Category Archives: historical fiction

Hell and high water and a whole lot of other stuff

hellandhighwaterI don’t remember how this book ended up on my list.  I haven’t actually been getting much serious (or not serious) reading done lately, although I’ve done a few re-reads of Dumplin’ (awesome as always) and Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen (part of my annual attempt to remember languages I haven’t spoken for a few decades).  Given much thought, I probably would have found something a bit lighter, especially since I usually don’t go for things with puppets of any kind.  They’re a little like clowns to me—kind of creepy and maybe a little menacing, unless they are fluffy, cute animal puppets which are a completely different thing.

Anyhoo, this is a great book.  There are bad guys — rich aristocrats cheating poor people and a few of their own supposed friends, sending the undeserving off to jail or to the colonies – and a few scrappy good guys and a lot of intrigue, action, and close escapes.  Letty and Caleb become friends and partners-in-making-things-right, and you’re with them all the way.  It’s not a happy story, really, but it works.  As a read-aloud, there could be a lot to discuss with the right group of kids: gossip, discrimination, power, women’s roles, poverty, justice.  So take a break from reality and travel back to 1752 for a few hours.  You’ll be glad you did.

Hell and High Water by Tanya Landman

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What is said and what is unsaid

beyondthebrightseaLauren Wolk is a master of atmosphere and setting.  There, I’ve said it.  Why not just put it up front and out there, right?  I found her earlier book,  Wolf Hollow, dark, titling my review of it “A lingering toxic fog,” not maybe what you’d think was a positive review. (It was not my typical positive review, but still…)

But apparently, she has a skill for this, and she’s able to dredge up a whole yard full of emotions in whatever she writes.  You might be pulled there slowly… or an angry, violent thief might materialize pounding on your door.  You’re never quite sure of anything.

Some mysteries are solved – Crow, the abandoned infant who’s now trying to find out more about her parents, does learn what has happened to her parents and that she has a brother.  But other questions are not solved as neatly or with happy endings.  Some characters are revealed; others stay a step back and out of the limelight.   And that is just fine.

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

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Prequel? Do I care?

pearl thief cover USA_0Well, it depends.  This one, a prequel to Elizabeth Wein’s excellent Code Name Verity, was one I waited for, wondering if it would really match up with what I remembered of a character, her situation, and a time period.  Then, about five chapters in, I realized I didn’t really care if it was a prequel or not.  It’s just a good story.

Why?  The mystery involved in a missing man, a body, the Water Bailiff, and a family of aristocrats reminds me of great English mysteries where thin layers are peeled back, one after another, to reveal all kinds of ugliness, bitterness, secrets, and even good.  Julia Beaufort-Stuart is bold and afraid, cautious and confident, aware of her privilege but limited by its demands, too.

This book may explain a lot about the character she becomes in Code Name Verity, but while the connection is wonderful, it’s not necessary.  Julia and the story are enough.   Wonderfully enough.

The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein

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The war here, the war there

genevieve-warWhen I was young, World War II stories always drew me in.  There’s something about Nazis that makes it seem pretty easy to pick out good guys and bad guys.  I knew who to root for – the Nazis were bad and the French resistance fighters were good.  There’s something comforting about knowing things fall into such simple categories.  I knew if faced with that kind of evil, I would resist.  We’re always the good guys when we’re kids, right?

I still enjoy reading about World War II.  Even now, stories of real people from that time come out and reveal lives, loss, and resistance that was hidden or forgotten.  One of the teens I worked with described his trip to the Holocaust Museum by saying, “That Hitler was one bad dude.”  So, that hasn’t changed.  But in fiction, there’s room to explore a little.

In Genevieve’s War, for example, some Nazis are really awful, but others seem just as trapped as Genevieve and her grandmother, who are trying to survive on a farm in Alsace.  Genevieve is American, but her parents have died, and what starts as a summer vacation with Mémé turns into a years-long relocation.  Under the Germans, even friends are eyed suspiciously.  Who can Genevieve trust with her secrets?  Will she and Mémé be exposed?

Patricia Reilly Giff explored the World War II homefront in the U.S. in Lily’s Crossing, which pairs perfectly with this story.  They show different sides of the war (for Americans) and the challenges people faced.  As part of a larger discussion of the war (or wars in general), they demonstrate how ordinary people live in difficult times without dwelling much on the actual violence of war.  There are explosions and people are taken away to prison, for example, but the ugliness of war is felt more in the constant fear and threats against Genevieve and the village rather than in graphic descriptions.

Good guys.  Bad guys.  Sometimes it’s just not that simple.

Genevieve’s War by Patricia Reilly Giff

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What’s personal is political

dreamlandWill and Rowan are separated by close to a hundred years, but their efforts to confront racial discrimination and adapt to society’s expectations for them are strangely similar.  In the 1920s, Will has a tough time resisting the verbal and physical threats of Ku Klux Klan members who will eventually burn down the African-American part of Tulsa.  In the present day, Rowan isn’t sure she’s the right person to stand up, either.  Both characters make mistakes, alienate friends, and eventually find their way.

I’ll be interested to hear how readers who are African American or Native American see this book.  For me, it started a little slow, but became very compelling, especially since both sections mirror real history and current events.  I don’t know a person who hasn’t messed up something in adolescence, immediately regretted it, but then struggled with how to fix it.  It could provide a great starting point for discussions on race, expectations, and how we make choices.  The parallel lives also do a nice job of illuminating how much and how little changes over what seems like a long time.  It worked for me.  Give it a look.

Dreamland Burning  by Jennifer Latham

For another perspective, see this review at American Indians in Children’s Literature.

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Classics I’ve missed

rascalWell, at least one children’s classic.  Rascal.  It was definitely published long enough ago (1963) that I should have heard about it or read it somewhere during the many happy (and sad) hours I spent reading about boys and their pets – Sounder, The Yearling, Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows.  Somehow, though, I missed this one about a raccoon and his boy.  (Just an aside, but why don’t I remember books about girls taking off in a homemade canoe with raccoons or dogs, or am forgetting something?  Were girls just not good campers?  And if that was the case, why did I spend all that time in Girl Scouts?)

Rascal is a nostalgic book, full of memories of a time long past.  Sterling has what must have looked like a dream life for a boy, although he’s still grieving the loss of his mother and is worried about his brother off in the Great War.  His dad lets him build a canoe in the house and gives Sterling more freedom than seems wise at times.  He doesn’t even blink at having a baby raccoon thrown into the mix.  Sensibilities have changed, and I doubt a wild animal as a pet would work as well in a middle grade book now, but this kinder, gentler version of family and community life still provides some interesting talking points.  How do you deal with meddling relatives?  How do you decide what’s best for you or a loved one?  How much supervision do kids really need?  Is life just too structured now?  Could you give up your electronic devices for two weeks and just live off the land?  (I’m reading it with a group of 5th graders, and I guess we have to have something to talk about when we’re “discussing” it.  We aren’t the best at staying on task.  Our last book, Number the Stars, revealed some interesting misconceptions about the geography of Denmark, royalty and Nazis, so who knows where the pet raccoon will take us?)

Now if I could just get myself to take another stab at some of that 18th century French literature I should have read in college… 

Rascal by Sterling North

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For friends of Jane

secrets-in-the-snow-coverMurder.  Social climbers.  Love.  Jane Austen references.

Jane Austen is one of my go-to authors if I’ve just had too much of anything – teen drama, fast-moving action thrillers, strange stories that start off one thing and end up another.  Once in a while I enjoy reading the various offshoots of her work, which either use Jane as a character or set stories in the world of her characters.  There are modern romcom versions, graphic novels, zombies.  Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James is a favorite of mine. The Stephanie Barron Jane mysteries and Curtis Sittenfeld’s updated Pride and PrejudiceEligible— are also good examples.

Secrets in the Snow is a new addition to this collection, focusing on a teenaged Jane Austen.  Michaela MacColl has taken bits and pieces of Jane’s life and her books and thrown in a murder, and it works.  There are lies and secrets and love… everything you’d expect.  It’s a good read for a cold, snowy day (which would match the cover) when you need a break from the real world.

Secrets in the Snow by Michaela McColl

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This just isn’t going to end well.

dolssaHeretics. Zealots and inquisitors.  Uppity women and girls in the 13th century.  Recipe for disaster?  Oh boy, yes indeedy.

Dolssa is a young woman whose relationship with Jesus is so intense, he has become real to her.  She can see him, sense him, feel him close to her.  She is a mystic, and not one sanctioned by the church.  She speaks his message to others and quickly lands in trouble with the Church, most particularly with Friar Lucien, an angry and toxic being who believes the only way to end her corrosive influence is to kill her.  She and her mother are sentenced to burn at the stake.

Meanwhile, Botille and her sisters Plazensa and Sazia have finally landed in a town that seems to accept them and their drunk father figure.  They run the tavern, tell fortunes and do a little matchmaking.  They find ways to help out here and there, and they seem to have found a home after many years of instability.

Then these lives intersect.  And really, a happy ending is never all that likely, although there are moments of hope even at the very end.  It’s clear that life for most strong women during the Middle Ages was not easy, because having an opinion or making your own life choices really didn’t fit into the plan the men in charge had for them.  It’s not a quick read, but it’s worth the time it will take you.  There are some really wonderful historical notes at the end of the book which explain the times more fully and provide more resources for anyone interested in learning more.

(As noted in the comments, this book was named a Michael L. Printz  for Excellence in Young Adult Literature Honor book.  The award winner was another favorite, March, Book 3 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell.)

The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry

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Re-reading my personal classics…

Most years, I experience Charlotte’s Web in bits of pieces, since I’m almost always volunteering in Mrs. P’s room just after lunch recess during literature time, and she always reads it to her third graders.  Other books pop up again and again, sometimes because I’ve sought them out, sometimes because the kids at school or the library remind me how wonderful they are.  It’s usually a good experience, since reading them again reconnects me with something from my youth when I first read them.

Because I recently re-read Counting by 7s (by Holly Goldberg Sloan) and The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp (by the always wonderful Kathi Appelt), I’ve been thinking about other books that do the work of capturing moments in my life I want to revisit.  And here they are…

  • A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle) – Whether it’s because of Meg Murry and Charles Wallace, or because it mentions tesseracts and led me into some great science fiction, re-reading this one is always powerful. There is loss – a lot of loss – and being an outsider and trying to figure out what the heck is going on and it all just seems like too much.   It’s both your worst family trip and your best one.  From there, I might head back into When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead or A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver (E.L. Konigsburg) – This somewhat unlikely book for middle graders and teens is about Eleanor of Aquitaine. She’s in heaven, waiting to find out where her second husband, King Henry II of England, will be headed.  How does this seem like something that would have fascinated me when I was young?  It’s Eleanor.  Well, Eleanor and the great writing, which made these long-dead historical figures seem real to me.  Reading about her made me think more critically about women and power and history, which could conceivably have pushed me in several directions that affected real-life choices for me.  After reading this one, I like to move on to biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt or other lesser-known rad women.  (See this blog post for more.)
  • The Dark is Rising sequence (Susan Cooper). This series actually starts with Over Sea, Under Stone, and I have to admit that I haven’t re-read it lately, so who knows what I’ll think of it now?  (I know I’ll still love it.) However, it was fantasy in the time before Harry Potter, and brought together a bunch of kids into a fight between Dark and Light, complete with connections to Arthurian legends and other fun stuff.  The Dark was really dark, and there were wizards, and that’s all you need to know if you haven’t read them.  I remember dreaming myself into the stories when I was a kid, and then thinking about what my mind made them into while I was at school the next day.  What an excellent use of “quiet work” time!

I’m sure there are more, many more.  Some books hold up better than others over the years.  Some characters remind you of who you used to be, and others connect with you in new ways.  It’s all good.

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A twist in a tale

snow-whiteWith updated fairy tales out in space (Interstellar Cinderella), full of cyborgs (Cinder) and rad girls (The Sleeper and the Spindle), you might think we don’t really need more of the genre.  However, the beauty of the classic folk tale is that there are so many directions you can go – times, places, settings.

Matt Phelan’s take on Snow White is set before and  during the Great Depression, which might not initially seem like a good fit.  But really, he doesn’t even have to work hard to get you to buy into it.  Snow is the daughter of a wealthy man who remarries just before the Crash, the seven little men are street kids, and the prince is a police detective.  It all falls together perfectly, and there’s a happy ending.  Along the way, I loved the way the characters’ facial expressions and simple language actually made the story feel bigger.  It works on many levels, and I think it can be enjoyed that way, too.

Snow White: a graphic novel by Matt Phelan

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