Now for a classic, and another edition of “I Can’t Believe I Didn’t Read This As A Kid!” It’s even a Newbery Medal winner! Again: I was maybe too busy rereading every book in the extended Baby-sitter’s Club universe rather than reading books that would improve my moral fiber or whatever.
A Gathering Of Days: A New England Girl’s Journal, 1830-32, Joan W. Blos, 1979.
Now, I didn’t have this exact edition, but I know every elementary-school library had a copy with a pattern of leaves around the edges. For some reason my passion for historical fiction and diary-style books never led me to this one in particular. God only knows why. I think for a long time I was possibly confusing it with Catherine, Called Birdy, which was the other diary-style book I never quite managed to crack open. They couldn’t be more different, though, because while Catherine, Called Birdy is irreverent and humorous and wittily charming, A Gathering of Days is much more plodding and frankly, depressing. It’s realistic, which is nice—wonderful verisimilitude is never something to sneeze at—but it feels much more like School Assignment Reading. As usual, here is the question: would I have enjoyed this more as a kid?
Anyway, we also have a Catherine as our protagonist, here, and I wonder if part of the reason I don’t recall reading it as a kid was that I read the first page and watched as the story stalled out before even going anywhere. Books like this are the reason every story I wrote as a kid started out with an exhaustive recounting of the protagonist and their family and their life story. Because that’s how this one starts out—Catherine lives with her father and younger sister Matty in New Hampshire, her best friend Cassie lives on the adjoining farm, and they go to school together with a strict but good teacher. I’m bored already.
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.
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.
The only thing—literally the only thing at all—I remembered about this book was the cover, because there was a copy in my library growing up and I thought the girl on the front was a vengeful ghost spirit or something. Can I also note that the cover blurb “Related with all the impact of a hard-hitting documentary” is A) false and B) not a great pull quote, either?
I Am Regina, Sally M. Keehn, 1991.
As this blog goes on and on we delve deeper and deeper into the realms of “that book? Who even remembers that book?” and this falls pretty squarely into that category. I know I read it as a kid because I remembered the cover, but I had zero memory of it. It was for the best. Now I’ve read it as an adult and I have to have the memory of it forever, which may possibly be worse.
First of all, everything about this book is strange. It’s based on an allegedly true story, which is that Regina Leininger, who was a Pennsylvania German girl taken from her family home during an Indian raid and lived in captivity with a tribe for many years, and was returned to her mother after many years and recognized her only after her mother sang “Alone Yet Not Alone Am I,” which was a hymn the family had sung together. That’s it. That’s the whole story. Now, you may think that it’s ripe for drama and entertainment, but this story fails to deliver any of it. But don’t worry, let me tell you all about it in detail.
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.
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.
Why did I never get this book as a kid? I would have been full-on obsessed with this book. I feel like half this blog is me reading stuff I knew well as a kid and half of it is me discovering books and going “HOW IS THIS SO AWESOME? Some kids are so lucky!”
The Birchbark House, Louise Erdrich, 1999.
Man, Louise Erdrich is so great. Is there anything she can’t do? Her adult books are transcendentally wonderful, and I knew vaguely about the Birchbark House books but didn’t actually sit down and read them until, uh, last year. I know, shame on me. They’re so good! They’re usually compared to the Little House books, in that they’re stories about a young girl growing up and the details of her daily life, but they really pull no punches. In the Little House books you’re three or four books in until you really start to get a sense of some of the danger and fear in the Ingalls’ lives, but in Birchbark House? No such luck. Smack in the face with the hardship of life! No messing around!
But with all the really harsh harsh harshness, there’s Erdrich’s beautiful writing and some wonderful scenes that are just remarkably well put-together. Omakayas is such a fun and realistic little girl—she really wants to do good and help her family, but she’s like, eight, so she screws up and fights with her siblings and does other dumb kid stuff. It’s just so, so, so well put-together. Omakayas is actually adopted—her real family died in a smallpox epidemic when she was a small baby, and she was rescued by Old Tallow, the eccentric old lady who’s a friend of her family, and adopted by her parents.
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.