Engraved on the Heart by Tara Johnson

Disclaimer: Engraved on the Heart, by Tara Johnson, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

Reluctant debutante Keziah Montgomery lives beneath the weighty expectations of her staunch Confederate family, forced to keep her epilepsy secret for fear of a scandal. As the tensions of the Civil War arrive on their doorstep in Savannah, Keziah sees little cause for balls and courting. Despite her discomfort, she cannot imagine an escape from her familial confines—until her old schoolmate Micah shows her a life-changing truth that sets her feet on a new path . . . as a conductor in the Underground Railroad. Dr. Micah Greyson never hesitates to answer the call of duty, no matter how dangerous, until the enchanting Keziah walks back into his life and turns his well-ordered plans upside down. Torn between the life he has always known in Savannah and the fight for abolition, Micah struggles to discern God’s plan amid such turbulent times. Battling an angry fiancé, a war-tattered brother, bounty hunters, and their own personal demons, Keziah and Micah must decide if true love is worth the price . . . and if they are strong enough to survive the unyielding pain of war.

My rating: 2/5

I was interested by the summary of Engraved on the Heart and hoped it would have lots of intrigue, sneaking around, and escapes from danger, as befitting the promise of the setting. I hoped the romance would be imaginative and original, though I didn’t really have too many high hopes in that regard.

I like it when authors introduce elements to the story that make it more unique, and Johnson did that with Keziah’s epilepsy and exploring the stigma associated with the illness. I wish a little bit more time had been spent on it, but at least it was an established part of her character. I liked Keziah in general and her characterization and growth were overall okay. Micah was a typical male love interest, and he didn’t stand out much in any way except for a bit at the end.

Most of the events that happened in regards to the Underground Railroad were pretty plausible. I recently read a book on the topic, and much of what happens in the book fits. My only quibble is that I don’t remember if they were actually calling it “the Underground Railroad” at the time. I also think getting a peek at Lucy’s escape would have been nice, since it seemed way too easy and vague. I also thought the way the plan was communicated to Lucy was dubious and unbelievable.

I won’t harp on the romance, but I’m getting tired of reading the same thing over and over. This romance played out exactly like most of the others in these sorts of books: love at first sight between two amazingly good-looking people, one or both has secret doubts about pursuing a relationship, they refuse to be in a relationship but still end up holding each other/kissing, etc. etc. etc. This romance in particular seemed incredibly similar to the one in the last book I read. It’s clear this sort of thing is being written to please the audience rather than to give something original and exploratory.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Christian, Historical Fiction

You can buy this here:https://amzn.to/2md5QQ4

Read an author Q&A here.

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Dark Water Rising by Marian Hale

Dark Water Rising, by Marian Hale, was published in 2006 by Henry Holt.

You’d think every person from Lampasa to Houston wanted to go to Galveston this hot August day. Everyone but Seth. Galveston, Texas, may be the booming city of the brand-new twentieth century, filled with opportunities for all, but to Seth it is the end of a dream. He longs to be a carpenter like his father, yet Pap has moved the family to Galveston so that Seth can become a doctor. Still, the last few weeks of summer might not be so bad. Seth has landed his first real job as a builder, and there’s that girl across the street, the one with the sun-bright hair. Things seem to be looking up…until a storm warning is raised one sweltering afternoon. They say a north wind always brings change, but one could ever have imagined this. Set during the Galveston Storm of 1900, this is an unforgettable story of survival in the face of natural disaster.

Rating: 4/5

About a month or so before reading Dark Water Rising, I was in Galveston and learned all about the storm of 1900, so it was interesting to see how this book described it. And, though it’s not as suspenseful or nerve-wracking as, say, Gordon Korman’s survival books, Hale does a fantastic job of conveying the shock and horror felt by the residents of Galveston when fifteen feet of water and waves tear apart the island, literally.

With so much available in terms of resources on the storm, Hale’s description is incredibly accurate (as far as I’m aware, of course). Individual stories from people who lived through the storm are woven into the tale, and her description both of the storm itself and the aftermath are chilling. The cover art contributes to Seth’s descriptions of a debris-strewn island (including a debris pile twenty feet high), and, just like Seth, the reader has a hard time visualizing the sheer immensity of the body count (official count is 8,000, though many people say something closer to 12,000 is more accurate).

The descriptions of and details given about the Galveston Storm of 1900 are the true take-aways of Dark Water Rising. Hale weaves in some family tension, especially between Seth and his father, but it’s not particularly memorable or exciting. In fact, it’s fairly predictable. She also throws in some racial tension with her two characters of Josiah and Ezra, and a mediocre budding romance. These elements are largely forgettable, especially in the face of what the book is actually about (the storm), but it’s nice to have some sort of narrative to bind everything together.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Death, natural disasters.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Kw3DtD

Seeds of Hope by Kristiana Gregory

Seeds of Hope: The Gold Rush Diary of Susanna Fairchild, by Kristiana Gregory, was published in 2001 by Scholastic.

Susanna Fairchild and her family are on board a ship sailing from New York to the West, where they plan to start a new life in Oregon. But tragedy strikes when Susanna’s mother is lost to the sea. Hearing stories of great wealth, Susanna’s physician father decides he wants to join the hordes of men rushing to California to mine for gold.

Rating: 4/5

While I wouldn’t call Seeds of Hope a sequel to Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie, Gregory does connect the two books together by having the Fairchilds be related to the Campbells. It isn’t necessary to have read Prairie, of course. The inclusion of the Campbells is more of a bonus to readers who have read Gregory’s Oregon Trail entry first.

This is another of my favorite Dear America books (I really am a fan of Gregory), partly because of the purple cover, partly because it’s well-written and goes into a lot of historical detail. I learned more about the Gold Rush in this book then I did in Rae Carson’s Walk on Earth a Stranger, which is also about the Gold Rush. The book definitely doesn’t pull any punches; it opens with a death, and includes amputation, hangings, betrayal, and theft, as well as veiled clues about prostitution. What I like most about the Dear America series is that it does not sugar-coat or hide anything that could have happened in that time period, it merely mentions it in ways that are appropriate for children.

The novel also conveys how atypical and dangerous it was for two young women to be on their own during the Gold Rush, yet also takes the time to describe not only the kindness of strangers, but also the steps Susanna and Clara took to protect themselves. And there’s never any underlying threat that makes one worry about their safety throughout the book; again, this is a book for children, so while it’s mentioned what Susanna and Clara do to protect themselves from prowlers and thieves, there’s never anything too dark that is hinted at.

I have a feeling that Gregory’s Dear America books will be the stand-outs for me in this series; she seems to have achieved the knack of writing memorable characters and conveying the historical time period accurately and interestingly. Seeds of Hope is another great addition to Dear America, one I remember fondly.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2ywNYc3

Together Forever by Jody Hedlund

Disclaimer: Together Forever, by Jody Hedlund, was provided by Bethany House. It is the sequel to With You Always. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

Determined to find her lost younger sister, Marianne Neumann takes a job as a placing agent with the Children’s Aid Society in 1858 New York. She not only hopes to offer children a better life, but prays she’ll be able to discover whether Sophie ended up leaving the city on an orphan train so they can finally be reunited. Andrew Brady, her fellow agent on her first placing-out trip, is a former schoolteacher who has an easy way with the children, frim but tender and friendly. Underneath his charm and handsome looks, though, seems to linger a grief that won’t go away—and a secret from his past that he keeps hidden. As the two team up, placing orphans in the small railroad towns of Illinois, they find themselves growing ever closer…until a shocking tragedy threatens to upend all their work and change on of their live forever.

My rating: 2/5

Together Forever tells the story of Marianne Neumann, the sister of Elise Neumann, the protagonist of With You Always. It picks up the plot thread of the missing sister, Sophie, but very quickly sidelines it for a romantic plot, which is a shame because the missing sister is the most interesting thing in this series, and sidelining it really doesn’t make the characters look good. More on that later on.

Yes, this book is a romance, and boy, does Hedlund really accentuate that. There must be dozens of stolen glances, thoughts about the “delicate” and “elegant” features of Marianne, thoughts about the “strong jaw” and “toned muscles” and “warm skin” of Drew, and multiple looks of desire and/or longing. Hedlund throws in some events to make everything more dramatic, such as Reinhold, Marianne’s old (one-sided) flame, a murder, and some orphan children.

I think I might have enjoyed this book more, cliché and unoriginal romance (and tropes used) aside, if I had liked the characters more. Yet there’s really nothing that drew me to Marianne or Drew; Reinhold was more interesting, but showed up far too infrequently. The problem with Drew is that he’s the typical love interest in these sorts of books—handsome, clever, capable, with some sort of dark past that comes back to haunt him and throw tension into his relationship. The problem with Marianne is that for someone who’s so devoted to finding her sister, she barely does anything about it throughout the course of the book beyond read a few pages of a logbook. The rest of the time she’s busy flirting with Drew, when she’s not contemplating the fate of the orphans she’s placing. There’s also an absurd scene at the end of the novel that’s so contrived and such a dumb thing to do on the part of the characters (basically, it’s a “let’s pretend this is real and lead people on even though we know it’s wrong” decision) that I grew even more irritated at the romance between the two.

If I can say anything positive about Together Forever, it’s that Hedlund shows both sides of the orphan train. She shows it from the point of view of how many of the orphans who would have been living on the streets otherwise were taken in by families and cared for. But she also shows the side of how well those families will treat those orphans, as well as the idea that it’s basically selling children. I appreciated that she showed both perspectives. To be honest, I didn’t know much about orphan trains, so it was nice to see that part of history explored. The rest of the book, though, I could have done without.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Christian, Historical Fiction

You can buy this here: https://amzn.to/2sUxQuW

All the Stars in the Sky by Megan McDonald

All the Stars in the Sky: The Santa Fe Trail Diary of Florrie Mack Ryder, by Megan McDonald, was published in 2003 by Scholastic.

Florrie finds the adventure of a lifetime along the Santa Fe Trail, meeting new challenges and dangers, after her mother decides to move her family from Missouri to New Mexico. Starting their journey from their home in Missouri, Florrie Ryder and her family are headed towards the promise of a new life in Santa Fe. As they cross the Great Plains of the Midwestern prairie, fording rivers and climbing mountains, the Ryders encounter endless hardship as they undertake this great adventure.

Rating: 2/5

Dear America loves its Western Expansion stories, and All the Stars in the Sky takes us to New Mexico on the Santa Fe Trail. This book is slightly unique in that it’s the first (of what I’ve read) that features a stepfather, and McDonald actually demonstrates the tension and confusion that can result from having a new father rather well. It also has some good historical details and the mixing of Mexican, Native American, and American is done well enough that it gives a good picture of the mixing of cultures.

Unfortunately, for the most part, the book reads a lot like a copy of Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie—except not nearly as memorable or as well-written. It’s another “on the trail” story, one that’s not really necessary. I think it would have been better to have something much more similar to Seeds of Hope (a review to come),which has a minimum amount of traveling and describes more of what happens at the destination. I think that format also would have emphasized more of the culture and the environment at the time. I do like that McDonald featured what she did, but I think it could have been more successful in a different fashion.

Because of its similarities—and inferiority—to Wide and Lonesome Prairie, and its lack of truly memorable or stand-out events, All the Stars in the Sky is, sadly, forgettable. I liked the different depiction of the family unit, and I felt McDonald was mildly successful in imbuing her story with cultural aspects and historical details, but I just felt as if it could have been even more successful if McDonald had chosen to emphasize more of Santa Fe and less of “trail life.” However, I did really like the font used for the title and for the diary entries. I am a sucker for appealing, sharp font.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2LQMYlw

1938 Newbery Medal: The White Stag by Kate Seredy

The White Stag, by Kate Seredy, was published in 1937 by Viking.

For generations the tribes of Huns and Magyars had moved relentlessly westward, obeying the voices of their pagan gods, which compelled them to follow the elusive white stag to their promised homeland. They swept Europe, all the while pursuing their vision of the stag. Their leader was called Attila, and the land Hungary. Here is the epic story of their tribal migration and their fierce leader—known to us even today.

Rating: 2/5

The White Stag is a fairy-tale-esque narrative of the Huns’ migration from Asia to Europe. Seredy states from the beginning that she is more concerned with story than fact, and the narrative she unfolds rings very much like a mythic tale. The imagery of the book is quite striking, and the story flows well and has beautiful description.

 The story focuses on three leaders of the Huns, though I believe only Attila has been historically confirmed. The first leader is Nimrod, of biblical fame, who has twin sons, Hunor and Magyar. Hunor’s son, Bendeguz, is the second leader, and the third is Attila. Seredy weaves mythological elements into the narrative in order to emphasize the importance of Attila—fiery portents, the White Stag, Moonmaidens, prophesy, sacrifices, a flaming sword, and eagles.

However, despite the beauty of the writing and the whole mythological aspect, I did find it hard to relate to the book. Seredy’s grand overtures in her heralding of the coming of Attila was a bit hard to take. I get that Attila was an important historical figure, but the godlike way he’s described in this book is too much. Seredy is trying to portray it from the Hun’s history, of course, but a downside of that is that it does make the book seem wildly over-the-top and grandiose. It also makes it seem as if Seredy is extolling Attila beyond what he deserves.

I ended The White Stag a little disgruntled, since the way Seredy portrayed Attila sat wrong with me. There was too much hero and not enough reality, not to mention the fact that none of the book is historically grounded beyond brief sketches. And I do understand that Seredy wanted to get away from fact and go back to the mythological, imaginative way of telling history, but I feel as if she took it too far in that direction. A good balance between the two would have been much better.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2rZS7zl

1939 Newbery Medal: Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright

Thimble Summer, by Elizabeth Enright, was published in 1938 by Farrar & Rinehart.

A few hours after nine-year-old Garnet Linden finds a silver thimble in the dried-up riverbed, the rains come and end the long drought on the farm. The rains bring safety for the crops and the livestock, and money for Garnet’s father. Garnet can’t help feeling that the thimble is a magic talisman, for the summer proves to be interesting and exciting in so many different ways. There is the arrival of Eric, an orphan who becomes a member of the linden family; the building of a new barn; and the county fair at which Garnet’s carefully ended pig, Timmy, wins a blue ribbon. Every day brings adventure of some kind to Garnet and her best friend, Citronella. As far as Garnet is concerned, the thimble is responsible for each good thing that happens during this magic summer—her thimble summer.

Rating: 4/5

I don’t think Thimble Summer is quite as strong as Enright’s Melendy Quartet or Gone-Away Lake (which must have had much stronger competition when it was published, as it only received a Newbery Honor and it’s arguably a stronger book than this one), but that’s understandable since this is one of Enright’s first books. It still has all the lovely Enright charm to it—she can make descriptions of one girl’s summer sound more exciting than a book about pirates and stolen treasure.

You can see the shaping here of what Enright really loved to explore in her books—the day-to-day, the small adventures that take place over the course of a day or a summer, the boundless joy of children, their desire for new things battling with their desire to keep things the same. Things never get too dark or too scary in this book, yet there are times when even Enright recognizes the need to express when things are serious. One of my favorite moments in the book was when Garnet goes off to a neighboring city without telling anyone where she’s going, and when she gets back she’s confronted by her neighbor, who gently chides her and reminds her that she has people who care about her and who worry if she disappears, and that what she considered an adventure was not felt that way by other people. It’s delivered in such a way that readers can definitely tell that Garnet did the wrong thing, but it’s done gently and woven well so that the story still keeps its lightheartedness and its joy.

Thimble Summer simply highlights how much better Enright will get in her writing: the good things in this book are amplified and better developed and executed in her later works, the flaws and weaknesses in this book are better reined in or gotten rid of altogether in later books. This is not my favorite Enright book, nor do I think it is her best, but it’s still charming, and so full of joy and life that you can’t help but read it with a smile.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

Garnet saw a small object, half-buried in the sand, and glittering. She knelt down ad dug it out with her finger. It was a silver thimble! How in the world had that ever found its way into the river? She dropped the old shoe, bits of polished glass, and a half dozen clamshells she had collected and ran breathlessly to show Jay.

“It’s solid silver!” she shouted triumphantly, “and I think it must be magic too!”

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2jLHZ8N

So Far From Home by Barry Denenberg

So Far From Home: The Diary of Mary Driscoll, an Irish Mill Girl, by Barry Denenberg, was published in 1997 by Scholastic.

In the diary account of her journey from Ireland in 1847 and of her work in a mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, fourteen-year-old Mary reveals a great longing for her family.

Rating: 2/5

So Far From Home recounts not only the Irish potato famine that ravished Ireland (that killed about one million people), but the harsh work environment and living conditions that awaited the Irish immigrants in America. Denenberg also offers a look at the “cradle” of the Industrial Revolution, the Lowell textile mills.

Denenberg only superficially sketches a picture of the desperation and determination of some immigrants—desperate to work, determined to send money home for the families—and how business owners used that to their advantage. He does capture this well, though this Dear America book is weaker than others. I wish he had also focused on the way the Irish were treated beyond work environment—there is next to no mention of Catholicism (a strange religion to Protestant New England) and though there is some mention of Mary being bullied by other girls, there is no indication that it is her ethnicity that is prompting it.

Denenberg mostly focuses on the textile mills and their dangers, though I feel he could have done much more. It seems in his determination to portray as much as possible of that time period, he missed out on depth and richness. Mary is a phlegmatic protagonist, there only as a vehicle for the viewer to experience the time period. She has no characterization, no “body,” no memorability. This is further accentuated by the epilogue, which is the most depressing and least developed epilogue of a Dear America book so far. It seems even Denenberg didn’t know what to do with Mary.

It’s hard for me to believe that So Far From Home is written by the same author who wrote One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping (one of my absolute favorite Dear America books). So Far From Home is good for a general look at the Irish potato famine, Irish immigration, and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, but Denenberg misses many opportunities for lasting impressions and Mary is a forgettable character.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2KD61iE

Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie by Kristiana Gregory

Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell, by Kristiana Gregory, was published in 1997 by Scholastic.

Thirteen-year-old Hattie Campbell’s father dreamed of a new life in Oregon. He dreamed of free land, mild winters, and good soil. He wanted to leave behind a life in Missouri marked by an increased population, high taxes, and sad memories of young children dead from swamp fever. Reluctantly, Augusta Campbell agrees to join her husband, and Hattie and family find themselves on a wagon train traveling the Oregon Trail. Hattie’s diary entries tell a story of daily encounters with death: a baby, an old man, river drownings, dead oxen. Such sadness is countered with Hattie’s observations of love, the miracle of new life, and the kindness of people who help each other through desperate times. The Oregon Trail and Hattie’s fellow pioneers help her to face her fears and emerge a stronger young woman. Hattie’s exciting journey to Oregon is one marked by geographic peaks and valleys as well as the peaks and valleys of emotions the pioneers experienced on their grueling trip.

Rating: 5/5

I believe Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie was the first Dear America book I owned, and, as a result, it’s the one I’ve read the most. Hattie’s trip across the Oregon Trail never grew old for me, and with each read I grasped some aspect that had alluded me the previous time.

There’s lots of tragedy and death in this book, as you might expect from an account of the Oregon Trail. There is not much on the actual incentive to go West—there’s a brief mention of “manifest destiny”—nor is there a whole lot on conflicts and tensions between the Native American tribes and the travelers, but Gregory’s extensive historical notes in the back of the book do address these issues. First and foremost, this is simply the diary of a young girl on her way to Oregon, and it reads exactly like that. The voice of Hattie is perfect, and the voice of the author is distant, if it’s even discernible at all.

Tragedy aside, there’s lots of heartwarming instances in this book, as well as a valuable lesson on forgiveness and friendship. In a day and age where novels that feature bitter people getting their “comeuppance” by the people they’ve hurt, Hattie’s interactions with Mrs. Kenker, the grieving hoarder, is a welcome relief. The people around Hattie help her understand, and she uses that understanding to show compassion. It’s a beautiful message, and one that is badly needed today.

Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie is one of my favorite Dear America novels. It is seamlessly integrated, pulls no punches in terms of historicity, and is memorable, exciting, tragic and heartwarming. There’s a reason Gregory’s Dear America novels are some of my favorites—she’s captured the appropriate balance and atmosphere of these books perfectly.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2I1a8nF

Valley of the Moon by Sherry Garland

Valley of the Moon: The Diary of María Rosalia de Milagros, by Sherry Garland, was published in 2001 by Scholastic.

María Rosalía is a Mestizo servant in a Spanish home. Orphaned years ago, she and her brother Domingo work on a ranch run by the stern Señor Medina. María’s writing captures the intense tradition and culture of the Spanish as she observes the war that Alta California ultimately loses to the Americans.

Rating: 4/5

I love the time period of Western Expansion and the pioneering age, but I’ve rarely gotten to read about what it was like in those territories before people from the East started moving there. Valley of the Moon fills in some of that missing information. I knew from my American Girl doll books growing up (Josephina) about the strong Mexican/Spanish culture that stretched from Texas to California, but it’s not really something I consider when I read books about the Gold Rush or whatever. This Dear America book fills in all those gaps, and also addresses the plight of the Native Americans to an extent.

María is half-Indian and half-Spanish, and although most of the book depicts the Spanish culture, some aspects of it address the declining Indian population. The book is vibrantly, unapologetically Spanish (what today we would call Mexican, but that term is never used in the book—Spanish is the word used to describe the californios). That may seem like an exaggeration, and maybe it is, but I haven’t read many books set in that time period that really describe the Mexican culture of the time, especially not for this age group.

This is a long Dear America book, but for the most part I didn’t notice the length. Garland does a good job of interspersing tension, historical information, and continuation of plot so that the pace is even throughout. While most of the book is dedicated to everyday activities (a combination of cultural and religious events and María’s own development), a bit of it is dedicated to the moment when California, briefly, became a republic and then was claimed by the United States. That part may be the weakest part of the book, actually, although the revelation of María’s father is also pretty weak, in my opinion, if only because of how convenient it is.

I’m not sure if Valley of the Moon is the best book for describing how California became part of the United States, or even if it’s a good book for describing the Mexican-American War. However, it’s a great book for describing the way the Mexican way of life infused the culture of California at the time, how the Indian population dwindled because of the settlers, and is a great starting point for a discussion on what aspects of the Mexican culture we can still see today, and what has been lost over time.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Lupita does not trust the norteamericanos. She says they are supposed to become loyal Mexican citizens, learn to speak Spanish, and become Catholics in exchange for land. But not all of them do as they agreed. She especially dislikes the foreigner Johann Sutter, who encourages other foreigners to come to California illegally without permission from the Mexican government. There are already squatters on Señor Median’s lands. Lupita thinks they will take over Alta California before long.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2HMATfA