The last few books have been pretty good so I figured we’d go back down to earth with a horrible book that made me want to gouge out my own eyes.
Cassie¸ Vivian Schurfranz, 1985.
It’s not a Sunfire book if I’m not screaming incoherently at some point, right? Look at the cover and tell me if that’s not some appallingly racist trash right there. This literally looks like a white girl dressed up in a poorly-made “Indian” Halloween costume. Literally the most blonde, blue-eyed, cheerleader-type model they could find! And her two love interests look suspiciously similar. Everything about this book is already making me upset.
To begin with, the entire premise of this book is crap. “Blonde Cassie Stevens” (which, I’m not kidding, is how she’s introduced on the back cover) was captured by the Iroquois at the age of four and adopted into their tribe. But despite living with them for more than ten years and fully adapting to their ways and language, she’s totally ready to abandon them all for the first white guy to come along. She meets him on page THREE. She’s just chilling having a bath in the river when this fur trapper comes along and drags her out of the water, and she’s just so taken by him that she can’t stop herself from chatting. Also never fully explained: she was taken at the age of four, and perfectly fluent in Iroquois, but apparently has no problem speaking freely and colloquially with this white guy, Joshua. They sort of hand-wave it away by explaining that Cassie was used to chatting with the tribe’s interpreter in English. But…if you stop learning English at age four, aside from occasional conversations, how good is it really going to be? And she has absolutely zero problems.
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 feel compelled to start off every single Dear Canada review with “my God, this book is super depressing.” This one is no different, because of course not. Probably because it’s about the Acadian Expulsion, one of the most depressing events in Canadian history, and doesn’t improve from there.
Banished from Our Home: The Acadian Diary of Angélique Richard, Grand-Pré, Acadia, 1755, Sharon Stewart, 2004.
I went to graduate school in New Brunswick, and consequently learned a fair bit about the Acadians, but I am in no way an expert in this part of history (other than, as I mentioned, “depressing.”) And if you are very unlucky and get stuck with an Acadian person obsessed with the past, they will be happy to tell you all about the Expulsion, on and on and on in unending, depressing detail, the likes of which would make a history teacher thrill to hear. But luckily you don’t need to need any background to enjoy (“enjoy”) this story!
Angélique is one of eight children on a farm in Grand-Pre, where her family has lived for many years, and political pressure is making things difficult for everyone. One of her older brothers, Victor, is joining up with the rebels who are fighting against the British, which puts him and the rest of their family in grave danger. (At this point, Britain had conquered France and won Acadia, which means they were trying to anglicize the area and tamp down pro-French sentiment in the countryside. I know this is badly, badly simplified, please do not comment or email me to give me a history of the Acadians, I know.)
This book is so boring it took me forever to get through it. It’s been on my shelf since I started this blog a year and a half ago and I keep putting it off because I remember it being so dreadfully boring as a kid! I’m becoming more and more convinced that the only reason Ann Rinaldi sold so many books was that there were no other “serious” historical fiction books aimed at this age bracket until Dear America came along, and possibly because these books were required by law to be in the library of every American classroom, just waiting to be assigned to an unwitting kid.
A Break With Charity, Ann Rinaldi, 1992.
If you’re keeping track, this is “the one about the Salem witch trials.” This isn’t going to be a super in-depth recap, because this is 284 pages of dense, dense, dense story. It’s such a shame, because the story of the witch trials itself is such an interesting one, but it’s just been done so much better and in so much more INTERESTING ways (like Lisa Fraustino’s Dear America book)! This reads like a vaguely fictionalized historical book, which it kind of is—the protagonist is a real person, 99% of the characters are real people, the events and timing are all real. But oh god. This is a trial all by itself.
Susanna English, the narrator, is the teenage daughter of a wealthy merchant in Salem, who feels largely left out from the general social run of things. She notices that a group of girls about her age have been gathering at the home of the parson with his slave, Tituba, who is teaching them fortune-telling and “little sorceries.” Because she’s left out of this, she’s jealously (and creepily) hiding in the woods when Tituba’s husband, John Indian, notices and invites her in. Tituba tells Susanna that she’s not doing anything evil, she’s just bringing some love and excitement into their lives because they’re frustrated—caught between girlhood and adulthood and not allowed to do much of anything.
Let’s do another Compare and Contrast of one historical event: Loyalists in the Revolutionary War in both Dear America and next week, Dear Canada!
Love Thy Neighbor: The Tory Diary of Prudence Emerson, Green Marsh, Massachusetts, 1774, Ann Turner, 2003.
I’m not crazy about Ann Turner as an author, and this book really didn’t do anything for me. It’s more childish in tone than a lot of the other entries in the series, which I think works against it. A tone that could have worked for a less fraught period really doesn’t function incredibly well here, and ends up inadvertently minimalizing the issues at hand. The protagonist of the novel for the opposite perspective, The Winter of the Red Snow, is even younger, but the general tone of that book is much more mature. I would love to say that it was a stylistic choice, but I doubt it.
Prudence, the narrator, lives in a small village in Massachusetts with her family (two parents, two brothers, three sisters) on the eve of the Revolution. They’re Tories, but Prudence’s best friend is Abigail, a girl whose family are all Patriots. That doesn’t last very long, since on Page 9 Abigail tells Prudence that her father has forbidden them to socialize with one another any more. In an effort to give some of the basics behind the war, Prudence wonders why it isn’t a good thing to be loyal to the king, or why anyone would want to do anything else, or why they should change. I get it—it’s just a bit heavy-handed. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just strikes me as vaguely odd.
Another thing that aggravates me about this book is that it features that classic trope of Girl Who Hates Typical Feminine Chores So Modern Readers Can Relate. (I need a catchier title.) And another thing (while I’m at it) is that Prudence keeps complaining of her “corsets,” and that she can’t breathe. They were called “stays” in the eighteenth century, not corsets, they weren’t called corsets in English until the 1830s. And stays were much less restrictive than corsets and were not intended to inhibit breathing, but only to support the breasts and back. Things like this make me pretty irritated with the lack of research and makes me fret for the rest of the novel.
I know this book is older than most of the ones I do, but I was absolutely obsessed with this book as a kid (why? Who knows) and I found my old copy and couldn’t let it go.
Constance: A Story of Early Plymouth, Patricia Clapp, 1968.
Look at that cover. I wouldn’t say it was a masterwork of art, but hey, my copy says “4.95” on the back cover so clearly we weren’t dealing with an absolute bulwark of the literary world.
Now, my copy of this definitely says “10 Up,” and I read it when I was ten or so, but…wow, this was an awfully big step from most of the other stuff I was reading at that age! And while I’m sure I could understand it just fine, I definitely did not Get It because there is a lot of kissing, relationship tangles, and political infighting in this book that just flew straight over my head. Why did I like it so much at ten??? The world will never know.
I think in particular the great strength of this book is that it’s not about the voyage of the Mayflower and the landing on Plymouth Rock. I mean, it happens, obviously, but the emphasis is on what happens next which almost never happens. It’s kind of like how there’s lots of YA books about the Civil War, but none about the Reconstruction period, or lots of books about the Revolutionary War but none about the years afterward. But I think it’s particular important in this story, because usually the narrative around the Pilgrims is “they landed on Plymouth Rock, plenty of them died, Squanto saves them, they had Thanksgiving while wearing buckle hats, and then we skip right to the Salem Witch Trials.” Duh, there was a lot of stuff in the meantime that gets glossed over! But this book does a great job of going into some detail.
Does anyone else remember these books? If my cursory Googling is anything to go by, the answer is no. These were a cheap knockoff of the Dear America books, except the main differences were that the DA books were actually in diary format! What on earth is the point of a series called “American Diaries” if the entire book is a regular old book with a 3-page diary entry at the beginning and end? Cop-out! The other difference is that the DA novels dealt with issues with grace and humour and occasionally really excellent writing, while all these books…..do not. Anyway, my childhood library had scads of these books and for some reason I owned one, but I had no idea there were so many of them! There’s nineteen! They’re all by Kathleen Duey, whose work can be described as “workmanlike” at best and downright strange at worst! (She did write the outstandingly bizarre Louisiana Hurricane that I reviewed here.)
Fine, let’s see. This is a rare example of a book I haven’t reread since buying it, since most of my childhood books are splayed open, stained with crumbs, or otherwise bear conspicuous signs of love. This book could be new. It’s a first edition, which means I got it new in 1996 when it came out, and the price on the spine is $3.99. Wow, remember when new paperbacks cost only $4? That was great.
American Diaries: Sarah Anne Hartford, Massachusetts, 1651, Kathleen Duey, 1996.
This book is 142 pages long and contains maybe 6 pages worth of actual plot. Every single thing that happens is streeee-e-e-e-e-etched out with wildly dull descriptions. There’s like a whole chapter devoted to “Sarah cooks dinner.”