Goodreads: Wonder at the Edge of the World
Source: Shelf Awareness?
Publication Date: April 14, 2015
In this captivating quest that spans the globe, a young girl must challenge her assumptions about family, slavery, and friendship as she fights to save her father’s legacy…and to begin creating her own.
Hallelujah Wonder wants to become one of the first female scientists of the nineteenth century. Her father was a scientist and explorer, but his life was cruelly cut short by an evil Navy captain who coveted his cache of artifacts. Hallelujah feels a great responsibility to protect the objects–particularly a mesmerizing (and dangerous) one called the Medicine Head–before the captain can succeed. Now she and her best friend, a slave boy about to be sold, must set out on a sweeping adventure by land and by sea to the only place where no one will ever be able to find the cursed talisman: the forbidding land of Antarctica.
Wonder at the Edge of the World relates the adventures of a nineteenth century American girl who wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and became a famous explorer/scientist. Her story is set against a backdrop of a swarm of troubles; in addition to dealing with her father’s death and the dangerous magical artifact he left behind, she has to face the violence of Bleeding Kansas, the moral dilemmas of slavery, and the harsh realities of whaling. The book strives to treat all these issues with the nuance and delicacy they deserve; ultimately, however, I cannot decide whether the book is too complicated or too simplistic, too offensive or too careful. It often seems to present both sides of an issue, only to swerve into a scene of didacticism much later on.
For me, these issues overshadow much of the adventure of the book. While reading, I was too concerned with slavery, violence, whaling, and the ethics of collecting artifacts from foreign lands to be fully immersed in the story. At first, I was simply quite pleased to find a book that doesn’t draw black and white lines that say, “The good people are abolitionists. The bad ones are slave owners.” Lu refreshingly didn’t have too much of an agenda on this issue. She’s an abolitionist primarily because her parents are, not out of personal conviction. By the end of the novel, however, putting an end to slavery is a primary goal in her life.
Lu also ends up preaching on a host of other issues she previously didn’t pay much mind to. On one level, this is just character development. Lu goes on an adventure and sees the world and learns new things. Watching a whale get killed understandably quenches some of her excitement about whale oil and its status as the best lighting oil in the world. That’s great. Her worldview is more nuanced. It becomes annoying primarily because she directs a speech at the readers telling them they, too, should learn where their favorite products come from and should try not to be too wasteful.
Of course, being a know-it-all is simply part of Lu’s character. At first, I actually enjoyed her personality. I imagine a girl would have to be somewhat pig-headed if she took it into her mind she was going to get on a whaler, sale to Antarctica, and become a famous scientist in the nineteenth century. Rational, more socially adept girls would possibly never conceive of this idea. Also, her condescension is bearable when it is directed towards other characters. Lu seems to be aware herself that she can be a bit overbearing, and occasionally tries to tone it down, for the sake of friendship.
Often, however, Lu directs her know-it-all attitude toward the readers, and this is where I resented her. I imagine my age plays a role. It’s irritating to be told by a small child I probably don’t know all the things she does and probably don’t have all the cool experiences she does. (Yes, I have met someone who’s been to Antarctica, Lu, thanks for asking.) However, some of her supposedly impressive facts should be common knowledge even for the intended audience of the novel (8-12 years old). I learned in first grade about Native Americans and Christopher Columbus, so I doubt a middle school reader would be amused either when Lu asserts she bets that the reader doesn’t know Native Americans were in the US before Europeans.
Personal issues aside, I do think the book has some redeeming characteristics. It pays close attention to historical detail and really does evoke a sense of the nineteenth century. When not narrated directly from Lu’s point of view, most people, events, and beliefs are given a fair and objective portrayal. Nothing is really black and white, even when Lu herself thinks it is.
Although the adventure plot line is somewhat winding, leading readers though the disparate settings of Kansas, Massachusetts, a whaling ship, and Antarctica, all the settings are painstakingly built. The quest itself doesn’t make a lot of sense, nor the way the magical artifact works. It has an illogical origin story and seems to function suspiciously like the One Ring, except it needs to not be destroyed, just permanently lost. However, I don’t think young readers will be too picky about any of this.
Wonder at the Edge of the World is interesting, but ultimately just troublesome to me. I just can’t figure out what to make of most of the moral issues it raises. I almost wish this were an adult book, as then maybe Helget would have felt freer to tackle them more completely. The adventure part is great, and the idea of the scientifically minded prairie girl, but somehow all the pieces don’t fall cleanly. I’d still recommend this book to anyone interested in it, but with more puzzlement than exuberance.