A Line in the Sand

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.

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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.

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Isabel, Jewel of Castilla

Do you want a classic ur-example of “I’m a princess and people keep trying to marry me off to people I don’t want to marry?” Here you go.

Isabel: Jewel of Castilla, Spain, 1466, Carolyn Meyer, 2000.

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This was a nice break, because I don’t usually like Carolyn Meyer’s books, but I did like this one. Also notable: reading this book at twelve or thirteen or whatever was the first time I realized that Isabel is the Spanish version of Elizabeth. Never tell me these books don’t teach us anything. I mean, besides teaching us about the lives of young royals, especially when they are particularly important ones like Isabella, the first queen regnant of Spain and key player in unifying Spain with her husband, Ferdinand.

Now, usually her name is rendered as Isabella, but Meyer here has opted for Isabel so I guess we’ll go with that for the duration. This is one of those books where the biggest problem is the attempt to skip through a large chunk of time in a relatively short book, which seems to be far more common in the Royal Diaries books, maybe in an effort to fast-forward through the boring parts. Which seems to me to be a bit of a failure, because I have always felt that the details about daily life and habits to be the most interesting parts of all of these books! Let’s face it: if you want to read a book about the youth of Elizabeth I or Isabella I or Anastasia or Victoria, you can find it, and it will give you far more detail than you ever cared to know about political intrigues and all that nonsense. But books like this, with details about how people lived their lives and what they did with their time and celebrated and mourned—even though they’re fictional, in a lot of ways it gives a more full and holistic portrayal of a life.

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The Birchbark House

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.

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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.

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Pieces of the Past

Buckle up, it doesn’t get much darker than this.

Pieces of the Past: The Holocaust Diary of Rose Rabinowitz, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1948, Carol Matas, 2013.

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I feel like Dear Canada’s normally-depressing books just weren’t depressing enough, so Scholastic said “let’s just go for broke and write a Holocaust book to really round it all out.” But how would they write a book about the Holocaust—which, as you’ll remember, took place in Germany—in Canada? Easy, they’ll write a book about a horribly-traumatized girl adopted out as a refugee to a Canadian family in Winnipeg! Too easy. (Spoiler: Nothing in this book is easy. It’s brutal.)

One of the things I like the most about this book is that Rose, our protagonist, isn’t really all that likable. This is something that YA and children’s books have started to steer away from now, but when I was growing up, it seemed like every protagonist of every book was fun and smart and kind and if not popular, still had a core group of amazing friends. There were not a lot of books about girls or boys who were mean or lonely or dumb or just kind of sucked. Not that Rose is any of those things—she’s not—but she’s severely traumatized and not really interested in making friends or socializing with anyone except the other orphans she knows. Which is a very refreshing point of view, if that’s not too strange of a word to use here.

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War Nurse

One of my most absolute favourite things ever is when I get to discover new books that I missed as a kid! Granted, this one is because I did not grow up a child in the UK, but you know, details.

War Nurse: A Second World War Girl’s Diary, 1939-1940¸ Sue Reid.

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I totally adored this book. It’s sweet and heart-wrenching, and I think oddly enough that spunky is the word I’d put to it. It totally personifies that can-do, chin-up spirit that is so thoroughly and irrevocably associated with the Brits of the Second World War, and it’s blended so beautifully with sadness that it feels very real. It’s a book about an older girl targeted at younger girls, which can be a pretty tricky task, but it’s done fairly well here!

Kitty, whose friends and family call her Kitten, is a member of the VAD—Voluntary Aid Detachment, or a sort of emergency nursing corps who have been instructed to turn up as soon as war is declared. And we waste no time getting there on the very first page! Her brother Peter is joining up with the army, and she’s off to the military hospital at Standhaven, and while she thinks she ought to feel noble and brave, she’s mostly just scared and homesick and lonely without her best friend. Her roommate introduces herself only as “Nurse Mason,” and seems to be very tidy and serious—unlike the other girls who Kit went to nursing school with, who are all jolly and friendly and excited. Ugh, you just know it’s going to be tragic and sad, isn’t it? Of course it is, no WWII stories end well.

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Eleanor: Crown Jewel of Aquitaine

I really, really, really loved this book when it first came out. It’s still pretty great, but on a disappointing note I think I might be the first person to take it out from my local library because it’s in pristine condition. Kids these days don’t know what they’re missing! Full-on romance, courtly love, beautiful gowns, everything you need from a romance in the twelfth century.

Eleanor: Crown Jewel of Aquitaine, France, 1136, Kristiana Gregory, 2002.

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Eleanor is one of the most interesting women in French and English history—queen of France, Crusader, queen of England, prisoner, dowager queen and mother of Richard I and John I—wow, there’s a lot going on in her life. This book alludes to some of it, but it doesn’t become overwhelming or irritating with its “let’s preface the future, tee hee” hints—it’s just an interesting window into her early life, which is frequently overshadowed in favour of the zillions of interesting things that happened later in her life.

As we open, Eleanor is thirteen and living in Poitiers with her younger sister, Petronilla, and her grandmother and the rest of the court. She has a crush on one of the knights, Clotaire, and spends a lot of time writing about how dreamy and strong he is, which is…pretty realistic. The girls’ father has been excommunicated by the Pope for supporting the antipope, and the court in general is quite, ah, lusty. “Petra’s gown is emerald, mine blue, and our shoes are white silk beaded with pearls. When we dance we may have to kick out our feet to show them off.” That right there, that’s probably 90% of the reason I liked this so much as a kid.

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Catherine, Called Birdy

Would you believe this is the first time I’m reading this? For some reason I missed this as a kid, which seems like an outrageous oversight. I can’t explain it.

Catherine, Called Birdy¸ Karen Cushman, 1994.

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How did no one buy me this book as a kid? It was a Newbery Honor book and it would have been right up my alley! But instead here I am with the 20th anniversary edition, enjoying it as an adult and totally unable to share what I thought of it as a kid. Such is life. Anyway, Karen Cushman wrote the excellent The Midwife’s Apprentice and has an excellent reputation for children’s historical fiction, so I am practically preprogrammed to enjoy this.

This is a journal-style book, except it has the charming detail of including which saint’s feast day every day is, and some expository detail. “28th Day of January, Feast of Saint John the Sage, an Irish philosopher who was stabbed to death by his students.” “3rd Day of November, Feast of Saint Rumwald, who at three days old said ‘I am a Christian’ and died.” This is also pretty much the Ur-Example of “girl who doesn’t want to submit to society’s expectations about her,” which is the most common trope in all the books I review, but it’s done reasonably well here so I won’t complain about it too much. Other than right here.

So the idea and driving force behind this whole book is that Catherine (called Birdy, because of her attraction to birds) is fast approaching the age where she’ll need to be married off, and she does not want to be at all. Her father is a rough and cruel lackwit, but he’s doing his best to get Catherine married off to a wealthy man as quickly as possible. Catherine’s job is basically to try to outwit him at every pass. She does a surprisingly good job for a young teenager, which either speaks to her wit or her father’s lack. The first suitor comes calling and Catherine manages to dispatch him by blacking out some teeth with soot and behaving like an idiot at dinner. Mission accomplished.

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