So Many Beginnings by Bethany C. Morrow

So Many Beginnings

Information

Goodreads: So Many Beginnings
Series: None (but part of the Remixed Classics line)
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

It’s 1863 and the American Civil War is at its midpoint as four sisters and their mother work to make a life for themselves in the Freedmen’s Colony at Roanoke Island. There’s Meg, a teacher who longs to be a mother. Jo, a young woman with a way with words. Beth, a talented seamstress. And Amy, an aspiring dancer. Life is not easy, but the girls support each other through it all.

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Review

So Many Beginnings is a fascinating retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in that it takes inspiration from Alcott’s work, but chooses to tell a story all its own. While the basic idea is the same–four sisters are coming of age during the Civil War–almost everything else has changed. Readers cannot expect to see similar incidents in the book, even of something as vague as a failed picnic or a party gone awry, nor can they expect the romances to follow the same patterns. This is a wholly new tale with wholly new characters. It is one, however, that seems almost more concerned with getting history right than it seems concerned with telling a story.

Like many works of historical fiction published today, So Many Beginnings is eager to teach its readers about the proper way to view the past. In so doing, it sometimes feels anachronistic. The characters cannot be presented as actual people from the 1860s because readers might mistakenly think that their views, which are now considered outdated or even offensive, are something they should agree with. So the book is full of characters musing about how to interpret certain moments in history or even brief mentions of things like “therapy” for soldiers–even though PTSD was not recognized or treated in quite the same way as it is now–because educating impressionable readers is the focus of the book.

Many readers will likely enjoy the informative aspects of the book. The Freedmen’s Colony on Roanoke Island is not necessarily a part of history taught in schools, so Morrow takes care to bring it to the forefront. The characters have many conversations about what is happening, how they see the Union as failing them, and how they wish well-meaning white folks would actually listen to them–the people living there–and give them agency. Jo also begins a newsletter about the colony, with excerpts periodically provided in the book. Readers may just be inspired by all the information to keep on researching this overlooked part of history.

The characters, however, seem to fall a bit by the wayside during the story. And, in a seeming effort to make the book happier, Morrow removes much of the conflict that makes the original characters come alive. Here, Jo does not feel sorrow at potentially losing Meg to a suitor, but whole-heartedly supports her in getting married. Jo does not even feel much annoyance at Amy (Amethyst), who is made more winning and less insufferable. Beth (Bethlehem), as in apparently every retelling of Little Women, does not die and actually has more confidence and vision for a future life than any of the other characters. The picture is of a loving, supportive family who almost never disagree or have any problems. Any slight disturbances they feel are quickly forgiven and forgotten. It makes the family seem ideal, yes, but what is Jo without a temper and without the fear of losing her sisters? What is Amy without her pride and desire for wealth? Conflict and flaws are what makes a story interesting.

Even the writing style proves a bit disappointing. The sentences often seem stilted. Unusual word orders occur frequenly, making it necessary to reread parts to gain understanding. And Jo, who is supposed to be a magician with words, talks in an overly elaborate and formal way that seems more awkward than anything else.

I had been looking forward to this retelling for months, but I have to admit that I found the reading experience a bit lackluster. I enjoyed learning more about history, but did not find the story itself engaging, and had trouble deciphering some of the prose. It is worth checking out for readers who enjoy historical fiction and who want to learn more about the Freedmen’s Colony at Roanoke Island. But a nonfiction book would likely work just as well, with the benefit that readers will not be expecting more than a factual account.

3 Stars

Turtle in Paradise: The Graphic Novel by Jennifer L. Holm & Savanna Ganucheau

Turtle in  Paradise Graphic Novel

Information

Goodreads: Turtle in Paradise: The Graphic Novel
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

Life isn’t like the movies. But then again, 11-year-old Turtle is no Shirley Temple.

She’s smart and tough and has seen enough of the world not to expect a Hollywood ending. After all, it’s 1935 and jobs and money and sometimes even dreams are scarce. So when Turtle’s mama gets a job housekeeping for a lady who doesn’t like kids, Turtle says goodbye without a tear and heads off to Key West, Florida, to live with relatives she’s never met. Florida’s like nothing Turtle’s ever seen before though. It’s hot and strange, full of ragtag boy cousins, family secrets, scams, and even buried pirate treasure! Before she knows what’s happened, Turtle finds herself coming out of the shell she’s spent her life building, and as she does, her world opens up in the most unexpected ways. Filled with adventure, humor and heart, Turtle in Paradise is an instant classic both boys and girls will love.

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Review

I have not read the original novel on which this graphic novel is based, so I cannot compare the two or judge how well Turtle in Paradise succeeds as an adaptation. As a graphic novel for tweens, however, I expect it will succeed very well. The illustrations are colorful and appealing, while the unique historical setting will no doubt interest readers. I enjoyed Turtle in Paradise, and heartily wish there were a sequel!

Though I not read the original novel for this particular book, I have read a fair number of graphic novel adaptations and I can guess how this one might veer away from its source material. The chapters seem more like vignettes than like connected parts of a whole. And some of the darker matter–Turtle’s inability to stay with her dreamer mother, her mom’s estrangement from her own mother, an apparent lost love, the poverty of the inhabitants of Key West–are only hinted at, ever explored. I imagine that the original novel expands upon the ways in which Turtle’s mom fails to be a reliable parent due to her dreaminess and naivete, and that it explores Turtle’s family background more in-depth. However, the fact that book seems to gloss over a lot of the negative aspects does not have to be a negative for the book itself. Rather, it makes the graphic novel into an almost idyllic look at a lost way of life.

A great deal of the charm of this book comes from the clear love the creators have for Key West and the research they performed to depict a community from the 1930s. Turtle and her friends have fascinating adventures as they hunt for buried treasure, fish for sponges in the sea, and agree to babysit crying infants in exchange for candy (since no one has money with which to pay them). They meet characters such as an alleged rum runner, and a smooth-talking encyclopedia salesman. The book is a homage to a bygone era and, though some parts of life are clearly difficult, the characters never seem to dwell on things like their inability to buy shoes or the need for their relatives to find work far away from home. Instead, they go about their lives, finding fun and friendship where they can.

Turtle in Paradise is a charming read, the kind that draws readers into its world, making it feel real and immediate. I enjoyed reading about Turtle and her friends immensely, and I never wanted the story to end. I would love to return to Turtle’s Key West one day–and I only hope that Jennifer L. Holm decides to write more of her adventures!

4 stars

Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee

Luck of the Titanic

Information

Goodreads: Luck of the Titanic
Series: None
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2021

Official Summary

From the critically acclaimed author of The Downstairs Girl comes the richly imagined story of Valora and Jamie Luck, twin British – Chinese acrobats traveling aboard the Titanic on its ill fated maiden voyage.

Southampton, 1912: Seventeen-year-old British-Chinese Valora Luck has quit her job and smuggled herself aboard the Titanic with two goals in mind: to reunite with her twin brother Jamie–her only family now that both their parents are dead–and to convince a part-owner of the Ringling Brothers Circus to take the twins on as acrobats. Quick-thinking Val talks her way into opulent firstclass accommodations and finds Jamie with a group of fellow Chinese laborers in third class. But in the rigidly stratified world of the luxury liner, Val’s ruse can only last so long, and after two long years apart, it’s unclear if Jamie even wants the life Val proposes. Then, one moonless night in the North Atlantic, the unthinkable happens–the supposedly unsinkable ship is dealt a fatal blow–and Val and her companions suddenly find themselves in a race to survive.

Stacey Lee, master of historical fiction, brings a fresh perspective to an infamous tragedy, loosely inspired by the recently uncovered account of six Titanic survivors of Chinese descent.

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Review

Inspired by the lost stories of eight Chinese passengers on the Titanic, Luck of the Titanic brings a new perspective to a well-known tale. The book centers around teenaged Valora Luck, a girl in search of a new life in the United States after her employer dies. Her plan is simple: pretend her employer is still alive, board the Titanic as a servant, find her twin brother Jamie (who is working at sea), convince him to try out for the circus with her, and then go to America. Unfortunately, however, Valora has never heard of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which 30 years earlier had barred the immigration of Chinese workers to the U.S. and prevented Chinese individuals from obtaining citizenship. Still, undeterred, Valora hatches a daring plan to impersonate her employer and also try out for a part-owner of the Ringling Brothers. The premise is fun and will appeal to readers who enjoy historical fiction focused on the relationships between the classes.

Although Luck of the Titanic is, of course, another Titanic book, the most interesting parts of the story arguably occur before the ship hits the iceberg. Valora may not be very good about coming up with solid plans, but she is determined and daring. It is entertaining to watch her impersonate her former employer, hiding behind a veil and pretending to be a grieving widow. She, of course, make allies in order to keep up the charade, and ends up wearing clothes to advertise an up-and-coming designer also on board–a plot point that helps to highlight the glamour of being a first-class passenger on board a luxury ship. Readers will revel in the details of all the elegance the lucky few were able to enjoy.

However, because Valora also must visit her brother and his friends in third class, Valora gives readers a unique window into the relationship between the classes on board. When she appears in first class behind her veil as an assumed white woman, Valora is treated with respect and gets to experience fine dining and other luxuries. When she disguises herself as a Chinese man, however, she experiences both classism and racism. Things as simple as requesting that the waiter bring bread to the table become a struggle. Her struggles highlight the challenges that the third class passengers faced to be treated with dignity, even on board a ship they had paid to be on. Readers no doubt will think of plenty of parallels in the modern-day world, where some still struggle to be treated equally.

Valora’s wild plans both to keep up her disguises and to try to convince her reluctant brother to join the circus with her are what really keep the plot engaging (even if Valora herself can come across at time as a bit self-centered). Once the ship actually hits the iceberg and the story becomes one of survival, the book begins to struggle a bit. Titanic stories have been done many times, and it can be difficult to make the story feel new, even with all its tragedy. Frankly, I kind of stopped caring about the plot once the characters just started running in circles around the ship. Even the ending failed to move me, though I recognize that it is probably supposed to part of some great character revelation for Valora.

Ultimately, however, Luck of the Titanic is an engaging novel sure to delight readers looking for a historical fiction that focuses on the little-known tales of the past. The interesting premise, combined with Valora’s amusing disguises and subterfuges, will keep readers turning pages, even if they know how it all must end.

4 stars

The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed

The Black Kids

Information

Goodreads: The Black Kids
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Official Summary

This coming-of-age debut novel explores issues of race, class, and violence through the eyes of a wealthy black teenager whose family gets caught in the vortex of the 1992 Rodney King Riots. Ashley Bennett and her friends are living the charmed life. It’s the end of senior year. Everything changes one afternoon in April, when four LAPD officers are acquitted after beating a black man named Rodney King half to death. Suddenly, Ashley’s not just one of the girls. She’s one of the black kids.

As violent protests engulf LA and the city burns, Ashley tries to continue on as if life were normal. With her world splintering around her, Ashley, along with the rest of LA, is left to question who is the us? And who is the them?

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Review

The Black Kids is a beautifully written novel that explores one girl’s coming of age in a time of turmoil. Ashley Bennett is a senior in high school enjoying many of the perks that come with wealth, while largely ignoring the problems of the outside world. After the death of Rodney King, however, the kids at school, as well as some of Ashley’s family members, begin speaking up about the injustices they see happening around them. Ashley would not mind continuing living in blissful ignorance, but it becomes increasingly difficult as people she knows are swept up into the protests and the riots. The Black Kids is a sensitive and an empathetic look at finding and claiming one’s identity in an increasingly uncertain world.

The Black Kids brings a fresh perspective to YA literature as it draws attention to issues of the present by focusing on events in the past. Set in the 1990s, the book is technically historical fiction, but, sadly, it feels like a story that could have just as easily been set in 2021. With one simple narrative choice, Christina Hammonds Reed makes a powerful statement about American society, encouraging readers to reflect on what exactly has changed–and what has not.

This thought-provoking start proves just one savvy choice among many as the book progresses. In Ashley, Reed gives readers a compelling protagonist who initially seems privileged due to her wealth, her school, her neighborhood, and her friends. Ashley herself sees no need to think too far beyond the fun she’s planning to have in her senior year of high school, and readers soon learn that she is the type of girl who does not mind trespassing in someone else’s pool or even stealing someone else’s boyfriend if it means she will have a good time. However, though Ashley could easily have been written as a disagreeable protagonist, she mostly feels realistic and she manages to capture readers’ empathy despite her poor choices. In some way, this may be because Ashley can work as a stand-in for readers: initially blissfully ignorant, not too concerned with current events, assuming the problems around her are someone else’s–but ultimately realizing injustice affects her, too. In other words, Ashley is not necessarily a bad person, but she is someone who could be more thoughtful–just like so many of us.

Ashley’s character is incredibly rich, giving the story a wonderful depth and nuance as she tries to navigate her identity even as the people and the events around her threaten to change her understanding of it. She begins as content to hang out with the rich white girls in her school, but ends up realizing that she is also connected in important ways to other people: her sister, a college dropout trying to change the world; her uncle and her cousin, still trying to save and live off a vacuum repair business in an age when repairs are obsolete; the cute boy at school, who needs a scholarship. Initially, Ashley does not really relate to people who are always getting upset about current events or who aren’t as wealthy as she is. She ends by understanding that her identity can be so much bigger than she realized, and that she’s part of a larger community.

The Black Kids would be a standout novel just from the rich story and characterization, but Reed also gives readers a genuinely amazing reading experience through her evocative prose. The narration has a sort of artsy feeling to it, but not the kind that can confuse readers or make them feel like they don’t understand what is happening. Rather, the narration reflects a bit of Ashley’s thought processes, as she seeks to make sense of the world around her, and its relation to her past, as well as her present and her future.

The Black Kids is a beautifully written novel with a powerful story focused on friendship, family, and identity, along with a vibrant protagonist. It is a standout novel, and one certain to stay with its readers.

5 stars

A Ceiling Made of Eggshells by Gail Carson Levine

A Ceiling Made of Eggshells

Information

Goodreads: A Ceiling Made of Eggshells
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: May 2020

Summary

Paloma (Loma) lives in the judería of Alcalá de Henares, where she dreams of one day becoming a mother and having children of her own. But her abuelo wants her to travel with him, to see the king and the queen of Spain, and to help Jews across the country. Loma agrees, because her abuelo insists it is for the good of the Jews. But, as the years pass, she wonders if she will have to give up her dream forever.

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Review

Gail Carson Levine’s latest book, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, is a historical fiction set in the Spain of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. It follows young Paloma–known as Loma to her family–from the age of eight to the age of sixteen, as she travels with her grandfather, a man who works tirelessly for the good of the Jews. Unfortunately, it is difficult to discern what age range this book is meant to appeal to, and the characterization of Loma is not strong enough to make her seem particularly interesting. A Ceiling Made of Eggshells does draw attention to a period of history not often covered in middle grade books. However, while the premise is intriguing, the execution ultimately falls short.

A Ceiling Made of Eggshells has a slow start, covering the days as they pass Loma by in the (relative) safety of her home. The plague visits her family and she witnesses some anti-Semitic action in the neighborhood. As a child, however, she is mostly concerned with the household, and obsessed with her all-consuming desire to one day be a mother and have children of her own. To that end, she always volunteers to look after her nieces and nephews, as well as her mother’s new babies. This peace is finally interrupted when her abuelo declares Loma a smart girl who must travel with him “for the good of the Jews.”

Here the book exhibits a flaw: Loma’s grandfather insists she is unusual and that her traveling with him is of the utmost necessity. However, as the book progresses over eight years, Loma exhibits no incredible talents, no quick thinking, no exceptional intelligence–until the final chapters of the book. Most of the time, it is unclear why she is traveling at all. The reality is simply that her abuelo likes having her around; Loma is not doing anything directly to help her people, except being a comfort to her important relative.

This dynamic introduces the main conflict of the story. Loma desires to have children, but her grandfather insists that her “work” with him is more important. I think readers will largely appreciate Loma’s selflessness, her desire to do good for others. Unfortunately, to build up this conflict, Levine relies on one of her signature writing moves: the constant repetition of a single trait to define a culture or a character. In this case, Levine wishes to define Loma as child-loving, so Loma spends the entire book obsessing over children. She notes every time she sees one, every time she wishes to speak with one, every time she gets to share a bed with one on her travels. A lot of people like children and many people want to have children. But I don’t know anyone who can’t see a child pass by in the street without obsessing over their extreme desire to be wed and finally be a mother. It’s just…weird.

Because the book covers eight years, it is a little difficult to determine who the audience is. Loma starts out as an eight-year-old and ends as a teenager. She starts as a naïve child who believes in magic amulets and ends as an almost-woman who worries over what unsavory men might do to her on her travels. Annoyingly, however, despite this change, her voice remains exactly the same throughout the book. One can only assume Loma is meant to be narrating years later, though this is never specified. This large gap, along with the slow pacing of the story, makes the book rather unusual for the modern market. Older titles such as Little Women have covered the transition from girlhood to womanhood, of course, but I cannot say that A Ceiling Made of Eggshells does so with the same fluidity.

Ultimately, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells will probably appeal to readers who love Gail Carson Levine and readers looking for a historical fiction set in Spain–something not commonly found on the market today. However, I admit that, even though I am a fan of Levine, I do not believe A Ceiling Made of Eggshells lives up to her previous works like Ella Enchanted or The Two Princesses of Bamarre. It was interesting to see what Levine is up to today, but I am not overly impressed.

3 Stars

I Will Repay by Baroness Orczy

Information

Goodreads: I Will Repay
Series: Scarlet Pimpernel Publication Order #2 (Chronological #3)
Source: Library
Published: 1906

Summary

Ten years ago, Juliette Marny swore an oath to ruin the man who killed her brother. But then she falls in love with her sworn enemy. Can she risk her soul–and that of her brother’s–to protect the man she loves?

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Review

This melodramatic sequel to The Scarlet Pimpernel is just the kind of high stakes, over-the-top drama I expect from a Baroness Orczy title. Young Juliette Marny has sworn an oath to her now-dead father to avenge the death of her brother by ruining the man who took his life. But, when she meets the man, Paul Déroulède, ten years later, she unexpectedly finds him to be a good man–one whom she loves. Juliette then has to decide. Is it right to be the cause of a good man’s death? Is it wrong to break an oath sworn to God Himself? I Will Repay is a riveting story, sure to please readers who enjoy a book that never takes itself too seriously.

The plot of I Will Repay is all very contrived, of course, and perhaps modern readers will not feel as strongly as Juliette the gravity of breaking an oath that so obviously seems perverse. However, Orczy tries to let readers into the mind of Juliette, suggesting that her youth, combined with a Catholic fervency, has primed Juliette to be extremely impressionable, especially to heighted emotions and circumstances. She has sworn an oath that asks her brother’s soul never to find peace if she does not ruin the man who killed him. Naturally, if she believes this oath to be true, she will be hesitant to break it, even for the man she loves.

Juliette’s battling emotions are the backdrop against which the story is set, and they find a fitting counterpart in the heightened emotions following the French Revolution. The country has essentially been given over to mob rule, and Juliette and Paul must figure out how to offend no one, even though their wealth and lineage mark them as prime enemies of the state. Their balancing act adds yet another layer of drama to the story, and sets the stage for the entrance of the Scarlet Pimpernel, that bold Englishman who snatches men and women from the jaws of the guillotine.

Readers who enjoy Sir Percy may be disappointed to find that he plays only a small role in I Will Repay, but, for me, the focus on new characters is part of what makes the story interesting. Juliette and Paul’s little drama somewhat mirrors that of Percy’s and Marguerite’s in the first book. Orczy loves a star-crossed romance, and she truly puts Paul’s love to the test as he must decide whether the woman who betrayed his trust is worthy of forgiveness. This journey proves important for the story, however, which can read as a little dated with its depiction of men and women. Juliette’s fall from grace serves to take Juliette down from the pedestal Paul has placed her on and show her to be a living, breathing human with flaws.

Baroness Orczy specializes in dramatic action stories, where everything seems just a little over the top. However, her ability to write dynamic characters, combined with a fast-paced plot full of danger and romance makes her storytelling absolutely riveting. Some may find the gender stereotypes depicted off-putting. However, if one is willing to accept that Orczy was writing in a different historical context, her instinct for drama is second to none.

4 stars

Loretta Little Looks Back: Three Voices Go Tell It by Andrea Davis Pinkney, Ill. by Brian Pinkney

Loretta Little Looks Back

Information

Goodreads: Loretta Little Looks Back
Series: None
Source: Received from publisher in exchange for an honest review
Published: September 2020

Summary

Three children narrate their experiences growing up under the sharecropping system from 1927 to 1968. Illustrated by Caldecott honoree Brian Pinkney.

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Review

Loretta Little Looks Back is a moving account of one family’s history from sharecropping to mobilizing to help people register to vote. Spanning the years from 1927-1968, it begins with Loretta’s account of picking cotton and ends with her niece Aggie B’s experiences with SNCC and the Civil Rights Movement. Bridging their stories is Loretta’s brother Roly, a boy who likes to move slowly and take his time. His daughter’s boldness, however, will show him that, sometimes, the time to take action is now. Told in a multimedia format with spoken word poetry, first-person narratives inspired by oral history, and stage directions, Loretta Little Looks Back is an immersive story that asks the readers to sit back, listen, and learn.

The narration is one of the most powerful elements of the book, bringing Loretta, Roly, and Aggie B’s stories to life through their distinctive voices. Each one gives their own perspective on how racism affects their lives, from Loretta’s days spent picking cotton for a man who never honors his agreements to Roly’s inability to make his farm successful, due to vengeful neighbors, to Aggie’s determination that unjust laws will not stop her from registering her family and friends to vote. Though they face many hardships, each one perseveres in the best way they know how, ultimately making the story one of hope and personal triumph. Readers will be inspired the characters’ strength and determination, as well as their love and care for one another.

Andrea Davis Pinkey presents an important story that focuses on a little-taught moment of U.S. history, the Jim Crow era. Readers of historical fiction will want to pick up this book to learn more about the lives of Black Americans during this time period. The end note explains that the book is based on real events, inspired by interviews and oral histories given about individuals’ experiences under the sharecropping system. References to real historical figures and events add to the educational aspect of the work. Readers who want to know more about these figures can refer to the end matter, which includes several historical notes as well as a bibliography for further reading.

Loretta Little Looks Back delivers a unique reading experience that will draw readers into Loretta, Roly, and Aggie B’s story. The heartbreak of living under a system designed to keep them down is palpable in their words, but so are their everyday delights and triumphs. Readers searching for a historical fiction sure to have an impact will want to pick up Andrea Davis Pinkey’s work.

4 stars

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Little House in the Big Woods

Information

Goodreads: Little House in the Big Woods
Series: Little House #1
Source: Library
Published: 1932

Summary

It’s 1871 and four-year-old Laura Ingalls is growing up in the Big Woods in Wisconsin in a log cabin. Join her and her family for many fun adventures!

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Review

I cannot remember the last time I read the Little House books, but I knew I wanted to return to them. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series is beloved by many, even as some argue that they should no longer be taught in schools because they focus on a white family unrepentantly moving west onto the lands of Native Americans. Others take offense at the ways in which the books depict the white character’s views of Native Americans. I did not remember any of this from when I read the series as a child. I, presumably like many, simply recalled that the books focus on a little girl growing up on the prairie–a lifestyle that continues to intrigue with how different it is from life in the United States today.

Upon my reread of the first book in the series, Little House in the Big Woods, I was struck immediately by how little dialogue the story contains. Even though Laura is the protagonist, readers hear very little from her. Instead, they are treated to scene after scene of growing up in the wilderness. Readers learn how to churn butter, how to thresh wheat, how to prepare a log cabin for the winter, and so on. Chapters are very often simply detailed explanations of what would have been common practices for settlers in the West. Writing in the 1930s, however, Wilder clearly knew that her childhood and its way of life was a thing of the past–and she tries to preserve it in the pages of her book.

This is exactly what I imagine has drawn many readers to the Little House series. Wilder presents what appears to be a simpler way of life, attractive in its “naturalness” and its “connection to the earth.” Even though it is clear that Ma and Pa work hard, and get very little time to relax, Wilder, too, is evidently enchanted by the settler lifestyle. She admires her mother at work hulling corn, learns to make straw hats by watching her Ma, and celebrates simple moments like listening to her father play the fiddle or getting a rag doll for her birthday. She also emphasizes her family’s values, insisting that children should work hard, be obedient, and never lie. If they do misbehave, they certainly deserve what’s coming to them. Even though life in the Big Woods is by no means easy, Wilder writes as if it somehow uncomplicated and therefore ideal. No wonder readers still like to imagine they are going on adventures with young Laura!

Readers may be wondering, however, if every book in the series is unapologetically racist. In this one Pa sings a song with lyrics that readers today will no longer find appropriate. Native Americans, however, are largely missing from this particular book. What some readers find inexcusable about the series is not always how Native Americans are presented, but sometimes the fact that Laura and her family are settled on land that first belonged to the Native Americans–and they don’t care. Some readers would prefer that the books present something other than white history and that they acknowledge that the Wilders are settled on stolen land. From a historical perspective, it is not surprising that Laura Ingalls Wilder did not seem to hold these same views. However, readers looking for a book set on the prairie that discusses more of the history of westward expansion, and that presents Native Americans in a positive light, can check out Linda Sue Park’s new middle grade novel Prairie Lotus instead.

At its heart, Little House in the Big Woods seems written primarily to serve as a record of a little girl growing up in the west in the late 1800s. In this respect, I think it succeeds very well. The book serves as a historical testament, not only to a way of life, but also to a way of thinking. Parts of the book will be uncomfortable and offensive. But the book does force Americans to confront the past unfiltered. And that confrontation can open a way to change.

4 stars

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park

Information

Goodreads: Prairie Lotus
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

It’s the Dakota Territory in the 1880s and Hanna is looking forward to settling down in a new town. Her dream is to graduate high school and then open her own dress shop. But people east of California are unaccustomed to having a half-Chinese girl in her midst. Hanna will have to be strong if she wants to make friends and forge a new life.

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Review

Prairie Lotus is Linda Sue Park’s response to the popular Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which, though popular, has recently come under fire for depicting racist views towards Native Americans, especially through the character of Laura’s mother. Set in 1880 in the Dakota Territory, Prairie Lotus follows Hanna, a half-Chinese girl, as she attempts to build a life for herself in a new town, even though many of the residents do not welcome her. The book provides a valuable new perspective into a little-told part of history.

Prairie Lotus seeks, in a sense, to open up the historical record by pointing out that many Chinese immigrants were present in the United States in the 1880s. Though the book acknowledges many were present in California, and fewer made it far east, Park explains how she grew up reading Wilder’s books and imagining herself playing with Laura and having adventures on the prairie. The only problem was, Asian people were not likely to be welcomed, or treated fairly, in such a setting or such a time. So she wrote a book to explore one girl’s story on the prairie.

Prairie Lotus describes the prejudice a girl like Hanna would have faced in the late nineteenth century in the Dakota Territory. It also, however, seeks to correct Wilder’s books by depicting Native Americans in a more positive, and more culturally correct, light. Park’s Native Americans are women and children, with whom Hanna connects and whom she seeks to protect against the law. She feels strongly that their land has been stolen from them and that they are wronged, just like her (though she admits she herself is living on their stolen land). So she learns more about them. This is admittedly not a viewpoint many Western settlers were likely to have held, but modern readers would probably object to having a main character espouse views we today find repugnant. Park has other characters, such as Hanna’s father, espouse more disagreeable views, much like Laura’s mother held views Laura herself seemed to disagree with.

Park details some of her research about her Native American characters at the end of the book, explaining why she felt it was important to include their language as a counterpoint to depictions of Native Americans in which they speak only pidgin or broken English. She also notes she had readers correct her depictions prior to publication, explaining to her that her characters should point with their lips and not their fingers. Readers who were hoping for a more sensitive depiction of Native Americans will be heartened to know that Park tried to do the work to provide that.

The story itself will likely draw in readers who love Wilder’s books or books set during Western expansion. Hanna is a likable character easy to cheer on and there are plenty of interesting details about prairie life to satisfy those who, like Park, dream themselves into their own nineteenth century adventures. So, if you are looking for new historical fiction to delight and engage you, don’t hesitate to pick up Prairie Lotus.

4 stars

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange

Information

Goodreads: Our Castle by the Sea
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2019

Summary

Eleven-year-old Pet’s world is turned upside down when WWII begins and her small community accuses her German-born mother of providing the enemy with maps of the coast. With her mother now in an internment camp, Pet is determined to uncover the real traitor in their midst.

Star Divider

Review

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange has an almost classic feel to it.  It recalls an older style of writing, when stories were somewhat slower-paced and focused more on introspection and the coming-of-age of the characters, rather than on fast-paced plots.  Readers who used to edge-of-their-seat excitement, as well as twists and turns, may find it difficult to adjust. However, those who love a good character-driven story with a hint of mystery will find much to enjoy in Strange’s sophomore novel.

Describing the feeling of Our Castle by the Sea almost seems like a challenge, even though it is simultaneously obvious to me actually what it evokes.  It is reminiscent of children’s books published in the 80s and 90s, in which the protagonist had to solve a mystery that is not quite a mystery.  That is, the protagonist spends a bit of time spying and some time trying to find evidence, but, altogether, things just sort of happen to her until the truth is revealed.  The truth seems almost a little too out of left field, but also necessary because, really there are not very many characters who could be in the culprit, in the end.  I suppose readers who have read these books will know what I mean.  Others will have to accept that my main point is that Our Castle by the Sea feels like it might have been written twenty years ago–but that is something that makes it feel new and fresh, rather than outdated.

Perhaps the older feeling is due in part to the fact that historical fiction used to be far more popular.  Now everything is fantasy, with a bit of contemporary thrown in, but, back in the day, one could expect a wealth of novels such as this, set in earlier times. WWII books are, of course, perennially popular, and so I can easily imagine Our Castle by the Sea coming out decades ago, teaching young readers about prejudice and how to fight it.

Our Castle by the Sea will appeal to readers who enjoy reflective, character-driven stories, as well as those who love historical fiction.

4 stars