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).
I have to cleanse my palate with something not horrifyingly bad after the past couple of books, so I thought I would go with a much-beloved classic Dear America instead.
Book: A Journey to the New World, The Diary of Remember Patience Whipple: Mayflower, 1620, Kathryn Lasky, 1996.
Kathryn Lasky is one of my favourite Dear America authors, and this is the very first book published in the series and an awesome kickoff. Basically all American schoolkids grow up with the story of the Pilgrims, as flawed and full of holes as it is, and this is an interesting introduction to how, you know, there’s More To The Story than that. I also must confess that this book came out right around the time I was in Grade 4 and we did a unit on the Pilgrims and we all got “Pilgrim names” and referred to each other by those names for like, three months, and this book was like my Bible at that point.
Remember, or Mem as she is called, is twelve years old and going to the New World with her mother and father and baby sister, Blessing. They’re all “Saints,” or members of a church in religious revolt from King James, but the most important thing in the first couple of pages is that Mem and everyone else is just sick as a dog and vomiting copiously. Ah, truth in history. Continue reading