As a genre, young adult historical fiction seems to ride waves in and out and of publishing popularity. There has lately been some discussion on the web that fantasy and science fiction are enjoying a renaissance, (some think too much of a renaissance) to the detriment of other types of stories. This is all subjective of course, and in the wake of the Harry Potter juggernaut, it's impossible to look far beyond SFF, but I can't help but shake my head whenever I come across these sorts of articles.
I mean really, is this the biggest story young adult publishing has to waste its industry time worrying about?
Attempts at censorship appear to be rampant lately, and often only on the strength of one pissed off parent's often misguided opinion. There are the endless pressures of "No Child Left Behind" and all the tests that must be passed, which leave precious little time for pleasure reading and thus turn children against books before they have a chance to discover them (I count my own 3rd grade niece in this group). We dumb them down with trash writing and then scold them for being dumb after they read it. (Shocked, parents are shocked by the content in the "Gossip Girls" books!) All of this is to say that really, what sells the most is hardly the problem, and getting the good stuff into the hands of the eager and excited is. (A corollary to this would be getting the other kids eager and excited, but that's an issue for another article.) As it happens, in the genre of historical fiction there has been quite a bit of "good stuff" lately, and I'm more than happy to review some of those titles here.
Laura Amy Schlitz is a librarian who envisioned a young girl in a rather nasty outhouse from her own childhood and used that spark to craft a story about the era of spiritualism in America. Young Maud Flynn is small for her age, defiant and determined to get out of the Barbary Asylum for Female Orphans. When the spinster ladies Hyacinth and Judith Hawthorne arrive to adopt a young girl, Maud is surprised and grateful to be their choice. The Hawthornes appear to be extremely wealthy and generous, and she envisions a life of mansions and parties and endless entertainment. The reality is nothing out of Oliver Twist's tragedies, but it does fall far short of her expectations. As it turns out, the Hawthornes are engaged in a family business of bringing false messages back from the dead for gullible clients, and Maud is to be the coup de gras for one particular lady determined to reach her drowned daughter. Maud is to study and prepare and eventually pretend to be poor Caroline Lambert. If she is successful, the Hawthornes will make a lot of money, and as they claim, Mrs. Lambert will be happy with her delusion. But Maud is not very good at doing what the Hawthornes want or staying hidden from the public eye like the Hawthornes insist (it wouldn't do for people to know that they have a young girl in the same house where a young girl is planned to mysteriously appear). She is the sort of child who must ask questions and follow her own curiosity. Eventually this leads her to a surprise introduction with Mrs. Lambert, and then all of Maud's uncertainties about her adoptive family and their motivations begin to surface.
There are some stunning dramatic moments in A Drowned Maiden's Hair and also, surprisingly, hints or two of genuine spiritual involvement. Maud is most certainly plucky and spunky and all those things that young female characters ought to be in a story like this, but she never drops into the realm of cliché, and rather remains fresh and interesting from beginning to end. There was a plot point or two that seemed oddly tacked on to me in the narrative—I'm not quite sure why Schlitz saw fit to have Maud's real older brother show up at one point only to leave him completely out of the rest of the story—but there is nothing here that drags down the story or leaves readers frustrated. Drowned Maiden is fast paced, mysterious, and enormously satisfying. The historical drama unfolds in a manner that should make more than one reader curious about just what all this spiritualism stuff was about and that, of course, is the hidden benefit of a book like this one: they come for a character like Maud, but they move on out of scientific or historical curiosity. Damn the assessment tests and give this to your favorite elementary school reader (or junior high). It will teach them a lot more that will matter in the long run, I guarantee it.
The Shadows of Ghadames is a relatively short book (118 pages) that nevertheless packs a strong emotional wallop. Malika is the daughter of a merchant living at the end of the 19th century in the Libyan city of Ghadames. She is chafing at the societal rules that control her movements as a female, and at the freedoms that her brother seems poised to enjoy. It is clear that Malika will never be a merchant like her father or travel to exotic cities to trade. She has to learn to live within the "women's world" largely up on the rooftops of the city, "an open sunny town for women only, where they walk about, lead their own lives, visit one another and never talk to men." Below them, on the streets, the men often do the same thing. The worlds are separate, Malika learns from her mother, yet "as necessary and different as the sun and the moon. And the sun and the moon never meet, except at the beginning and end of the night."
Although Malika's world is clearly a conservative one, there is no suggestion that it is necessarily small. In fact both her mother and her father's second wife, Bilkisu, go to great pains to show Malika how rich the women's world can be—how it's very separateness gives rise to knowledge and insight that is lost to the men. The secrets of this world particularly come into play when Bilkisu saves a young man who is being attacked for espousing a different version of Islam. As explained by Malika's uncle, the young man is a problem because he belongs to a brotherhood who believes the people must "...return to the purity of Islam at the time of the Prophet and fight against superstitions! What they call superstitions are simply our traditions, as old and respectable as our city. These young people lack piety and respect; they think they can teach us lessons." The women hide him however, out of sympathy for his injuries and not any political stance concerning his message. They feel he should have a freedom to express himself without threat of physical harm and keep him safe until he is well enough to escape from Ghadames.
It is in showing the way that the women of Malika's family may hide someone that readers learn all the fascinating ins and outs of the women's world. Malika also begins to realize the different versions of freedom and the ways in which she might find a place for herself in the world she has been given. It is not seeing the distant cities, but in some ways it is an inner life that knows no bounds. Further, her quest to be educated is rewarded in the end, as her mother realizes that her daughter's need to learn is a mark of her frustration, and only by relieving it now with increased education will she be able to enjoy her adulthood more thoroughly later.
Young American readers often find themselves awash in history books about the Pilgrims and Christopher Columbus and Western expansion, but a title like The Shadows of Ghadames gives them an opportunity to learn something abundantly and excitingly new. Malika's world is exotic and fascinating, but her vision and questions about the future will seem all too familiar. This is a quiet book, even an elegant one for teen readers who might be surprised at how great of an impact such a softly told tale can possess. But it will certainly draw them in and compel them to read more. They will want to know what happens to Malika and her visitor and the women who come to help. They will want to know more about this old Libyan city, which is what makes it a very successful novel to this reviewer.
I first heard about Marguerite de La Rocque while reading Pierre Berton's Canadian history title, The White and the Gold. He only mentioned her in passing, but it was enough for the name to stick, (her story is unbelievable but true), so when I saw Joan Elizabeth Gordon's novel Paradise, based on Marguerite's life, I could not resist it. This compelling, heartbreaking, and quietly intense story of survival pulled me with its promise of telling Marguerite's saga from her perspective. Now I'd like to know just where this historical figure was when I was slogging through a very dull History of Canada course in college. (Do you hear me University of Alaska History Department?)
Paradise begins with Marguerite and her younger sister Isabeau, suffering from another hungry, cold day in their widowed father's home. He is a deeply religious man who has little time or tolerance for daughters. In 1542 this is not uncommon but it does wear on Marguerite. It is because of the difficulties at home that she jumps at the chance to go to "New France" (Canada) with her uncle. The plan is to develop a settlement there, in the wake of Jaques Cartier's grand discoveries. It will be a New Eden and Marguerite is thrilled to join the group. She quickly finds a better home for Isabeau (with an aunt—the child is too young for the six week sea journey) and with her servant Damienne, she is on her way to freedom.
The saddest thing is how excited she is at this journey—how certain she is that great things are going to happen when she finds her new world. From the truth about Marguerite's life, I knew how disappointed she would be and the more I fell for her and her dreams, the most distressed I became about what lay ahead.
As the fictional Marguerite climbs onboard her uncle's ship, her greatest excitement is not about Canada however, but the love of her life, Pierre, who was socially unsuitable in France but has found a way to join the voyage with the hope that he and Marguerite will finally be together forever. They try very hard to keep apart on the journey but close to land they get caught (caught doing a 1500s kind of romancing, not a 2006 full on frontal nudity kind) and the punishment is severe. The couple and Damienne end up banished to the Isle of Demons, off the coast of Quebec—left to die in the wilderness. That is when Goodman's novel really takes off and the battle to survive against the elements moves to the forefront. The group struggles against everything (starvation is the biggest problem) and none of them are prepared for the harshness of their surroundings. Goodman clearly wants them to make it—the reader will want them to make it—but history is relentless when it comes to the truth and there is only so much that the author can do for her characters. Marguerite's story is already told, you see, and Goodman can not change it, no matter how much she wishes she could.
In every way that matters, the author has crafted a modern female version of Gary Paulsen's classic survival tale, Hatchet. Marguerite is the antithesis of marathon shopping, cell phone addicted, gossip obsessed girls who have no vision for surviving a bad hair day let alone complete abandonment in the wilderness. It's a wondrous look at how North America was really settled—and the impressive and brave souls who wagered everything on their wish for Eden. As for the real Marguerite, I will say only this: her story did not end on the Isle of Demons, and I certainly hope that someday the full truth of what became of her will spark a biographer's interest.
K.M. Peyton's historical Snowfall seems like a romance—it is in fact described as a novel of "adventure and romance," but it read to me as something more than a girl meets boy sort of story. Peyton has created so many layers in this story, from the lack of choices available to young women in Victorian England to the history of mountain climbing (and even some horse racing), that she fairly blows any preconceptions about crafting young adult romance out the window. Even though love is here (first love, blind love, bad love, etc.), it is the search for change, the determination to find new ways to live outside of society's demands, that drives the story. This is what makes it memorable, and certainly what kept my attention riveted from beginning to end.
Seventeen-year old Charlotte is the orphan granddaughter of a vicar who is about to become engaged to a curate even though she really really (REALLY) does not want to marry him. He's a harmless, boring, rather drab fellow and could not be more unsuitable for Charlotte who dreams of a life distant from her little village. But her grandfather is concerned about what will happen to her when he is no longer there to keep her safe, and marriage is what needs to happen next for Charlotte—it is what comes next for girls like her. But what do you do when you want Prince Charming and lightening bolts and magic? What do you do when you want more then the world says you should get?
In Charlotte's case you talk your brother Ben (home from Oxford) into getting you out of the house and along on his mountain climbing vacation to Switzerland. It's a chance to see something else, to be someone else, and it will buy some time so she can figure out what to do next. Ben's friends prove to be a revelation however, especially the wealthy and upper class Milo. As everyone on the trip voices their individual trepidations about the future, Milo makes a startling offer and Charlotte doesn't look back, not for a second. Officially she finds alternate living arrangements, but really she runs away from home. And so begins a look at mildly Bohemian life in the late 19th century, and the way one girl's future can change on a dime—if she's gutsy enough to climb a mountain in order to make that change.
There are so many things about Snowfall that surprised and captivated me, not the least of which that I never expected to find such a deep and engrossing novel written for young adults. Charlotte, Milo and their friends change so much in this story; they go from being a bunch of fun loving vacationers with hardly a serious thought in their heads (especially Milo) to a group who are very nearly overwhelmed by the many decisions they must make about their lives and loves. It would be trite to say they grow up in the course of the novel—obviously they age and grow up—but they don't just age, they become people deeply affected by the events that occur around them and the changes they each undergo because of them. And then finally, suddenly, Peyton forces a change in their lives that none of them wish for; none of them could have imagined. And just like that, everybody grows up, just like that, no one is young anymore.
The best surprise for me in reading Snowfall was the final chapter, a true gift that Peyton gives her readers. By pulling the story ahead more than fifty years, she not only shows how everybody turns out (and who ends up with who), but how all of us could turn out five decades from now if we are really really lucky. In her book she shows us how intense and amazing youth can be, but in her final pages she shares just why growing older is the best part of living. She shows us what is great about wisdom and beauty, and what all of that life stuff really should mean.
Snowfall is a gem that I fear will be dreadfully overlooked by many readers of historical fiction; it shouldn't be though—it shouldn't be passed up by any one of them.
The Green Glass Sea is set in another place unique to young adult fiction, Los Alamos, New Mexico during World War II. We meet almost eleven-year-old "Dewey" Kerrigan at the very beginning when she is waiting for her scientist father. They have been apart for a long time and as Dewey's mother is not in the picture, she has had to rely first on a grandmother and since her illness, a family friend. She is a very lonely little girl who pines for her father's return. After being picked up by a soldier and transferred to a train and met by another soldier, she realizes that what her father does is both important and unusual. The trip to finally get to him allows the reader to discover how unusual Dewey is, as she tinkers with her homemade radio on the train and faithfully reads The Boy Mechanic for clues as to why it fails.
Clearly saying Dewey is a bit of a tomboy would be a bit of an understatement—she's an uber geek girl who defies all 1940s conventions about what girls should be. Fortunately she's going to the one place where no one cares if you are male or female as long as you are smart. Of course that is the adults—all the children at Los Alamos are the same sort of predictable brats, bitches and bored souls looking for something to do and turning on each other out of lack of ideas. Dewey is an easy target—she has a slight handicap that causes one leg to drag a bit and she spends most of her time trawling through the base dump looking for widgets to add to her inventions. She has a couple of friends but they are boys—which makes her even odder as far as the girls are concerned. It seems she will never move beyond her solitary existence (which doesn't seem all that awful to me) until her father is called away suddenly for work and Dewey must stay with the Gordons—home of Suze who wants to be popular and isn't so makes a point of trying to make everyone else suffer. (Girls are just so mean—even in the 1940s!)
So we pretty much know that eventually Suze and Dewey are going to bond but they do it in a very unique manner and without Dewey having to change an inch (thank heavens). Suze's parents are both scientists and author Ellen Klages does a great job of showing how women were involved in the making of the bomb on the most technical and chemical levels. In the end she also uses the Gordons to show the confusion that many of the scientists felt over the completion of their project. Success meant destruction on a massive scale which to many of those involved (including the fictional Mrs. Gordon and the very real Robert Oppenheimer), suggested that perhaps success should not have been the goal. The issue is framed very well, and will be easily understandable to young readers although those already familiar with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will probably enjoy the story even more.
My only complaint of The Green Glass Sea is that Dewey has so many things stacked against her—she's a geek, she's slightly handicapped, her mother is long gone and her father... well I'll let you read the book and find out about her father. It seemed just a little too much to me, a little overkill. She didn't need the bad leg, her mother could have just been dead and not horrible; it just didn't have to all be so grim. I know Klages was trying to set up for the relationship between Dewey and Suze, but I think maybe she went just a tad too far. Of course none of this stands in the way of a truly original and well done story, and it is the critique of an adult reviewer; young readers may not even notice and will be too busy falling in love with Dewey to care anyway. Ultimately though, this is a very smart, thoughtful story and for girls and boys who like to tinker it will be major winner.
A Drowned Maiden's Tale by Laura Amy Schlitz
Candlewick (2006) 400 pp.
The Shadows of Ghadames
by Joelle Stolz
Translated by Catherine Temerson
Delacorte Press (2004) 118 pp.
by Joan Elizabeth Goodman
Graphia (2006) 209 pp.
by K.M. Peyton
Graphia (2006) 343 pp.
The Green Glass Sea
by Ellen Klages
Viking (2006) 321 pp.
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