I know how much Jonathan likes this book because he wrote the starred Horn Book review. Other reviews rave as well. Besides great characters, it boasts a deceptively strong voice that wants to be read aloud. The sort of voice you just disappear into so you forget it’s a voice, and not the events transpiring before you.
However…I wonder how much of the raving and starring has to do with adults’ own connections with Grandma Dowdel, and fond memories of her previous escapades. The writing stands out; but how far does it stand out to a child reader with no previous experience of Grandma Dowdel, among this year’s other books? (Jonathan’s article on sequel prejudice may have some bearing here, lack-of-fantasy notwithstanding.)
Now, Roger’s been hanging on to his popcorn for this criticism, which I’ve yet to see even alluded to in a printed review. It has to do with the digging up of alleged-Kickapoo-Princess bones. Or, rather, the way it’s presented to readers. There’s a running theme through this book about the ghost of a Kickapoo Princess haunting Grandma Dowdel’s melon patch. This is a work of historical fiction, and I’m sure that the characters’ conversations about the Princess and her haunting and her headress are historically accurate to the sorts of conversations you’d have heard of such among White people in that place and time. But this still makes it no less painful for a Native child to hear now. Yes, there are works of historical fiction published now in which other ethnic minorities are spoken of disparigingly in an historical context…but generally the context is clear to an extent that I don’t think it is here. Still, this point is a "fine line" sort of debate.
It’s mostly the digging-up-and-reburying of the "bones" that really upsets me. I put "bones" in quotes because Grandma Dowdel being shifty with the truth, it’s clear that she probably didn’t find any real bones. But the actuality of the bones doesn’t matter. Grandma Dowdel uses the "bones" to launch Bob’s Dad’s church with a highly-publicized funeral. And Peck’s intent as author is to make the reader feel like Bob’s Dad is doing something good and sympathetic with his funerially sermon…and that Grandma Dowdel was being both clever and kind in enginnering it. However, what Grandma Dowdel is doing is capitilizing on the publicity that a "Kickapoo Princess Ghost" generates to insure the success of a Christian Church. Bob’s Dad goes along with it, and–even if only symbolically–consigns desecrated remains to a Christian burial.
Please think about it for a minute. Picture a funny historical novel in which the bones of a Jewish ghost are dug up to create some advertising for the new local Methodist Ministry (but "all in good fun" of course)….and tell me there’s not something a little un-distinguished going on here.