it’s not necessary to pick too much at the efforts of a (very talented) teenager. Katelan herself grew up in Dalhart, and based it on local stories and local lore, which I have zero problems with and turns out to be a really sweet way to do things.

This is one of the DA books that isn’t surrounding any one specific event, and there’s no overarching plot involved other than the ongoing Depression and Dust Bowl, which is fine. I tend to enjoy these books more than the ones that are detailing some important event anyway. Grace is twelve and lives with her parents and her younger sister on their farm in Dalhart, but things have been particularly difficult for the family ever since the drought began and they’re having a hard time making ends meet. Mostly, Grace bitches about the dust and how it just never stops—I like a lot of the details in here, like how they have to knead bread in a drawer because the dust blowing through the kitchen will get into their bread otherwise. She thinks her sister doesn’t do enough work around the house, and her mother is sort of permanently at the frustrated end of things (obviously), so Grace spends most of her leisure time playing with her best friend Helen.

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The Staircase

This is one of those books from my own collection that appears to be very well-loved, but I remember exactly nothing about it. That’s my problem with a lot of Ann Rinaldi books—I remember either nothing or one very specific fact about them, so I think when I read them they just washed in one ear and out the other.

The Staircase, Ann Rinaldi, 2000.

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Also it’s obvious this book is from 2000 because it has one of those obnoxious fake-warning labels on the back that says “WARNING: This is a historical fiction novel. Read at your own risk. The writer feels it necessary to alert you to the fact that you might enjoy it.” CRINGE SO HARD. I was twelve when I read this for the first time and even then I was thinking “wow, that’s not cool at all. How lame is that?” and it does NOT hold up. Anyway, if you’re not familiar with the basic story of The Staircase, it’s a retelling of how the mysterious staircase at the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe came to be built. The staircase twists like a helix, but has no means of support, and the nuns attributed it to St. Joseph. (This is not a spoiler, this is the basic premise of the book.)

Interestingly, Ann Rinaldi’s books are usually based on something a bit broader than “this one freaky staircase,” but it does have a lot of detail about life in the Southwest in the period, and there are some interesting bits about convent life. However, the worst part of this book is that the protagonist, Lizzy, is a textbook I’m Not Like Other Girls, Other Girls Are Just Stupid girl. And I hate that—I think it’s a genuinely poisonous attitude that is pernicious in a lot of fiction, especially and particularly historical fiction from this time period. (By which I mean, the 1980s/1990s/2000s, not…the mid-to-late Victorian period.) It’s a cheap and easy way for the author to signal that the protagonist or whoever is active, modern, and up-to-date in thoughts and attitudes (by the fact that other girls are “stupid” or “simpering” or what have you thanks to their interest in temporally-accurate activities like sewing or cooking), but it’s really presentist and I also really hate how it pits young women against each other. I have a lot of things to say about this, but there’s a full article in there and I don’t want to get too far off track of this specific review.

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The Great Railroad Race

Why did this book not interest me the way it should? I don’t know. Why are railroads so boring?

The Great Railroad Race: The Diary of Libby West, Utah Territory, 1868, Kristiana Gregory, 1999.

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As a kid, I thought this book was super boring. As an adult, I like it much more, with a bunch of caveats. I think Kristiana Gregory is a great writer, and she did several Dear America books, but for whatever reason, her trio of books that take place in the American West in the middle of the 19th century (Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie¸ this one, and Seeds of Hope) all have very similar voices. Now, the protagonists of the other two books are cousins, so I suppose it’s forgivable, but for whatever reason it just doesn’t work for me in this book. (Also, notably, Gregory likes to link her books together in-universe, which is why the other two books feature cousins that mention each other. But did you know that in the epilogue to Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie¸ one of Hattie’s granddaughters is mentioned as living through the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906? That is a direct callback to one of Gregory’s earlier books, Earthquake at Dawn, where Daisy Valentine, Hattie’s granddaughter, is the protagonist.) But enough about my creepily obsessive rereading of YA books! (That’s a lie. There can never be enough of that. That’s why this blog exists.)

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Savannah’s Story

This book is a crime against literature, against entertainment, against fiction, against history, and against joy.

Dangerous: Savannah’s Story, Jude Watson, 1995.

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This is another one of those books that fall into the illustrious category of “The cover tells you exactly how bad it’s going to be.” And oh, it’s not wrong. It’s so terribly not wrong. I have nothing against a trashy romance novel, but this is barely even a romance novel. So instead of it being “young adult historical romance,” it’s like…barely romance, vaguely historical, and so I guess it’s “young adult.” Good. Already off to a good start, but it’s the kind of “good start” where the car you’re driving has already failed to start three or four times before you finally get it going and then you end up rolled over in a ditch hanging from your seatbelt and cursing violently.

I suppose I should have started with this book since it starts off the series, but frankly I don’t care that much, and also this book is so atrociously bad that I would have lost the will to live and therefore to continue my blog. The very first thing you need to know is that basically the first chapter or three is cribbed directly from Gone With The Wind—young, pretty, vivacious Southern belle of a large plantation, who’s been kicked out of several “ladies’ academies,” finds herself married almost against her will to a suitable match whom she hates. Doesn’t that sound familiar? Well, it should, because it’s barely original—in addition to being the first conflict in Gone with the Wind it’s the foundation of like, every single “Southern belle” romance on the planet.

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