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.”
Dude, look at this cover. For a long time as a kid I was really confused about this cover because it looks like the character is carrying around a tray while the house is being slowly consumed by a fiery blaze, and she doesn’t know what to do. But there is no house fire in the book, so I think it’s maybe just a horrible design choice?
Finishing Becca, Ann Rinaldi, 1994.
Why do I remember Ann Rinaldi as being so much more interesting than she actually was? All of her books that I’ve reviewed so far fall somewhere between “super dull” and “what happened here in my memory?” They’re accurate, all right, but it’s like a combination between reading a very animated textbook and an extremely boring novel.
Becca, the titular protagonist, lives in the countryside outside Philadelphia with her mother and stepfather after her brother has gone off to fight for the Americans. When Becca’s father was alive, he was a master silversmith, and the family was in better circumstances, but now they live on a farm and manage to make ends meet, but just so. Her mother does dyeing and works as a seamstress for some of Philadelphia’s most elegant families, and tells Becca about all of the families and who’s related to who and all that. Becca internalizes this and feels that if she only had the trappings of a wealthy life (learning to dance and play music and speak French and all that), she could “finish herself.” Not in a Death Wish type way, in a completed way. Hence the title.
To begin with, I definitely wouldn’t call historical fiction Caroline B. Cooney’s specialty. At all.
The Ransom of Mercy Carter¸Caroline B. Cooney, 2001.
She’s famous for one thing: writing thrillers and mysteries for kids too young to read James Patterson and Stephen King. I think everyone my age inhaled The Face on the Milk Carton and its million interminable sequels, and Emergency Room (which was like a novel about “nice white girl in the wrong neighbourhood” that had done a line of coke and gone way off the rails), and Flight #116 Is Down, which launched a thousand fears of flying. So no one will be surprised to learn that The Ransom of Mercy Carter reads way more like a thriller than an actual historical fiction novel.
Let’s compare to last week’s Standing in the Light. Now, where that was handled with a pretty light hand, Cooney doubles down on the “blood and horror” side of things. There’s a lot of religion, but there’s way, way, way more emphasis on Cooney’s two major wheelhouses: Family and Blood ‘n’ Gore. And I say that in the nicest possible way because I read a shit-ton of her books as a teenager and I have fond memories of my introduction to trash thriller fiction.
Here is an interesting example of a long-forgotten genre: the Captivity Narrative!
Standing in the Light: The Captive Diary of Catherine Carey Logan, Delaware Valley, Pennsylvania, 1763, Mary Pope Osborne, 1998.
Captivity narratives are stories, basically, about white people being captured by non-white people, and how harrowing and terrible their experiences are. They were insanely popular in America, both before the Revolution and well after it, until nearly 1900. Generally, they involve a lot of religious themes and ruminations on the “alien” nature of the Indians, the goodness of God, the desire for redemption, and so on. There’s a lot of scholarly literature on this topic, because they’re incredibly fascinating and say a ton about what societies value and the way they view themselves and “others,” but some captivity narratives cross the line into being not only factually incorrect, but downright cruel.
Traditional captivity narratives were proto-thrillers, real page-turners, and frequently involved romantic themes, religious themes, heroic rescues, pretty much everything you’d need for a major bestseller. It’s no mistake that a lot of crappy romance novels were on the same premise—beautiful white woman abducted by virile Indians and learns to love them—it sells a lot. Standing in the Light is sort of a junior example of the genre, and it’s equal parts icky and well done. I’m a little reluctant to call it “great” across the board, but let’s get into it.
This book is one of the first Dear Canada books I read, and it still stands up after all these years. (Almost ten!) It’s so good that I recommend it to adult readers looking for an intro to the filles du roi story (as we discussed last week, there’s a severe dearth of adult historical fiction on the topic).
Alone in an Untamed Land: The Filles du Roi Diary of Hélène St. Onge, Montreal, New France, 1666, Maxine Trottier, 2003.
Also as I mentioned last week, the basic plots of this is pretty similar to The King’s Daughter, probably because there are only so many places you can go with this idea. The young women who were selected had no families or were too impoverished to be picky, they traveled a long way, and something like 99% of them got married to voyageurs, merchants, or soldiers, and had huge families. This has an interestingly weird subplot, though, but we’ll get to that in due time.
Hélène St. Onge is thirteen years old and orphaned following the death of her father the previous winter. She lives with her older sister, Catherine, in their home, even though they can’t really pay their bills after his death. They have a cousin in New France who married a woman and then immediately died, and Catherine is engaged to a young man named Armand, who also lives in New France and whose father is an old family friend. So they already have ties to New France, and it’s not entirely surprising when their cousin and guardian offers to ship them over to New France on the king’s dime , although Catherine balks at allowing Hélène to do it too, citing the fact that she’s only thirteen. But Catherine packs up and they’re both off to Montreal within twenty pages. I like a nice brisk start to the plot without too much dicking around in the backstory.
This is a tiny bit older than most of the books I review, but it’s (for once) really great and I could not pass it by.
The King’s Daughter, Suzanne Martel, 1974 (English translation 1980).
For whatever reason, the Brides of New France are not a fascinating topic for novels and media, which is totally baffling to me. I wrote an article for the Toast on them in 2013, and it absolutely boggles my mind how little popular fiction exists about the topic! (Yes, I read Bride of New France, and no, it was irredeemably awful.) When I read The King’s Daughter for the first time, I thought “Aha! Here is a novel that covers the topic well!” but I only wish there was an equivalent for adult readers that was handled with grace and detail.
Part of the reason I don’t understand the lack of good media is because the premise is ready-made for romance novels, and this is no exception. Jeanne, the protagonist, has been living in a convent (as was normal in 17th-century France for orphans) since she was ten, and has the standard Wild-And-Free personality doled out to most YA heroines of the 70s and 80s. So she’s ludicrously excited to be chosen as a fille du roi and sent to New France along with her friend Marie, and is thoroughly convinced she’s going to find a dashing officer to marry. (Spoiler alert: No.) Marie, though, already has a cousin living in New France who wants a new wife after the death of his first wife, and he sends a letter to Marie asking her to come and marry him. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. So off they go, along with Marguerite Bourgeoys, who is in charge of these women and returning to New France after a two-year break back in regular France.
I decided to stop torturing myself with Barry Denenberg novels for a bit, so here’s a genuinely very good book.
I Walk In Dread: The Diary of Deliverance Trembley, Witness To the Salem Witch Trials, Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1691. Lisa Rowe Fraustino, 2004.
By the time this one came out I was a little bit too old, so I didn’t discover this one until I re-discovered the Dear America novels in my 20s. (And very glad to do so!) Which is a shame, because it’s definitely one of the best novels in the series. It touches on a lot of the issues that historians think the witch trials may have actually been caused by—economic stress, inter-familial problems, and so on—but it’s handled in a very deft way that a teenager would probably understand (but actually, a teenager reading for the first time probably wouldn’t pick up on it, so it’s a bit of Adult Reader Bonus, and even in the historical note at the end it’s not as extensive as one might though).