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Based on a True Story

Before I began writing this post, I always believed that the famous retort to the question of why one would climb Mount Everest–“Because it’s there”–had been spoken by Edmund Hillary, the first Westerner to ascend to the peak. But in fact, they were the words of George Mallory, the first of three real life figures who lives have been fictionalized in the books under review today.  Mallory, in turns out, was an altogether more tragic, and more intriguing figure, who died on the slopes of Everest in his third attempt to reach the peak, and (it now seems possible) may have beaten Hillary to the top.  This third attempt, and its effects on Mallory’s wife, are the true story upon which Tanis Rideout’s Above All Things is based.

For readers looking for the truth behind the novel, there is a ton of material about Mallory’s life, including a highly regarded documentary called The Wildest Dream (2010), featuring the talents of Liam Neeson, Natasha Richardson, and Ralph Fiennes, among others.  For books, there are several to choose from, starting with Wade Davis’s Into the silence : the Great War, Mallory, and the conquest of Everest, a massive (650 page), but very readable tome on the entire quest for Everest.  Readers looking for something a bit more approachable might start with Peter and Leni Gillman’s The Wildest Dream : the Biography of George Mallory (Mountaineers Books, 2000), which probes many of the same issues as Above All Things–especially the question of Mallory’s motivation for his final climb.

An explorer in a totally different realm, Maria Mitchell was the first professional American astronomer.  Amy Brill’s highly anticipated The Movement of Stars is much more loosely based on Mitchell than Rideout’s novel is on Mallory.  Just for starters, Brill has changed her character’s name, but she’s taken many other liberties as well.  Fortunately, what comes out of these changes is an incredible historical novel that is being lauded all over the place.

Mitchell’s life has been fictionalized before, in Elizabeth Fraser Torjesen’s Comet Over Nantucket: Maria Mitchell and Her Island: The Story of America’s First Woman Astronomer (Friends United Press, 1984), but the most recent (and highly recommended) nonfiction account of her life is Renée Bergland’s Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science: An Astronomer Among the American Romantics (Beacon Press,  2008)

Finally, Hannah Weyer’s On the Come Up is based on the life of actress Anna Simpson. Weyer, a documentary director, met Simpson while Simpson was filming Our Song, at the young age of 14, and Weyer became intrigued by her story, eventually producing this debut novel.  For teen readers looking for a bit of truth in their fiction–here’re three great new novels.

RIDEOUT, Tanis. Above All Things. 400p. Amy Einhorn: Putnam. Feb. 2013. Tr  $26.95. ISBN 9780399160585.

Adult/High School–At 19,325 feet above sea level on Everest, George Mallory and his team of explorers set up camp. Their breathing is labored; their vision blurry; and ice forms around their eyes, nose, and cheeks. At 26,900 feet, they experience all that in addition to a driving wind and blinding snowstorm. And somewhere near, or at the summit, Mallory and his “final push” climbing partner, Sandy, disappear as the cold envelopes their last grasp for the top. Meanwhile, at home in England, Mallory’s wife, Ruth, waits for news. After an earlier thwarted attempt at reaching the summit, she had hoped that George was done with climbing Everest, but intercepting a congratulatory telegram she learns that he has been accepted as a member of a new climbing team, and so he heads off to the mountain yet again. In this reflective look at George and Ruth’s relationship, Ruth tells her own story, grounded in the routine of a single day of waiting. George’s story is also that of his team, with each chapter covering a greater height–starting at the 17,000 foot base camp–describing the ascent, the teamwork, and the commitment that all have toward getting one of them to the top. Rideout describes the painstaking effort it takes to climb above 19,000 feet as well as the herculean effort it takes to maintain a semblance of normalcy when one is consumed with worry and hope. Give this to teens who like both sides of a story. –Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA

BRILL, Amy. The Movement of Stars. 400p. Riverhead. April 2013. Tr  $27.95. ISBN 9781594487446.

Adult/High School–Life in Nantucket in 1845 is circumscribed for Hannah Price. She is an obedient member of the Society of Friends, she catalogs and organizes books at the Atheneum, she looks after her father and their home, and she longs for the return of her twin brother, who has gone off on a whaling vessel. But at night, she climbs to the roof of her home and spends hours surveying the night sky, hoping to discover a new comet and win the King of Denmark’s gold medal and the cash prize that goes with it. Things change for Hannah when a young seaman from the Azores comes to her for lessons in celestial navigation. Her conversations with Isaac and her growing attraction to him lead her to realize that her community is not as open-minded and generous as she had once thought. Meanwhile, Hannah herself must come to terms with her own prejudices; it is astronomy that helps her break her out of the life she always expected to live into one that includes a wider world. Based very loosely on the life of the astronomer Maria Mitchell, this historical novel paints an intriguing picture of a young woman who managed to go beyond the boundaries set for her by her time and place in society. Teens will enjoy this accessible tale of the life of a determined young woman in mid-19th-century New England. The author also includes notes about the ways in which her character’s life are similar to and differ from Maria Mitchell’s.–Sarah Flowers, formerly of Santa Clara County Library, CA

WEYER, Hannah. On the Come Up: A Novel, Based on a True Story. 320p. Nan A. Talese. July 2013. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9780385537322.

Adult/High School–AnnMarie lives in the isolated urban community of Far Rockaway, Queens with her mother, Blessed, a West Indies immigrant, barely subsisting on disability and welfare. As the novel opens, AnnMarie is selling homemade popsicles on the beach and crushing on Darius, an older boy with his own recording studio. She is a talented singer who longs to go out with her older friends. Somehow she remains an innocent in a world in which gang violence and sex are ubiquitous. Even so, not far into ninth grade she finds herself 14 and pregnant. Darius is excited; AnnMarie is proud but scared–Darius is not the prince he initially seemed to be. He makes money robbing local stores and becomes abusive after his equipment is repossessed. AnnMarie transfers to a school for pregnant teens where she sees a flyer advertising open auditions for an independent film. She takes the subway to Manhattan for the first time in her life and, after many callbacks and meetings, gets the part. Filming begins right after her daughter is born, and suddenly she’s working long days and up most nights with the baby. The film has a short but successful run and makes it to the Sundance Festival. But just how does it change AnnMarie’s life? Suffice it to say, there is no fairytale ending, but simply expanding her world beyond Far Rock makes a difference. Filmmaker Weyer based her novel on a true story and uses an authentic “urban vernacular” to keep it real. While the language and events are not explicit enough to disturb most teens, the story is intimate enough to appeal.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City

About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is the Young Adult Librarian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Vallejo, CA. He reviews for a variety of library journals and blogs and recently contributed a chapter to The Complete Summer Reading Program Manual: From Planning to Evaluation (YALSA, 2012). Contact him via Twitter @droogmark


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