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Weekly Reviews: Historical Fiction
Some of you might think I’m stretching the definition of historical fiction with the first book up today. But if we consider historical fiction as works in which historical backdrop plays a strong role in the story, I think this qualifies. In any case, I am excited to introduce My One Square Inch of Alaska, a traditional coming of age novel set in the 1950s. Not only is it a wonderful read, but it is somewhat rare among our recommendations because there is no reason not to hand it to teens as young as 8th grade, and especially to those who prefer a heartwarming, “clean” read. And it’s a dog story, too!
In my review I puzzled over why this novel was not published as young adult. I found the answer in a blog post by the author. Apparently she was told by an editor that YA fiction set in the first half of the 20th century never sells. And, to be fair, once the author started revising it to be adult it felt better to her. Readers of all ages will appreciate the “Big Idea” of her novel – “the power of embracing, believing in and following one’s dreams.”
I have to admit that the emotional impact of this novel snuck up on me. I enjoyed getting to know the characters, particularly Donna and Will, in the beginning, but assumed this would be a rather light-hearted read. I finished the book with tears in my eyes, ready to recommend it to friends and students alike. This could be a tough sell because of the cover — I wish the dog was bigger.
Now on to two novels based on historical people and events.
Our starred review of the day goes to The Painted Girls, which is set during a time period that many readers, teens included, find fascinating — Paris in the 1880s. The novel appeals for a few reasons, from a portrait of painter Edgar Degas and the age of Impressionism, to the world of ballet dancers and an intense sister relationship. (Hey, this would make for an interesting companion to The Cranes Dance, wouldn’t it?) This is not always a pretty story, encompassing murder, prostitution, and lots of personal struggle. Mature teens will not be able to put it down.
Buchanan’s website includes a page of works by Degas and the passages from her novel where they are mentioned. I was thinking that this novel reminded me of works by Susan Vreeland or Tracy Chevalier, and then I noticed that the Washington Post review was actually written by Susan Vreeland. Nicely played!
The Aviator’s Wife is a novel about the life of Anne Morrow, who married Charles Lindbergh. Their lives encompassed fame, heartbreak, tragedy and scandal. Although celebrity is a very different animal today, there are teens who will be interested in its earlier iterations. Benjamin’s website includes a page outlining the history involved, both family history and some of the events portrayed.
Adult/High School–In September 1953, Donna Lane has little idea of the twists and turns her senior year will hold. She’s been doing her best to take care of her 10-year-old brother Will, working to help support her family, and put a little away so she can move to New York after graduation. Their mother died of cancer several years before, and their father is largely absent or drinking. Will is a good kid whose goal in life is to finish 10 boxes of Marvel Puffs cereal so he can enter and win the contest for a deed to “One Square Inch of Alaska.” But, as elderly MayJune says, “the biggest turns in life come when you’re paying the least attention, making small choices you don’t yet know will change everything.” Donna allows her brother to take breakfast leftovers to Trusty, an abused dog chained up across town. She agrees to skip school with her best friend, Babs, thereby meeting Jimmy–the wealthy son of the town’s mill owner. And she applies to sit as a model for her art teacher to earn extra money. What begins as a rather lighthearted, straightforward coming-of-age novel gains a deeper edge when Donna realizes that she has the talent to pursue fashion design, hears the surprising truth about her mother, and learns that Will’s fainting spells are due to more than poor nutrition. Will kidnaps Trusty following a particularly brutal beating, which sets off a cross-country journey that turns increasingly perilous. One can only wonder why this novel was not published as young adult. An affecting read, appropriate for even the youngest high school audiences.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City
Adult/High School–Told in alternating chapters, beginning in 1878, this is the story of two sisters who are a part of the Paris Opera Ballet. Based on known facts of the van Goethem sisters’ early lives, the novel spans four years, beginning when Antoinette is 17 and Marie is 13. Living in abject poverty with a mother who is never without her bottle of absinthe, Antoinette acts the mother to her sisters (there’s also Charlotte, not yet 8); she longs to be the “shield that keeps them from the harshness of the world.” Things begin to unravel when Antoinette falls for Emile, a hustler and thief who ultimately goes on trial for two murders. Marie, working her way up the ballet ranks, catches not only the eye of Edgar Degas, who hires her as a model for many years, but also a wealthy ballet patron who uses her for his sexual pleasures. The gulf between the sisters grows, and it is after Antoinette’s arrest for theft and during her sentence that she transforms her life and knows she must save Marie, who has stepped through a door to a “ruined life.” The end skips ahead 14 years, and one is left with a lasting impression of sisterly love and redemption. This is a beautifully told and utterly captivating story replete with historical detail, primary-source material, and distinctly drawn characters that will transport readers to Paris in the late 1800s.–Jane Ritter, Mill Valley School District, CA
Adult/High School–It is 1927, and Anne is home for the holidays in Mexico where her father is the U.S. Ambassador, expecting to relax. But dashing Charles Lindbergh is also visiting. Everyone worships him, Anne included. All of the Morrows expect Anne’s beautiful older sister to interest him, but it is Anne who catches his attention. The two bond during a late night flight and long car rides; it isn’t long before he asks her to marry him. They are revered as “the couple” to follow. They fly airplanes all over the world and have fabulous adventures. Everywhere they go they are courted and admired. The birth of their son, Charles, caps their popularity until one day, at 18 months of age, he is kidnapped, only to be found dead weeks later. Their blessed life is shattered. Searching for solitude, they head to Europe where they meet with world leaders. Examining the growing German air force, Charles becomes enamored with Hitler, until his aggression becomes clearly apparent. Anne and Charles return home determined to serve their country against this threat. But as Charles finds solace in activity, Anne searches inward and devotes herself to raising their children, and to writing. Time, separation, and Charles’s obsessive nature strain their marriage. Told as flashbacks in the style of a memoir, The Aviator’s Wife is a compelling read. Given its memoir format, it is also a challenge to know what is truth and what is fiction. This is the story of a marriage, and teens will gain insight not only into a slice of American history, but also inside the world of two incredibly fascinating people.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA
About Angela Carstensen
Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.
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