There is nothing in this livelong world that I hate more than a dishonest historical novel. I mean it. Thumbtack the words “dishonest historical novel” to a dartboard and watch my aim fly true. I’m sure you know the kind I mean. There are tons of books out there in which a hero or heroine feels strongly about some historical injustice without any rhyme or reason aside from garnering the sympathy of the contemporary reader. Phooey, sayeth I. That is revisionist history and I shall have none of it. So I was unprepared for an author who was, in turn, prepared for a reader like me. Open A. LaFaye’s novel Stella Stands Alone and the first sentence to pop off the page is on a page entitled “Wishful Thinking” reading, “You’ve heard of historical fiction, but you may not know about `alternate history,’ which is a special category of historical fiction.” LaFaye you clever dog you, you’ve figured it out! Under normal circumstances authors like to use the old “alternate history” technique to come up with crazy situations like Gary Blackwood’s The Year of the Hangman where the British capture George Washington. LaFaye opts for a less brazen concept. What if there had been a single plantation in the south that, after the Civil War, believed in giving reparations to its slaves? It didn’t happen, it couldn’t have happened, and rather than write a story that blithely asserts that it would have happened LaFaye instead posits a question right from the start asking whether or not it should have happened. The result is a surprisingly gripping tale of a single girl’s attempt to hold on to what’s hers in an attempt to help others hold onto what’s theirs.
When Stella’s father died she was in possession of several facts. First, she can talk to God. Or rather, God tells her things. Useful things. Things she can use in her day-to-day life. Second, her father long since paid off the purchase of the plantation Oak Grove, where in this post-Civil War era the African-American workers own their own land and homes. Third, her neighbor Daniel Richardson has the whole county in his pocket and won’t rest until Oak Grove can be his as well. Now Stella’s parents are both dead, their wills and papers missing, and before the auction of her land it’s up to her to find a way to keep it not only operating but also free from the clutches of Mr. Richardson. Even if it means placing her hopes and fears on a Yankee. Even if it means facing up to ugly truths she has ignored for far too long.
Now as I’ve said before, I can’t stand it when a work of historical fiction suddenly decides to trump reality in favor of planting a character with our contemporary values smack dab in the past. It really chaps my hide. And with her little “alternate history” move, LaFaye dodges much of my wrath. I was still wary after I read that first page, though. I envisioned a Pollyanna type of gal taking on racists head-on with spunk and verve. My worries were abated not at all by the blurb on the cover by Pam Munoz Ryan who calls Stella, “a memorable and feisty character.” Oop ack. I am a bit tired of feisty characters. But truth be told, Stella isn’t exactly feisty. Sure she can wield a gun to shoot Klan members off her lawn, but her personality is this bizarre mix of low-key and softly simmering panic. She doesn’t really cut loose until she finds herself being held under another’s sway, and even that has the fiery anger of righteous indignation, not the aw-shucks adorableness of a girl with too much spirit. For some reason, it was Stella’s off-putting nature that caused her to fit snugly within the era LaFaye constructed for her. She is a freak, and so she fits. If that makes any sense at all.
Read enough girls-who-wear-pants characters in children’s literature and they all start to blur together. Is this the one who does cartwheels in overalls on her front lawn or the one who looks enough like a boy that no one ever questions her right to flounce about in trousers? Stella’s boyish behavior looks fine and dandy to our contemporary eyes, and indeed usually in these cases the book would end before any serious consideration is made concerning the protagonist’s future and place in society. Indeed Stella establishes several times the fact that she has no interest in marriage or anything. But I was intrigued when I discovered that she didn’t particularly care about reading. When I say that there’s a form and a pattern to these kinds of stories, I’m not kidding. The pants-wearing girl almost always is a bookworm from page one. But Stella bucks this trend right from the start. She is not interested in reading or literature or myths or fables. And so when she is suddenly educated and told to start dressing like a lady of her own era, it’s an affront to her and a surprise to us. Stella’s wild ways aren’t entirely on the up and up? But she’s our heroine! How does that work? Just chalk it up to one of a million tiny surprises LaFaye has hidden up her sleeves.
Another concern I had (do you ever get the feeling I read children’s historical fiction solely to come up with problems?) was concerning the former slaves in this book. If I’ve pet peeves against feisty heroines and convenient historical changes, those are nothing against books where a whitte person swoops in to save a whole bunch of innocent black/Hispanic/Asian/American Indian/etc. people who can regard that person as their knight and savior. To my great relief, here was yet ANOTHER potential problem nipped in the bud. Stella is attempting to save her home and those of her family’s sharecroppers, but the black people in this book don’t trust her as far as they can throw her. And frankly, can you blame them? When it looks like she could profit from their misfortune, particularly in this period of Reconstruction, they are more than willing to believe the worst of her. This disappoints Stella, sure, but any canny reader could see that these people have every reason in the world to regard her with a wary eye. In fact, if it weren’t for them she wouldn’t be able to convince her Yankee to buy her farm either. This is a story about a partnership born in the most unlikely, yet strangely believable, of circumstances. No mean feat.
I’ve talked so much about what the book doesn’t do that I’ve hardly left room for what it does do, have I? Well, I will tell you right now that it’s a fascinating story. Here we have a pseudo-savant who, like Joan of Arc, can speak to God (and has her own personal relationship to fire as well). The whole holy aspect of the novel could jar terribly with its historical vibe, but LaFaye is careful to not overplay her hand. A canny child reader could just as easily assume that Stella’s connection with God is a self-fulfilling prophecy, if they felt so inclined. Her voice is clear and consistent through and through, as are the voices of the people around her. No modern terms or out-of-time slang dog this novel.
If I had any problem with the story I’d have to say that the book is a bit too long. For the first half or so you worry about how Stella will manage to save the farm. For the second half, it’s a concern over whether or not she’ll be able to keep it in one piece. But at 245 pages it drags at times. LaFaye effectively ratchets up the drama, keeping the reader willing to turn page after page in the hopes of figuring out the solution to Stella’s predicament. It just seems as though there are a lot of pages at the start that could have been trimmed a little. From the auction onwards it’s all good. It’s just that opening that needs getting through.
Historical fiction is no place for the weak. It requires agility, vetting, accuracy, and skill. Talents that A. LaFaye has already exhibited as a Scott O’Dell Award winner and will continue to exploit with her future books, I’m sure. Stella Stands Alone isn’t going to grab every reader that passes it, but for the right kind of child it may provide exactly what it is that they’re looking for. A book that could easily fly under your radar. Don’t allow this one to get away.
On shelves now.
Notes on the Cover: Hoo boy. Okay, so this a cover fighting amongst itself. On the surface, this is a rather lovely jacket, right? Pretty reds and browns and oranges . . . and sepia. Oh, sweet sepia. Yes, what we have here is a cover that has dared to use a little brown in its make-up. Not a lot, of course. Not huge swaths of it like that unfortunate Homefront by Doris Gwaltney (a really great novel cursed by its cover to never be read). But enough to turn off potential readers, no question. At least the font’s nice. Also, is it just me or does the house on the cover look like a nice suburban home (particularly when you notice the trimmed hedges out front) rather than a Southern plantation? It looks like someone took a drive in the Westchester, shot a picture of a house there, Photoshopped some fire on top and BAM. Instant burning house. That’s just weird, guys. Seriously, you could have just duplicated Tara from the Gone With the Wind movie or something, couldn’t you? Reconstruction era this is not.
- You can download the reading guide here if you like.
- Or you could read the first page and then some.