Confessions & Confusions

Unreliable narrators in fiction make for some fascinating reading, and what could be more unreliable than a confession? Strangely, I happened to read two such novels recently.

The first is a teen novel that I hadn’t had on my to-read list until it won a Printz Honor: The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry. I had heard the Printz buzz around this book, but it never sounded that appealing to me.  I mean, it is set in the 1200’s and is about religion/faith/miracles. The description just never grabbed me. But once I finally gave it a chance, I was engrossed from the very beginning. The book uses many voices to tell the story, but the primary storyteller is Botille, whose confession about what happened twenty-six years ago with regard to the heretic Dolssa is full of layers as she protects the people she cares about from the Inquisitors. What really happened and what is Botille’s invention for the Inquisitor is up for debate and that is only a part of what makes this book interesting.

The second is another historical novel—published for adults—set in the 1920’s: The Other Typist. I picked up this book because of my interest in the time period, especially women’s lives at that time. I really wasn’t expecting this strange (though not necessarily in a bad way) story that left me wondering what really happened even after I finished reading. The reader knows from almost the very beginning that things don’t end well for our main character, and the story isn’t suspenseful so much as it is filled with foreboding in a way that kept me reading despite knowing that bad things were bound to happen. Don’t get me wrong, it takes a while to get there. It is a confession after all, and it takes time to get to the juicy parts of any confession, as our narrator well knows from her employment as a typist at a police station where her job is to record and type confessions.  If you can stick with the story to the end, you’ll be left fitting the pieces of Rose’s story together to determine what you think really happened.

Both of these books were engrossing in a way that surprised me. They each ended up being yet another reminder to myself to be open in my reading choices. Hey Self: Even if a book isn’t what you were expecting or if it doesn’t seem immediately appealing, give it a chance. You might be surprised.

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Inspired by a true story

audancity“Inspired by a true story.” These were like magic words to me as a teen reader. I loved reading about real historical figures and events, but nonfiction never kept my interest. So most of my knowledge of history came from historical novels. As a teen I couldn’t get enough of novelized versions of kings’ and queens’ lives, of wars and tragedies, and whatever else I could find.

I still love historical fiction, but I have since learned that you can’t take everything you read in a historical novel as historical fact. Yes, I did learn this the hard way. Yes, it was embarrassing at the time.

Fortunately, these days there is plenty of nonfiction about historical people and events that don’t read like a textbook. I assure you that I have actually managed to occasionally glean some facts from reliable sources on occasion, but I am particularly delighted when historical fiction brings the reliable sources to me by way of back matter that differentiates fact from fiction. Audacity by Melanie Crowder is probably the best example of this that I have found. It’s a novel in verse that fictionalizes the life of Clara Lemlich, a union activist in the early 1900’s.  The book is extremely compelling even without knowledge of Clara Lemlich’s life, but the historical notes and interview with Lemlich’s descendants at the end of the book add to the power of the story. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction from this era.

outofdarknessThen there are the books that introduce me to bits of history that I didn’t know about before.  Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez is set around the time of the 1937 New London school explosion, which I hadn’t known about before, but it is primarily the love story of Naomi and Wash. It is perhaps the most powerful teen novel I’ve read in a long time, but note that it has been referenced as a book that is very likely to make you ugly cry.  Read it with caution. But definitely read it.

I have yet to read any of Ruta Sepetys’ novels, but they are in my queue. Her new book, Salt to the Sea, is a meticulously researched fictional account of a little known maritime tragedy during World War II. It sounds like a book the teenage me would have loved, and frankly, I’m more than a little intrigued by it now. Learn more about the book and the event is is based on here:

If you like… Laura Ingalls Wilder (Part 2)

Since Laura Ingalls Wilder has been in the news recently for the upcoming publication of her not-for-kids autobiography, I thought I would revisit her story for reader’s advisory purposes. Here are a few more books that kids (or adults who read children’s books) who like the Little House books might also like:

littleauthor boatballard whathemoonsaid

  • Little Author in the Big Woods by Yona McDonough is a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder for kids ages 8-12.  There are crafts, games, and other information about the time period included.  It’s a great book for fans of the series.
  • Bo at Ballard Creek by Kirkpatrick Hill tells the story of a little girl in 1920’s Alaska.  The episodic chapters are full of details that make life in the mining town during the gold rush come alive.  The main character is only five years old, but the book is aimed at 9-12 year olds.
  • What the Moon Said by Gayle Rosengren takes place during the Great Depression when a family leaves the city for a farm in Wisconsin.  There is no electricity or indoor plumbing, so even though it is set in more modern times than the Little House books, it isn’t so different from the pioneer days.  It is one of my favorite middle grade novels of 2014, so I highly recommend it!

See my my previous Little House reader’s advisory post here. Or check out this episode of Stuff You Missed in History Class all about Laura Ingalls Wilder.

If you like… Laura Ingalls Wilder

I’m a midwestern girl through and through.  Sure, I had a couple of brief forays to the West (Colorado and Wyoming) and the South (Kentucky, twice) in my childhood thanks to my dad’s job, but I’m a Minnesota girl (raised in Illinois & Wisconsin).

I fell in love with the prairie while in college in central Illinois, and I started reading everything Willa Cather had ever written.  But I’ve already blogged about that.  This post is about another prairie writer who has influenced midwestern girls for years: Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Two titles, in particular, stick out to me.  Borrowed Names looks at Laura Ingalls Wilder’s influence on her daughter in a novella-in-verse published with the stories of two other women of the time and their daughters.  Jeanine Atkins writes,

“These three women not only shared a birth year but also a devotion to work and motherhood. They raised daughters who lived in a world that changed as quickly as theirs had, and who changed with it. The only child of Laura Ingalls Wilder inherited the family wanderlust and became a world traveling journalist.”

May B. by Caroline Starr Rose is also a novel-in-verse that was inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Rose writes in the author’s note,

“Growing up, I fell in love with the Little House books and talked about Laura Ingalls Wilder as if she were someone I knew personally.  In the late nineteenth century, when Laura was a girl, schoolwork focused on recitation and memorization and favored students able to do those things well. When I became a teacher, I grew curious about what life must have been like for frontier children who found schooling a challenge. Would a girl who couldn’t read well have been kept out of school? “

In the book, May struggles with dyslexia, though it isn’t named, and it is a fascinating look at history through the lens of a strong, intelligent young girl.  Read more about it in Jen Robinson’s Book Page review.

Other books pictured: Addie Across the Prairie by Laurie Lawlor, Prairie Songs by Pam Conrad, and My Prairie Year by Brett Harvey

Want more reader’s advisory?  Check out previous “If you like…” posts.

Disclosure: Amazon.com links are affiliate links.   A portion of purchases made via these links earns a commission for this blog.  Thanks for your support!

If you like… Willa Cather

“As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country as the water is the sea.  The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up.  And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.”

–from My Antonia by Willa Cather

I fell in love with the prairie when I read My Antonia several years ago, and I quickly read several more of Willa Cather’s books in search of more.   Years later, I find myself still drawn to books that seem like they will capture the same depth and beauty that Cather portrayed in her books.  I read A Lantern in her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich only to find a story, less of the prairie, and more of a woman’s choice to give up everything for her family.  It wasn’t quite what I was looking for.  Later I read Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker.  This was closer to what I wanted.  This coming-of-age novel follows a young girl as she determines what is important to her and gets to know her parents for who they are.  It was a good book, but not quite it either.

Then I found Giants in the Earth.  In this story, which feels like a saga but only covers about 4 or 5 years, several Norwegian families settle in an isolated area in the Dakotas.  The struggle of life on the prairie is particularly illustrated in one family in which the father/husband seems almost manic in his drive to success and the wife/mother falls deeper and deeper into depression due to loneliness.   It was quite powerful, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a story to explore the pioneer life further after reading Willa Cather.

If you want to put a visual to the quote above from My Antonia, you might take a look at Elsie’s Bird by Jane Yolen.  This picture book, illustrated by David Small (I blogged about his memoir here), follows a young girl adjust from city life to pioneer life.  Small’s illustrations really capture the movement and beauty of the prairie.  The book is perfect to share this particular time and place with elementary school age kids. (It was a bit long for my preschooler.)  Highly recommended.

 

You may also be interested in some previous If You like… posts.

FCC Disclaimer: All books mentioned were reviewed from library copies.  All book links are Amazon Affiliate links.

If You Like… The Grapes of Wrath

Whose Names are UnknownSanora Babb began writing Whose Names are Unknown in the 1930’s.  She worked for the Farm Security Administration, and she based her novel on first-hand experience working with migrant farmers and their families.  Whose Names are Unknown was slated for publication when John Steinbeck’s book hit the best-seller lists and eventually won the Pulitzer Prize.  The publisher pulled Babb’s book saying that there was no room in the market for another book on the same subject.

Whose Names are Unknown was finally published in 2004 (only two years before Sanora Babb died at the age of 98) to much critical acclaim.  The book is less a competitor to The Grapes of Wrath and more of a  counterpart to it.  Steinbeck created an epic fable-like masterpiece that is still one of my favorite books while Babb took a more journalistic approach.  Her characters are not archetypes; they are people.  The Booklist review put it this way: “A slightly less political, more female-oriented, companion piece to The Grapes of Wrath.”

Read more about Sanora Babb and her work in this online exhibit from the University of Texas at Austin.

Hey, Homeschoolers!

Author Tanita S. Davis is giving away copies of the new paperback edition of Mare’s War, which a really great book.  Have you seen the new paperback cover?  Very striking.  Love it.

Anyway, if you are a homeschooling parent, a homeschool kid, or a librarian who works with homeschoolers, you really don’t want to miss this.  Also, check out the Homeschool Teacher’s Unit on Mare’s War while you’re there.

 

Review: Devil’s Paintbox

Aiden and Maddy have been fighting to survive on their own since their parents and siblings died. Most of their neighbors have moved on due to the harsh conditions in the Midwest in 1865. The two have stuck together, worked hard, and kept themselves alive. Barely. The kids take the first opportunity out of there, which turns out to be a wagon train bound for Seattle. The two promise to work in a logging camp as their ticket out of lonely survival living.

Like any good saga, the story covers a lot of ground. It is easy to lose yourself in the richness of the journey. I must admit that I was much more keyed into the cross country journey portion of the book over the life in the logging camp portion. Interesting subplots about small pox and vaccines tie the parts of the story together. It doesn’t always seem realistic, but the details make it clear that a lot of research went into getting the historical back drop just right. Fans of historical fiction, whether teens for not, will likely appreciate that. Elements of survival and adventure may draw in some readers, and patient readers will see this saga to its drawn out conclusion.   I was glued to the page for most of the book and found myself experiencing the whole range of emotions as the action in the book brought hope and despair again and again. I was fascinated by the details (including the author’s note), and some readers will likely be just as drawn in as I was.

The Devil’s Paintbox by Victoria McKernan
Knopf (January 2009)
Honors: Publisher’s Weekly Starred Review, School Library Journal Starred Review
Blog Reviews: Becky’s Book Reviews, Book Talk, Inkweaver Review, Flamingnet Young Adult Book Blog
Read More: Teen Historical Fiction

*Amazon Affiliate.  A portion of any purchases made from links on Proper Noun Blog will benefit this blog.