Disclaimer: The Seamstress, by Allison Pittman, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
My rating: 4/5
The Seamstress was inspired by the ending of A Tale of Two Cities, where a seamstress meets up with That Guy (to avoid spoilers) and talks to him briefly before they are both beheaded. The Seamstress is basically the story of that seamstress, detailing her life and circumstances leading up to and during the French Revolution.
Pittman says she spoils about 50% of A Tale of Two Cities, but I didn’t see it. Of course, I read Dickens’ novel in high school, so my memory of the book is not great. The Seamstress is much more like a historical fiction set during the French Revolution than a spin-off of A Tale of Two Cities, and, in fact, the ending of the novel, where Pittman most clearly references TTC, is the weakest, as Pittman clearly borrowed dialogue from Dickens’ novel, where it stands out like a sore thumb because Pittman doesn’t write like Dickens.
To be honest, I thought the story about the seamstress, Renee, was the weakest of the novel. The story involving Renee’s cousin, Laurette, was the best part. That was a story laden with forgiveness and grace, of a young woman’s desperate attempts to find love and the way she feels when those attempts give her nothing but emptiness and shame. I normally don’t like perfect men, but Gagnon is exactly the character he needed to be to temper Laurette’s wildness. Laurette’s story is the reason I gave this book such a high rating—and Renee’s story is the reason why it didn’t get higher.
Pittman utilizes the dreaded “first-person, third-person” switch: Renee’s story is in 1st person, and Laurette’s in 3rd. I see no reason why it had to be that way, and it’s jarring and frustrating to keep switching back and forth. And compared to Laurette’s beautiful story, Renee’s is timid and historically thin (Pittman admits she painted an idealistic portrait of Marie Antoinette); Renee herself is given paper-thin motivations for her actions and most of the time is simply a passive observer to what’s happening around her. And the reason Pittman gives for her arrest leading up to her death sentence is laughably unrealistic—plot convenience shines throughout that particular portion.
Yet, the power of the setting and Laurette’s story manage to offset and overshadow many of the flaws of Renee’s story, giving a lush, detailed look at the French countryside and the path leading to the French Revolution. The stark contrast between Renee’s life at court and Laurette’s life in the country helps paint the strong divide between rich and poor that was the catalyst in the Revolution’s start. And Renee’s arrest, imprisonment, and execution helps show the bloodthirsty rage that fueled the Revolution and kept the guillotine dropping.
It’s definitely not perfect, but Laurette’s story alone makes The Seamstress worth a read.
Onion John joins the ranks of mediocre, not-terrible-but-not-amazing Newbery Medal winners. It is a coming-of-age story; Andy, through his friendship with Onion John, discovers new things about himself, his family, and life in general as the town strives to help Onion John through building him a house.
While the book is detailing Andy’s transition from unquestionable belief to skeptical uncertainty, Krumgold is fairly gentle with Onion John’s ways and culture. While Andy’s father, and eventually Andy himself, question Onion John’s methods and beliefs, Krumgold adds just enough detail for the reader to wonder, “Was Onion John right after all?”
Besides exploring interaction with people from different cultures, Krumgold also explores how it’s possible to help someone too much, as demonstrated by the town building Onion John a house. While this was unquestionably a good thing to do, there were, perhaps, better ways to help him than give him a house he didn’t understand or want. While Andy buys too much into Onion John’s beliefs, a reflection of his culture, the town doesn’t consider his culture enough. Onion John is really an exploration of balance, of not going so far in one direction that you leave the person behind. This is also explored in Andy’s relationship with his father.
In the moment, I enjoyed Onion John, but I doubt I’ll remember much of it a week from now. My desire right now is for books that pull me in immediately; Onion John didn’t do that. It’s a good exploration of coming-of-age and what that might mean, but it’s tame and bland and ultimately unsatisfying.
Land of the Buffalo Bones: The Diary of Mary Ann Elizabeth Rodgers, an English Girl in Minnesota, by Marion Dane Bauer, was published in 2003 by Scholastic.
Land of the Buffalo Bones is a “special edition” of Dear America, though at first I didn’t know why. However, it became clear at the end—this Dear America book was based off of real people. And I don’t mean that real people showed up as side characters within the book, as happened in previous Dear America books. I mean that the protagonist herself was a real person—though not much is known about her.
Bauer relates the story of Reverend George Rodgers, who took his family and a large group of people from England to Minnesota, filling their heads with talk of fertile soil and beautiful land. The reality, of course, is harsh winters, hot summers, grasshoppers, and bleached buffalo bones everywhere, not to mention Indians. Rodgers soon leaves his “colony” in disgrace, moving his family around after that. Polly is the protagonist and the voice of the story, though, as the author’s note reveals, not much is known about her at all, so most of the information given in this book is made-up by the author.
The struggle of immigrants in a harsh land may be a tale that’s interesting to some, but Polly is such a disagreeable, passive protagonist that it’s hard to find anything compelling about this book. As is the problem with many Dear America books, there is too much observation and not enough plot to sustain the novel. Polly is merely a passive observer to all around her—even her friendship with Jane is seen at a distance, and Jane’s ultimate decision to leave the colony is marred by Polly’s blunt language and bewilderment at the entire affair. If more had been given for Polly to do—if Polly had interacted with people beyond her family and Jane, done more than gripe at her younger sisters and exclaim at the extreme weather conditions—this might have been a more interesting book.
Land of the Buffalo Bones was obviously a labor of love for the author, who is chronicling a fictionalized version of her family’s history, but it’s not particularly exciting and it adds nothing to the Dear America canon. Polly is too bland of a character, and the book too observational. It has a little historical value in its exploration of religious freedom, but very, very little—and almost nothing to contribute in other areas. Dear America books are so much better when they are focused on significant events, rather than on vague periods of time.
Little House by Boston Bay, by Melissa Wiley, was published in 1999 by HarperTrophy.
Having finished the Martha Years, I’m moving right along to the Charlotte Years—Martha’s daughter, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s grandmother. The same author wrote both sets of books, which is a good thing—Martha remains familiar, and the details of her life in Scotland remain accurate. Not that many details are given—Wiley saves that for another book.
As a kind of hopeless romantic at heart, for most of the book I reflected on Martha and Lewis. If I remember correctly, Martha marries Lewis, a blacksmith, someone of a much lower station than her, and as a result her family disowns her (however, there is some research that indicates that “Martha Morse” was never Scottish at all, and that her husband’s name was really Joseph). It’s kind of interesting to read this book with that perspective and reflect on all the sacrifices that were made, but also see how much Martha and Lewis love each other.
The book is fairly similar to the Martha Years books—as it would be, with the same author—although obviously without the Scottish background. Instead, we have the War of 1812, and the political tension of the day woven into the background. It’s maybe not as immediately gripping as were the backdrop of the Scottish Highlands, but Little House by Boston Bay is still part of a series that were dearly loved by me as a child—I know the scenes like old friends, and I vividly remember the too-spicy pounded cheese chapter and the Saturday family. Perhaps the Charlotte Years aren’t too exciting, but reading this book has been a great nostalgia trip for me.
Daniel Boone is a pretty outdated book, as you might expect from having been written in 1939. I’m sure the information about Boone is mostly correct, and I appreciated how Daugherty included excerpts from actual documents of the time, but many people today would take issue with the portrayal of the Indians, as well as their depictions in the illustrations.
I thought the illustrations were gorgeous most of the time, and though the pictures of the Indians I thought represented a stereotypical, outdated representation, there were a couple of pictures that I thought were actually quite powerful (there is one of an Indian man standing over a woman who is cradling a dead child (or possibly an adult) in her arms, and the text facing it is from a Seneca Indian speech about the destruction of his race). So, while Daugherty does continue to portray Indians as thoughtless warriors who attack the settlers, day in and day out, there are glimpses that he is trying to explain their side of things, though he doesn’t really succeed.
To be honest, the one thing I took away from this book was not the story of Daniel Boone. It was the thought that the entire conflict between the settlers and the Indians portrayed in this book was just really sad. The story that Daugherty laid out was just reaction versus reaction: one side gets mad at the other for some reason, so they attack; the other side reacts in vengeance; the first side reacts in vengeance; the other side reacts in vengeance; so on and so forth.
As far as biographies go, there are certainly better ones for Daniel Boone than Daugherty’s. There are just too many problems with Daniel Boone. Some of those are due to the modern age, some are due to the culture’s thirst for what they deem an acceptable portrayal of Native Americans. This book won the Newbery Medal over By the Shores of Silver Lake, and in my opinion, Wilder’s book was far superior.
Call It Courage wasn’t a bad book, but it simply didn’t grip me. I found it boring. It’s an adventure/survival book based in Polynesia, telling the story of Mafatu and his quest to become courageous by leaving his island and striking out on his own. Sperry traveled extensively, mainly in the Polynesia/Hawaii area, and it shows in his knowledge of Polynesian culture and language.
The only knowledge I have of Polynesia is from the movie Moana, so it was funny to read about Moana the Sea God and Maui the God of the Fishermen. Other bits of the Polynesian language are scattered about and always translated at some point so that the reader isn’t totally confused. It seems accurate and representative of the culture, though I’m sure someone more versed would be able to say it was or was not more definitively.
This definitely reads like a 1940s book: the language is much more cumbersome and complex, and so it might be difficult for a modern child to read. As I stated above, this book really didn’t interest me in the slightest, but I can see a boy or an adventurous girl really enjoying it. I’m glad it was short, as there was nothing in the book to pull me in or compel me to keep reading. Call It Courage is definitely one of the more forgettable Newbery Medals that I’ve read. Not as bad as The Dark Frigate, but pretty low.
Down the Rabbit Hole is the first of the revamped Dear America books I’ve read. Scholastic prettied up the covers, added the author’s name to the front, and placed a summary, rather than an excerpt, on the back of the book. I think the official reasoning behind it was that it made the books appear more like fiction (the old Dear America books did not have the author’s name at the front, and the copyright page was in the back of the book), but the complaints of “How are we supposed to know it’s fiction?” towards the old Dear America books always seemed thin to me. It’s in the fiction section, people—it’s fiction!
Anyway, my first experience with the revamped books wasn’t that bad. To be honest, I would have rated this book higher if it hadn’t been for the ending. The ending seriously annoyed me. I also didn’t like the titles of the sections, as it really disrupted the diary feel of it. And though I found the constant going back-and-forth in time annoying at first, I soon got used to it.
I would probably rank this book in the middle of my imaginary Dear America rankings. It seems more useful and historically integrated than A Light in the Storm, but it’s not as compelling as I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly. Bartoletti talks about labor unions, Down’s syndrome, and the Chicago fire well enough, but a lot of her plot hinges on convenience. Cager arriving at the Pritchard’s house was when everything turned awry for me. There was too much convenience, too many things being revealed, and several out of character moments. The ending was a letdown.
I don’t really understand the reason for the revamped Dear America books, but at least Down the Rabbit Hole promises somewhat good additions. Everything in the book was strong until the ending. I don’t know if I like the stylistic choice, but I’m glad to see that the change didn’t lead to a significant drop in quality.
Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos, was published in 2011 by Farrar Straus Giroux.
Dead End in Norvelt is a really quaint story about a boy growing up in a dying town that was founded by Eleanor Roosevelt. While many of the townspeople are convinced that it’s time to move on from the town, Jack, through his friendship with the town historian/medical examiner, learns about the history surrounding the town and its inhabitants.
The book is funny, from Jack’s attempts to stay on the good side of his parents, to his nose bleeding at the slightest provocation, to the strange Miss Volker who lives next door and has to put her hands in wax constantly. The history is great, too, from the “This Day in History” to the obituaries to Jack’s books to his thoughts on events. It’s part historical, part humor, even part murder mystery.
It’s a small-town narrative, but one with a great deal of character and charm. And, apparently, it’s based off of a true story—Jack Gantos is the author, as well as the name of the main character. Maybe that’s why this book is so vibrant and full of life. It’s a great story, and I especially loved the history bits, the obituaries, and Jack’s internal monologues. And it’s interesting how a book that’s so full of death can be as entertaining as it is. “Gothic comedy” is the way one person put it on one of those promotional quotes on the back of the book, and that’s a good way to describe Dead End in Norvelt.
The Great Railroad Race: The Diary of Libby West, by Kristiana Gregory, was published in 1999 by Scholastic.
I’ve mentioned before that I think Kristiana Gregory’s Dear America books are some of the best in the series. Seeds of Hope and Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairieare among my favorites. Gregory seems to understand a balance of slice-of-life and history is needed in order to make these books shine.
That being said, The Great Railroad Race is a bit of a downer. While an important period of time, there just aren’t enough things that happen. It’s certainly very informative, but it’s lacking a little sparkle, in my opinion. There’s too much of Libby blushing about Pete and not enough about the politics and culture of the time. Gregory does include some things about the conflict with the Indians, as well as mentioning the Chinese that worked for Central Pacific, and there’s a great deal of information about what it was like near the railroad. But it’s too much in the background, I guess—it reads too much like information and there’s not enough immersion.
I did like Libby, though, with her matter-of-fact comments. Gregory did a good job of inserting the sort of opinions a girl would put in her diary, such as her thoughts on the President, the Indians, and the culture of the time. I’ve complained before about the protagonist simply being a vehicle for historical information, or for not being present enough in her own story, but there’s none of that here.
The Great Railroad Race definitely isn’t the worst of Dear America, but it’s not really near the best. It’s a good, average book in the series. The historical information is interesting, but not as immersive as others. Libby is a great protagonist, although she spends a little too much time talking about her feelings for Pete. It’s not my favorite of Gregory’s books.
Beyond the Heather Hills is the last Martha book, though I don’t believe it was intended to be. From what Wiley has said about her ideas for future books, I could see seeds of them being sown here, especially in the relationship between Martha and Lewis Tucker, and in Martha’s desire to see more beyond her home—yet also her fierce longing for the familiar.
This book deals with a topic not yet addressed in the Martha books, which is death. Martha is confronted with death, with leaving home, with change. Fear is a prominent theme in this book: fear of the unknown, fear of leaving the ones you love. Yet the end brings the promise of joy in new life, too. It’s a very familiar bookend, death and life, but it’s one that’s always needed.
Beyond the Heather Hills isn’t as fun as some of the previous Martha books. Martha spends too much time being homesick for that. But it is a very poignant one. It’s a shame that these books weren’t more popular, as they really are quite good children’s books, but they do lack a little something. As fiery as Martha is, the books are a little too plain.
I’ve enjoyed rereading these books, though they don’t hold a candle in my mind against the original Wilder books. Wiley did a good job with conveying Scottish tradition and culture and with making Martha a good protagonist who learns a lot but still manages to have fun along the way. They’re not my favorite of the “prequel series to Little House books,” but they hold a special place in my heart because of their presence in my childhood bookshelf.