Archives for posts with tag: Historical Fiction

As someone with a subterranean-level threshold of all things scary or grotesque (the sharks in Finding Nemo are about my limit), I still can’t believe I read To Stay Alive by Skila Brown.  This book is billed as historical fiction written for teens.  However, it is a compelling rendering of a real-life American horror story—the plight of the Donner Party.

The story of the Donner Party is one of harrowing survival and a fixture of American history.  This group of pioneers, led by George Donner and James Reed, consisted of multiple families and individuals traveling west to California from Missouri in the spring of 1846.  Delayed by multiple mishaps and unfortunate decisions (including an ill-conceived “shortcut”), they found themselves in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in mid-October, low on supplies and weakened by previous efforts crossing the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake Desert.  The group, ill-prepared for surviving winter, was forced to hastily make camp when snow blocked the mountain pass.  Exposure, starvation, and illness heightened the nightmare.  A small detachment of the group set out in December 1846 attempting to cross the mountain and send back help; its remnants made it to safety on January 17, 1847.  The first rescue party made to the pioneers’ camp on February 18; the final person out of the camp made it to safety on April 29.  Only 48 of the approximately 90 members of the original group survived. Fewer than 100 miles from their target, many of them had to resort to cannibalism to live.

The Donner Party’s experience has fascinated and horrified audiences for over a century.  Skila Brown’s book To Stay Alive is an intriguing departure from past efforts to explore the topic.  It’s a novel in free-verse form, consisting of over 200 short poems, told from the point-of-view of 19-year-old Mary Ann Graves who made the trek.  Real-life pioneers, Mary Ann along with her parents and eight siblings left Illinois in April 1846; their hideous journey ended nearly a year later.  The poems describing Mary Ann’s experience blend narrative with inner reflection, their forms advancing the story while mirroring her emotions.  The book is divided into the four seasons of the journey, the final chapter jumping ahead to four months after Mary Ann’s life-changing hike over the mountain.

Brown’s verse doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the subject matter.  She wields it like a camera, panning exterior and interior landscapes.  In places, it reads smoothly like the easy part of Mary Ann’s journey—text is almost like prose, and the character’s thoughts are fluid, sequential.  Further in, the economy of verse reflects the hardships faced by Mary Ann; here, words are spaced out to reflect the wide expanse of country or peppered with pauses the length of a hard swallow while crossing the desert or tumbled about the page mimicking the bump wagon ride.  Brown’s sparse poetry conjures up the horrors experienced by the Donner Party without resorting to sensationalism.  Reading the poems depicting Mary Ann suffering from starvation and exposure, the desperation is vivid and the terrible solution becomes apparent.  It begs the question, “What would you do to survive?”

As the author notes, “Historical fiction requires a careful balance of real and embellished, a base of facts with a sprinkling of supposition and imagination”. Skila Brown has done her research.  Her details are spot on whether describing the pioneer experience in general or situations specific to the Graves family.  In addition to the story, the author offers some helpful resources.  An epilogue adds a postscript of Mary Ann’s life.  An author’s note summarizes the events befalling the Donner Party, analyzes the literal and metaphorical wrong turns they took, and offers multiple perspectives on the consequences of manifest destiny.  Here, the author relates what drew her to this story and why she believes it relevant over 100 years later.  An easy-to-read map shows the group’s path compared to the routes traditionally taken by pioneers.  The author also provides a photograph of Mary Ann Graves and a list of the entire Donner Party, noting deaths and survivors.

While a departure from the usual fare of historical fiction, To Stay Alive has a great deal to offer.  It doesn’t give up its gifts easily though.  The topic is difficult—it’s not for everyone.  And, although this one is much more accessible than most, novels in verse may require more effort from readers than narrative prose.  Move past these challenges, and the rewards are apparent—powerful messages of perseverance in the face of overwhelming circumstances, survival amidst suffering, heart-breaking sacrifice.  To Stay Alive is a great choice for mature secondary students and lends itself more to discussion than pleasure reading.  Beyond that, give this one to teens who are hardcore fans of historical fiction, have the patience to follow a narrative in free-form verse, and can handle the subject matter.


index.aspxWorking at the reference desk I often learn about books by readers asking for help – either in locating the desired title or finding the next title in a series. Some titles peak my interest but with so many good books to read I lose track of the title/author.

Such was the case with Jill Eileen Smith’s historical fiction books on women of the Bible. Fortunately, I spotted the latest on the New Fiction shelves reminding me of my interest.

Redeeming Grace: Ruth’s Story is actually the third in the Daughters of the Promised Land series. However, the series is a theme not a continuation so you can read out of order and not feel as though you are missing anything. If you are a stickler for order, the library has the first two in the series “The Crimson Cord: Rehab’s Story” and “The Prophetess: Deborah’s Story”.

Ruth’s story is also the story of Naomi. Naomi lived in Bethlehem with her husband Elimelech, sons Mahlon and Chilion, and their extended family. In 1296 B.C. Bethlehem and Israel were suffering through drought and eventual famine. Elimelech’s brother Boaz had convinced him to keep working the land despite the drought.

But after 2 years he stopped listening to Boaz and gave up hoping and praying for rain. He made the decision to take his sons to Moab and work the fields there. Naomi did not want to leave Bethlehem but would not let them go without her so the whole family made the journey to Dibon. Ruth and her friend Orpah were at the marketplace when the family arrived and were the first to offer a welcome.

Elimelech was able to secure land from the governor and soon prospered in Moab. His crops flourished and he was able to build a home for his family. Naomi remained true to her faith but her husband and sons were seduced by the festivals and lifestyle of the Moabites spending more and more evenings in Dibon. One such evening Elimelech didn’t come home. Naomi found his body in the road; he had been mauled by a bear.

With the death of her husband Naomi tried to convince her sons to return to Bethlehem. However, the beauties Ruth and Orpah had caught the eye of her sons and they declared their intention to stay and marry.

The custom in Moab was for fathers to choose husbands for their daughters. Ruth and Orpah had both lost their fathers in the war with Israel meaning they could make the choice of who they would marry. Ruth’s mother and the governor planned for Ruth to marry his son, Te’oma. She wanted no part of that arrangement and readily accepted Mahlon’s request to marry.

Ruth’s story truly begins when she marries and becomes Naomi’s daughter-in-law.  Ruth’s devotion to her new family and the growth of her faith sustain her through the many trials she faces. Heartache, loss and hardship test both women but Ruth remains hopeful for a better life and a second chance for love.

This dramatization of Ruth’s life is well done and an engrossing read.  Smith’s research on life and customs of the Israelites and Moabites offers readers a glimpse into what life was like during Ruth’s time.

You can enjoy it without ever having read Ruth in the Old Testament. If you have read it, you’ll find that Smith has crafted a novel that captures the lesson of love exemplified by Ruth in the book.

Mister Death's Blue-Eyed Girls by Mary Downing HahnThe morning after a party in the park, Nora and her best friend Ellie are hung over and running late for the last day of their Junior year. The two are still not ready when Cheryl and Bobbi Jo come by to walk with them to school. Unwilling to wait (and possibly miss a rendezvous with Cheryl’s new boyfriend), Cheryl and Bobbi Jo set out on their own.

This sequence of events changes everything for Nora and Ellie. It also saves their lives. Later that afternoon the bodies of Cheryl and Bobbi Jo are found hidden in the woods between Ellie’s house and school. Both girls have been shot.

Everyone in town, including Ellie, thinks Cheryl’s brooding ex-boyfriend Buddy gunned the girls down because Cheryl wouldn’t get back together with him. After passing two lie-detector tests and surviving 48 hours in a jail cell, the police let him go. Despite this, Nora is the only one who believes Buddy didn’t commit the crime.

Told from alternating perspectives of Nora and Buddy with an occasional chapter by Mister Death himself, readers are taken through the aftermath of the murders that shake their small town to its core.

Based on true events, “Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls” isn’t the book I thought it was going to be. Instead of a mystery, Hahn has written a memoir. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but while reading, I kept expecting Nora to turn Nancy Drew and help the obviously ineffective police department catch Mister Death. Instead, Nora spends much of the book overcome by survivor’s guilt. To the point that she begins to question everything from what she wants to do with her life to the existence of God.

Using fashion and music as her main reference points, Hahn firmly anchors “Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls” in June 1956. This choice of time period helps readers understand Nora’s naivete and the behavior of the police and townspeople, but the musical references seem a little heavy-handed at times. It would not be difficult to build a pretty robust 1950s playlist from the songs and artists mentioned in almost every chapter.

By the end of the book, I was still expecting a mystery novel (which may reveal more about me as a reader than Hahn as a writer), so I was a little disappointed. Even though the end wraps things up, there’s no dramatic revelation and no clear-cut “good guys win, bad guys lose” moment. It’s very real life.

I think that was my main problem with “Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls.” I wanted it to be more sensational, creepier, more “who done it?” and less realistic. So, if you’re looking for an account of how a traumatic event can change the lives of those it touches, “Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls” is an excellent choice and can be found in the Teen Department. But if you’re looking for a creepy mystery to escape your real life for a while, this isn’t the book for you.

Ten-year-old Hà does not want to leave Vietnam, but in 1975, when the war reaches Saigon, she and her family have little choice but to board a ship and flee their homeland. Once on the ship they wait more than a month to be rescued and when they finally are, they are taken to a refugee camp on the island of Guam. From there Hà’s mother chooses to relocate the family to the United States, because she believes it holds the most opportunities for her children, and they reside in a camp in Florida until a man from Alabama agrees to sponsor them.

Once in Alabama they live with “the Cowboy,” as Hà affectionately nicknames their sponsor, until he generously finds them a place of their own. Soon Hà’s oldest brother is working as a mechanic and she and her two other brothers are enrolled in school.

School proves difficult for Hà, not only because she does not speak English, but because her classmates make fun or her and treat her differently based solely on her appearance. Thankfully, one of the neighbors–who is a retired school teacher–welcomes Hà and her family to their new neighborhood and begins tutoring Hà privately. Eventually, she makes two friends in her class and things become a little easier for her, though she still has many challenges to overcome.

When I first picked up this title in 2011, it had just been published, so I had little way of knowing that it would gain such accolades as becoming a New York Times bestseller, scoring a Newbery Honor Medal, and a winning the National Book Award, but in hindsight it is easy to see how this coming-of-age story stole the hearts of so many.

Not only does debut author, Thanhha Lai perfectly capture Hà’s voice and emotions, but she draws on her childhood experiences of fleeing Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and immigrating to Alabama, to craft a tale that appeals not only to immigrants and refugees, but any child that has been bullied or made to feel like an outsider. Written in a beautiful, prose format readers will devour this short, touching novel.

I don’t normally review fiction, but I’m making an exception this time because there’s a new title in one of my favorite series that I would like to let everyone know about if they haven’t already heard about it. It’s Speaking from Among the Bones: a Flavia de Luce novel by C. Alan Bradley, fifth in the series.

All the books are written in the first person, told by Flavia herself. Flavia is a most unusual sleuth. She lives in a crumbling estate called Buckshaw Manse just outside a small English village in the early 1950’s. She’s eleven in the first book (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie), but has aged to twelve by the time we arrive at the fifth. The plots of the novels are distinctly secondary to the unique atmosphere of the books.

Flavia is, in years and in some ways, definitely a child. In other ways, she is advanced far beyond her years. The author manages to convey her naiveté about some matters along with her precocity amazingly well. Flavia loves chemistry. She is particularly fond of the chemistry of poisons—any and all kinds. She has a laboratory (left intact at her home by her deceased great uncle) where she conducts experiments and mixes up deadly concoctions. She frequently imparts plans to use said poisons on her two older sisters, who delight in tormenting her. Their mother was lost in a mountain climbing accident and Flavia was too young to remember her. One of their favorite tortures is telling her that she was left by the fairies or was adopted or whatever they think of to tell her she isn’t really part of the family. They aren’t very nice girls, to put it mildly.

Flavia’s father is a survivor of some evidently very bad times as a prisoner of war in World War I, along with Dogger who served with him and now works odd jobs on the estate and is Flavia’s best, well. . . only, friend. Dogger has episodes relating to his trauma during the war and is a bit of a mystery. He has a lot of medical knowledge, so perhaps he was a doctor. That, along with just about everything else about the household, is something that simply isn’t talked about, including the family’s extremely precarious financial position.

Other recurring characters include Inspector Hewitt and his men who represent the official investigations of the peculiar deaths that keep occurring with astonishing regularity in and around the village of Bishop’s Lacey. It’s a bit reminiscent of Miss Marple in that sense. Seems like someone would notice all the murders going on in those quiet little English villages!

Like Miss Marple and the dozens of other amateur sleuths that followed her, Flavia just can’t help stumbling upon bodies and discovering clues as to how and why they died. The mysteries are good and the means and methods of death are interesting but, again, it’s the telling of the tale that grabs the reader and draws him in. Whether you like mysteries or not, if you’re looking for an interesting character to read about you could do a lot worse then the tough-tender Miss Flavia de Luce.

Prisoner B-3087 by Alan GratzPrisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz

Yanek is 10 years old when Krakow, Poland falls to the Nazis. He and his parents live in the neighborhood that the Nazis wall off as the Jewish ghetto so they have to take family after family into their small apartment to make room for everyone who is relocated.

After three years of living in constant fear that they will be taken by the Nazis, that their apartment will be raided for valuables (including food), that they will be shot dead in the street, Yanek sees his mother and father in a group of Jews who are being “deported.² He is filled with the terrible certainty that they are being taken to their deaths.

Yanek, now 13, decides at this moment that he will survive at all costs for his family who did not. Yanek makes this decision over and over throughout the next three years as he survives death marches, starvation, beatings, and loss in and between 10 concentration camps.

Prisoner B-3087 is based on the true story of Jack Gruener.  Jack’s story is even more remarkable than the fictionalized version, but Alan Gratz does an excellent job of detailing Yanek’s survival and the atrocities of the Holocaust. Gratz has a gift for finding the balance between writing about historical events in a factual way and keeping Yanek’s voice true and realistic as he survives horror after horror.

Prisoner B-3087 was not an easy book for me to read because there is no separation between this book and reality–these events really happened to real people. While I read, I questioned how it is possible to survive what Yanek survives and whether or not I would have the strength to do so.  I am still not sure.

There is certainly no lack of books about the Holocaust in Children’s and Teen Lit. Alan Gratz has written one that can proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the best.

A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth BunceDuring this year’s Teen Summer Reading program, the Teen Department has two book clubs—one in June and the other in July.  (The June club is not accepting any more members, but registration for our July book club will begin on July 3rd).  The Young Adult Advisory Council chose the books for both clubs.  June’s club is reading A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth Bunce.

When Charlotte Miller’s father passes away, his death leaves a mountain of responsibility for his elder daughter.  The woolen mill that has been in her family for generations, the village it supports, and her younger sister Rosie are now Charlotte’s to protect and care for.  As if that weren’t enough, Charlotte is blind-sighted by a hefty and secret mortgage, an uncle whose motives for helping the girls may not be all he says they are, and a run of bad luck that seems to have sinister origins.

When Charlotte reaches the breaking point and things look their darkest, help comes in the form of a little man who can spin straw into gold whose only fee is the ring Charlotte’s mother wore.  Facing financial ruin, Charlotte has no choice but to take the deal.  True to his word, Jack Spinner spins a room full of straw into spools of fine gold thread.  Charlotte is able to sell the thread and pay the handsome banker, but Jack Spinner and the curse on the mill is not finished with Charlotte yet.

Elizabeth Bunce uses the Rumpelstiltskin tale as the base for her story, but there is more depth here than just a fairy tale retelling.  The historical setting (Britain in the late 1700s) is well researched and meticulously painted and the daily workings of the mill are equally well described.  Bunce points out some of the ways she deviates from history in her author’s note, but readers not familiar with those aspects of the Industrial Revolution will be hard pressed to pick out the creative license.

Bunce’s character development is done well enough that readers will ache with Charlotte as her world begins to crumble.  The other characters that comprise Charlotte’s inner circle—her sister, her love interest, and her uncle—are equally real and distinctive.

The pacing at the beginning of the story is a little slower than I like, but I stuck with Charlotte and was rewarded by a truly great historical fiction tale with just enough fantasy, mystery, and romance.  A Curse Dark as Gold is an excellent choice for teens and adults who like any of the above genres.

I am excited to write that Elizabeth Bunce will be visiting the Joplin Public Library on Saturday June 23 at 10am in the Library’s large meeting room.  Ms. Bunce will be available to sign copies of her books following her presentation.  Changing Hands Book Shoppe will have copies of A Curse Dark as Gold and Bunce’s other titles (Star Crossed and Liar’s Moon) for sale at the event.  This event is open to all ages.

As mentioned above, teens interested in July’s book club can register at the Teen Desk between July 3rd and 11th.  We’ll be reading Brian Katcher’s Almost Perfect.  Members of the book club will receive a free copy of Almost Perfect courtesy of General Mills.