Two highly recommended historical novels today.
I Shall Be Near to You is, at its heart, a compelling love story. It features a strong heroine, so in love with her husband that she disguises herself as a man to accompany him into the horrors of the Civil War. I’m afraid its cover art may limit the number of teens who will give it a try, and that’s a real shame. You would do well to hand-sell this one, or get it into the hands of any history teachers who might do the same. All of the author’s careful research is wonderfully translated into a great story. (If you don’t believe us, check out the first two lines of the Booklist review, “A girl as tough as Katniss Everdeen. A romance out of Twilight.”)
The Secret of Raven Point is another story of a young woman following a man into war — this time a 17-year-old determined to find her brother, who has disappeared in World War II Italy. The brother/sister relationship is a draw, as is the setting at a hospital just behind the front lines and the mystery at the heart of the novel. I had an opportunity to hear Jennifer Vanderbes speak back in November. She talked about historical research (her website includes archival photographs and recommended reading), but also about her own work in hospice care and how that affected the novel. Again, the beginning is available on Scribd, so you can get a feel for the writing. I found it immediately accessible and engaging, and I think younger readers will be drawn in from the start.
On a personal note, I am a big fan of Vanderbes’s debut novel, Easter Island, which I read when it was published back in 2003. It still holds a secure spot on my rather limited (small apartment in Brooklyn) shelves. If you have a chance, seek it out!
MCCABE, Erin Lindsay. I Shall Be Near to You. 320p. Crown. Jan. 2014. Tr $24. ISBN 9780804137720. LC 2013028670.
Adult/High School–Despite her mother’s attempts to change her, Rosetta doesn’t like doing “woman’s work.” She is happiest working the farm with her father. When her fiancé and his friends join up to serve in the Union Army, they expect the war to be over in a few months. Rosetta doesn’t trust that sentiment and tries to dissuade him from joining. But the young men are determined to go, and after the wedding Jeremiah takes off, leaving Rosetta behind. Soon, her father hires a new hand to work the farm, and Rosetta finds herself with nothing to do and no one to turn to. Never afraid of hard work, she sets her mind to following Jeremiah, the only person who loves her for herself. She cuts her hair, binds her breasts, alters Jeremiah’s clothes, and heads off to join his regiment. She finds him and the other boys and slips into service as Private Ross Stone. As a part of the regiment, Rosetta fits in, and Jeremiah finally accepts her presence. But as the war progresses, and they enter battle after battle, they soon discover that war is all too real. Rosetta is an amalgam of the many women who disguised themselves as men to join the army during the Civil War. Reminiscent of the Bible story of Ruth, I Shall Be Near To You imagines the strength of love that motivates one young woman to defy all conventions in order to be close to the man she loves.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA
VANDERBES, Jennifer. The Secret of Raven Point. 320p. Scribner. Feb. 2014. Tr $26. ISBN 9781439167007; ebk. ISBN 9781439167052.
Adult/High School–Juliet is a science-loving 10th grader and her beloved brother, Tuck, is captain of the football team when they learn of the attack on Pearl Harbor, changing their idyllic small-town lives. As soon as they are eligible, Tuck enlists and Juliet begins training to be an army nurse. When Tuck goes missing in action, Juliet receives a disturbing, puzzling letter. Determined to find him, she manages to get assigned to a hospital camp on the front lines in Italy where her brother was last stationed. Months later, as Juliet despairs of learning anything about his disappearance, a soldier is brought in who served in Tuck’s company. Barnaby is comatose following a suicide attempt and has been labeled a coward. If he recovers, he faces court martial. Dr. Willard, a specialist in battle fatigue, arrives, hoping to treat Barnaby and make a case that his mental problems should preclude punishment. When Barnaby finally speaks, he only deepens the mystery of Tuck’s disappearance. As Juliet assists with endless amputations and watches countless men die, she loses her youthful naïveté, and cold, loneliness, and danger take their toll. Only her growing feelings for Willard and his efforts to save Barnaby give her hope. The immediacy and accessibility of Vanderbes’s writing coupled with a focus on the mental toll of combat are certain to appeal to teens who enjoy historical fiction or war novels. This is Juliet’s story, but it also immerses readers in a little-studied arena of World War II.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City