Before we get started, let’s look at the cover of this book that perfectly encompasses everything all 90s historical fiction was about: clothes, and wars going on in the distance in soft-focus. And it was a good call by the cover artist to go with 90s hair instead of period-appropriate 1860s hair, because it is one era that has not translated well.
In My Father’s House, Ann Rinaldi, 1993.
This is a Deep Cut Ann Rinaldi—and I know I’ve complained about her before because the lustre really wore off quickly after I was no longer 12—but this one was better than some of the others I’ve reread. Partially because I, uh, don’t think I read this one as a kid? I didn’t remember a single thing and I feel like I might have, so I think I was reading this one for the very first time. My biggest problem with this book is that it’s boring. The whole thing feels like you’re driving towards some kind of major conclusion, but…there isn’t one. Besides the end of the war, I guess. (Should that be a spoiler? 152 years later?)
This book is one of many Rinaldi books based on a true story, and that’s the story of a man who owned the land that the first battle of the Civil War, First Manassas, was built on. He moved so he would never have to see another soldier again, and ended up moving to Appomattox, where the war was ended in his parlor. That is a true story and it’s one of history’s great coincidences, and would make for an excellent book. This is not that book. This is about Oscie Mason, the stepdaughter of Will McLean, the man in question. Unfortunately, Oscie is not a great character. She’s supposed to come off as plucky and responsible, but in reality she’s just kind of irritating.
I almost never review brand-new books, but I just had to make an exception to recommend this one!
Wait For Me¸ Caroline Leech, 2017.
It just came out a few months ago so I won’t do a full-fledged recap with spoilers, but I just could not pass this one up. I blew through it in a weekend because I just could not manage to put it down! Partly because it’s like someone wrote a book to spec for me (it’s my favourite subgenre of People Having Romantical Troubles During Wartime (thanks, Fug Girls!)—People On Opposite Sides of Conflict Falling In Love, which is a surprisingly hard genre to find and even harder to find done well—and I don’t want to think about what this says about my psyche, probably nothing good), and partly because it’s just a ripping good tale. It’s a sparkling example of what I feel there isn’t enough of these days—good old YA historical fiction with a side of romance. No magic required, no Gossip Girl-style intrigues, no dystopian steampunk reimaginings of the period, nothing. I love it. God, if only the world would publish more so I can get my fix!
Lorna, our protagonist, lives on her family farm in Scotland, working away and going to school after both her brothers have gone to war (one on the front lines, one in London). She’s scraping by with her father, the housekeeper, and their Land Girl, when her father applies for and receives a German prisoner of war to help work on the farm. Luckily for everyone, Paul speaks some English, and things go about as you can imagine from there. (Spoiler alert: love story.) I love that this book takes place at the end of the war—there have been about a million and eight books written about the outbreak of the war, the Blitz, the evacuations from London, and so on, but not nearly as many about the dragging end.
I hear you! Believe me, I hear you, and I also think Sunfire is the most hilariously awful crap to grace the pages of “books” in many years. This one promises to be especially bad, since it contains actual, real historical people. Probably depicted poorly, I’ll hazard a guess.
Merrie, Vivian Schurfranz, 1987.
Before you start, “Merrie” is a variant on Mary. If you’re like me and stood there goggling at it going “What the fuck?” for a few minutes. I already don’t have a good feeling about this book. Also, the cover is atrocious—Merrie has some kind of wild cape going on with an oddly-Victorian-looking merlot gown, while there’s two dudes: one wearing a…scarf around his neck and what appears to be blue jeans with one of those blousy pirate shirts? And the other wearing a Pilgrim getup that looks like it was purchased from Crazy Frank’s Halloween House Of Fun. He’s even clutching a buckled hat. Helpful hint: the Pilgrims wore normal clothing for their day, including all the colours, and didn’t wear buckles on their hats.
And starting this book I already don’t think I’m going to like Merrie. The whole premise of this book is that she’s stowed away on the Mayflower to escape an arranged marriage. Except she’s supposed to come from wealth, which means that she would have been brought up with the idea that marriage would not be strictly a love match, and secondly, why the Mayflower of all the godforsaken ships in England? Surely you could find a ship going somewhere warm and not a completely isolated place in the middle of nowhere. Anyway, Merrie is discovered on page six and we’re ready to rock and roll.
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.
I would wager a good bet that few of you guys who enjoyed The Winter of the Red Snow as a kid even knew that this book existed. Trust me, you were better off that way.
Cannons at Dawn: The Second Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 1779, Kristiana Gregory, 2011.
Now, before I start complaining, I’ll note two things: one, that this was an experiment as the first “sequel” diary in the Dear America series (and the last); and secondly, that Gregory’s longtime editor passed away before this book was written, and I wonder if the change in editing tone made a major difference to the book. It’s not bad, but it’s not what I would have hoped for.
Now to the complaints: this book is one of those that wants to zip through a ton of time super fast and consequently sacrifices good plot. So instead of having a short period of time and a story that moves along well, we have half a book of good story and half a book that’s just basically recounting facts and skipping months and months at a time. Which is OK, but not particularly what I look for in a Dear America book! The Winter of the Red Snow has charm and cheek. Cannons at Dawn is a slog.
Do you remember the first and third books I recapped in this series last year? They were pretty bad. (You could have probably figured that out.) The second one is oddly hard to lay my hands on, although I remember enjoying it more than the others when I read it. Maybe other people thought the same thing, which is why it’s hard to find now? No, we should be so lucky.
Carrie: Heart of Courage, Cameron Dokey, 1998.
This is a book about the Chicago fire of 1871, which confused me a lot when I looked at the book for the first time because the hat Carrie is wearing on the cover is supposed to be a fancy summer hat, but looks more like a cowboy hat from a strange angle. Doesn’t it? Yes, it’s being held onto her head with a pink sash and she’s wearing a party dress, but I can’t be responsible for my initial impressions of the cover.
The whole first bit of this book is mostly Carrie whining about how she’s a shy, terrified little flower and her whole family is full of “strong Kelly women”—her great-grandmother participated in the Boston Tea Party, her grandmother was kidnapped and almost was caught in the burning of Washington in 1812, her mother traveled halfway across the world, and her older sister is an ardent suffragette. It’s not pointed out until much later in this book that excepting her sister, none of those women were Kellys by birth, so it should probably be just “strong women.” Anyway, Carrie’s trying to break out of her shell by going to a suffragette rally with her annoying friend Jessica, who’s telling her the whole time that she’s afraid of everything and paranoid. You know, given everything that happens to Carrie in this book, she is kind of right to be worried about stuff.
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.