The Lauras, by Sara Taylor*****

TheLauras“It doesn’t do any good to just run away from something, you’ve got to be running to something.”

 

Alex’s mom has been hit one time too many by Alex’s dad, and she wakes Alex up and says to get a few things together and get in the car. They’re out of there. The rest of the story is an odyssey, both externally and internally, and within it, Alex comes of age. The story is beautifully crafted with gritty, nearly-tangible settings; however, it is the meticulous, absolutely believable characters that makes this story sing. It is the first outstanding work of fiction I’ve seen that features a transgender teen, and like so much great fiction, it provides an education to those of us that haven’t known anyone that claims this identity. In fact, this book may become the Rubyfruit Jungle for trans people and those that care about them. I read this novel free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Crown Publishing; it’s available to the public August 1, 2017.

Feminists have to cheer for Alex’s mother, who Alex calls “Ma”. Ma has a car, she has maps, she has some food, and she has Alex. When a state trooper pulls her over because both she and her car have been reported missing by Alex’s father, Ma tells him point blank that the car is in her name, and that Alex is hers, not theirs. No, she doesn’t need to come with him. No, she doesn’t have to make a phone call. It wouldn’t always play out this way for everyone, of course, but just seeing it work once, right here, is satisfying and it’s credible. In fact, there’s never a hole in the plausibility of this story, even though the events that unfold here are far from ordinary.

This trip, one that initially has a destination but turns into a wandering trek all across North America, gives Alex the first real taste of learning who Ma is. Any parent that has raised a teenager and has had a car understands the value of car talk. Both driver and passenger look straight ahead, and then sometimes things just naturally fall out of their mouths that otherwise would remain unsaid. Not having the money to keep a smart phone alive facilitates this even more; when there’s nothing else to look at, the choices are talk; silence; and sleep.

And so Alex learns that Ma was raised largely in foster care, and the road trip provides a chance to trace back the string, to see the places life bounced her in and out of through adult eyes. Essentially, they are homeless much of the time, sleeping in the car, in the occasional down-at-the-heels motel, and every now and then alighting long enough to procure an apartment, though never the sort you’d want unless you were desperate. Sometimes she works; sometimes they steal; sometimes they are given a handout; still, they survive, and the trek goes on. And we see the disastrous failure of the public school system to accommodate a kid like Alex, who is expected to check either the male box on the enrollment form, or the female box, and whose refusal to do so is treated as a behavioral issue.

There are times in my notes when I find myself referring to Alex as “she”, and it shows how ingrained our social system is, particularly for those of us that are older and have to work harder to think flexibly. At times I feel the same urge as those obnoxious school children Alex encounters in the story that want to know exactly what reproductive organ is inside Alex’s pants, because when I was growing up, that was how we identified gender. But as I watched Alex’s character take form within Taylor’s deep, intimate prose, I found that knowing Alex as Alex was enough. We never learn what’s between Alex’s legs, and by the end of the book, it no longer matters. That’s an accomplishment in and of itself.

As for Alex’s future, it’s a conundrum. What Alex wants most is for Ma to point the car toward home, toward Dad. Oh, please please please. It’s the refrain of children the world over whose parents have split, children clinging to the illusion that if they are all reunited, everything will be fine. Oh, of course it will! And we know early in the story that this will never happen, and we don’t want Ma to go back there. But Alex wants Ma, and Alex wants Dad. And this is a quandary that many readers will recognize as their own childhood longing.

One last word here is directed at teachers and parents. The literacy level here will be accessible to high school age students; however, there are sexual situations—as well as a sexual assault—and a lot of very profane language. If you wonder whether you want to put it on your shelf at school or home, get a copy and read it yourself first. I would have chosen to offer it to my own children when they were teens—they are grown now—but every family is different, and schools also have such a wide range of standards that you’re better off using your own judgment.

That said, this pivotal novel is highly recommended.

Amish Guys Don’t Call, by Debby Dodds****

AmishGuysDon't Amish Guys Don’t Call is funny, absorbing, and ultimately lifting. Dodds has a great heart for teenagers, and this title is one that should grace every high school and middle school library, and will also attract parents and teachers of adolescents. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Blue Moon Publishers. This book will be available to everyone June 13, 2017.

Samantha is still smarting from her parents’ divorce and her father’s inattention when her mother moves them to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is the heart of Amish country. Samantha has been in trouble for shoplifting, and the urge increases when she is in stressful situations. To her surprise and delight, she strikes up a friendship with Madison, who in turn pulls her into the most popular circle at school.  The one thing that gets in Sam’s way is her wholesomeness. She doesn’t drink, smoke, or use street drugs; not only is she still a virgin, but she’s never had a boyfriend. Madison tells Sam that all of this can end, with some careful time and grooming. Thus is “Project P” launched.

Despite the name of the boyfriend project, this book is free of explicit sexual situations. We see drug use, and sexual situations arise, so those considering whether this title is right for your teen or group of teens should bear this in mind. If in doubt, buy a copy for yourself and read it first.

At a big party held at night in a cornfield by Amish boys during their Rumspringa, a period in which some Amish groups permit their adolescents a taste of what the outside world is like and tolerate sometimes-extreme behaviors as a rite of passage, Samantha meets a young man named Zach. He’s handsome, and he’s drawn to her. We can tell from his behaviors (as well as the book’s title) that he is Amish, but it takes quite awhile for Sam to catch on. She is obsessed with his failure to provide her with his cell number. Is there another girl in the picture?

This story was a fun read, but I don’t recommend it to general audiences apart from those that really enjoy a wide variety of YA novels. Every nuance is explained thoroughly, and so whereas the text is accessible to students—with vocabulary at about the 9th grade level—most adults will want something more nuanced.  That said, if I were still in the classroom, I would purchase this title. Because the subject matter might provoke conservative parents, I would not use it as assigned reading or use it as a classroom read-aloud, but I know that a lot of students will want to read it.

Recommended for teens that are not from highly conservative backgrounds.

The Roanoke Girls, by Amy Engel*****

Happy release day! I read and reviewed this title back in December and called it “…smoking hot, a barn burner of a book.” Today it’s for sale. You won’t find anything like it out there.

Seattle Book Mama

theroanokegirlsAmy Engel makes her debut as a writer of adult fiction with this title, having begun her career writing fiction for young adults. The Roanoke Girls is smoking hot, a barn burner of a book, diving into some of society’s deepest taboos and yanking them from the shadows into the bright rays of Kansas sunshine, where the story is set, for us to have a look at them. It’s not available to the public until March 7, 2017, and frankly I don’t know how you are going to wait that long. I received a DRC for this title from Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the purpose of a review.

Lane grows up in New York City, raised by a mother that shows no sign of warmth or affection, a woman that seems to either cry or sleepwalk through most hours of most days. When she hangs herself, Lane bitterly…

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Setting Free the Kites, by Alex George*****

settingfreethekites“Hope is a curious thing. It emerges in the most unexpected places.”

Robert Carter is an introverted boy with few friends and loving but preoccupied parents. His life changes forever when he is befriended by a new kid at school. Nathan stands up for him when he is being assaulted by a bully, and a friendship is forged that will last for life. Thank you Net Galley and Penguin Putnam for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review.

Our story is set in a small Maine town in 1976. Nathan’s parents are creative people, sculpting, writing, building one-of-a-kind kites, but tragedy strikes early in the story and Nathan’s mother retreats into herself, and is not available to her only child. Robert’s parents are fond of Nathan, who also befriends Robert’s terminally ill brother Liam, and soon Nathan has found a second home.

Most reviewers describe Setting Free the Kites as a tragic tale, and they’re right, but what few people mention is how many really funny scenes lie in between the somber stuff. George’s writing has tremendous voice, one that brings these adolescent boys to life as few others do. I actually laughed out loud more than once, and this not only makes this a more enjoyable read, but also underscores the tragedy, taking the reader through a whole wide range of emotions.

The genre crosses between adult and young adult fiction. If I were still teaching highly capable language arts students, I’d want half a dozen copies of this book to use in a reading circle; that said, the sexual content would also force me to send home permission slips, because conservative parents would otherwise rampage into the district office with torches, hot tar and feathers. However, I consider this an outstanding enough read that I’d jump through some hoops to use it.

In some ways, however, it is more suited to literate adults. George uses a high vocabulary and uses it well. It’s certainly not a story I’d recommend to someone whose mother tongue is not English, because there’s too much cultural nuance and subtlety for that audience, and likewise, most adolescents won’t benefit from such a novel.

There are a couple off odd extraneous reveals toward the end of the story that startled me, and that did nothing to enrich the story or develop its characters. However, the rest of the book is so outstanding that it’s a five star read regardless.

This book is available to the public February 21, 2017. Highly recommended to those that love great literary fiction.

The Impossible Fortress, by Jason Rekulak*****

Happy Release Day! This exceptionally engaging YA title is available today, and you should read it.

Seattle Book Mama

theimpossiblefortressThe Impossible Fortress has been generating a lot of buzz since last summer when the review copies came out, and rightfully so. It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel, because it’s smoothly designed and hugely original. It’s written with a deftly woven plot that never misses a step; engaging characters that are nearly corporeal, they are so well sculpted; and an utterly captivating voice that unspools the narrative. Best of all, it’s hilarious! I thank Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for my DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review. This title comes out February 7, 2017.

When this reviewer retired from teaching, I buried myself in books I had long wanted to read, and I promised myself that I would never have to read another young adult novel. That promise to myself still holds true, but now and again I see a premise so…

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The Impossible Fortress, by Jason Rekulak*****

theimpossiblefortressThe Impossible Fortress has been generating a lot of buzz since last summer when the review copies came out, and rightfully so. It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel, because it’s smoothly designed and hugely original. It’s written with a deftly woven plot that never misses a step; engaging characters that are nearly corporeal, they are so well sculpted; and an utterly captivating voice that unspools the narrative. Best of all, it’s hilarious! I thank Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for my DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review. This title comes out February 7, 2017.

When this reviewer retired from teaching, I buried myself in books I had long wanted to read, and I promised myself that I would never have to read another young adult novel. That promise to myself still holds true, but now and again I see a premise so tantalizing that I know I want to read it anyway; this was one of those times. It’s a book you can read in a weekend, and once you have it, you won’t want to put it down anyway.

First I’d like to reassure readers that are most comfortable in the liberal arts realm that the programming jokes here are very shallow, and you can easily read this without missing anything even if you aren’t a tech type. I wrinkled my brow at the chapter headings and called my spouse, a network engineer, in to see them. He told me it’s just the chapter numbers written in code. So for those of you that hyperventilate around complicated math and science, it’s okay. Breathe.

Moving on to the story itself, here’s the set-up: it’s 1987, and Vanna White, America’s girl next door who’s seen every weeknight on television’s Wheel of Fortune, has posed nude for Playboy, and no one under the age of 18 can buy that magazine. The only place it’s even for sale in our depressed rustbelt neighborhood is in Zelinsky’s shop, and the man is unhinged when it comes to kids in his store. He’s had problems with crime, and on top of that, he’s grieving his wife’s death, and right at this moment, he’s in the anger, anger, anger stage.

Our 15 year old protagonist is Billy, a ninth grader whose mother works long hours and can’t supervise him effectively. His two longtime friends are Alf and Clark. The threesome is determined to get that Playboy from Zelinsky’s store. Since they can’t buy it from him, and since it’s kept behind the counter which the owner watches feverishly during all store hours, they’re going to have to steal a copy when the store is closed. Sort of steal it. They’ll sneak in; leave money on the counter; then leave with their magazines. They’ll want three, of course, so that each can have his personal copy.

When his hormones aren’t in overdrive, Billy loves computers more than anything. He sneaks a programming manual inside his textbook during class time, because it’s what he wants to learn about. His mother is beside herself when she sees his grades—“You’re failing Rocks and Streams!”—but she has no idea what to do about it. The only thing she can take away that Billy really cares about is his computer, and she does it, telling him he can have it back once his grades are up.

As it happens, our store owner has a daughter that’s about the same age as Billy, and she has a computer too. Billy is better with computers than any of his public school classmates, but Mary, a student at St. Agatha, is brilliant. He talks to her initially as part of the scheme to get into the store at night and filch the magazine, but once he sees what she can do online, he is transfixed, and he spends more and more time in the back of Zelinsky’s store watching what Mary can do on her computer. He notes that his own technical finesse next to Mary’s is “like finger painting next to Picasso.” As the friendship between them develops, Billy is torn between Mary and computers, versus Alf, Clark, and the magazine. He tries to back out of the plan they’ve agreed upon because he doesn’t want to hurt Mary’s feelings, but complications emerge.

Although Rekulak does a fine job developing Billy, the best developed character in this story is unquestionably Mr. Zelinsky.  As to setting, I am impressed with how much minutiae is absolutely accurate here. But it’s not the character development, setting, or plot that drives this novel; it’s the voice, which is as authentic in adolescent reasoning , planning, and oh dear heaven, in its impulsiveness as anything I have ever seen.

Whether you are a teen, a parent, a teacher, or a reader that’s just looking for a good laugh, you’ll find it here. Highly recommended.

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden*****

“Blood is one thing. The sight is another. But courage—that is rarest of all, Vasilisa Petrovna.”

 thebearandthenigh

The Bear and the Nightingale is the most brilliant fantasy novel I’ve seen since Tolkien wrote, and I want you to understand how different, how special it is. I received my copy free in exchange for an honest review—and those of you that read my last two reviews know that this privilege has never made me obsequious. Thank you Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the advance copy. It’s worth its weight in spun golden magic, and it will be available to the public this Tuesday, January 10, 2017.

 

“The brave live…The cowards die in the snow.”

 

Our protagonist is Vasilisa, affectionately known as Vasya; she’s an adolescent with many talents, some of which are supernatural. She generally keeps these abilities to herself, lest she be called a witch. Her father, Pyotr, is a minor prince in the frozen Northern hinterlands of Russia during the 14th century.  The setting here is mesmerizing, and from the first page I understood that this particular story is one I would save for late nights when my family is asleep. Let my other reading be interrupted by the minutiae of running a household, but not this one. This is a juicy tale, perfect for a cold winter night burrowed beneath the quilts. I open this magical tale and am lost inside it.

Our setting is ancient Northern Russia, then known as ‘Rus’, since no central government had formed yet. This is a time when women carry about as much social worth as a poker chip or livestock, and yet as the story progresses, I realize that this is a stand-up-tall feminist folk tale of the highest order; in fact, it’s a lot of things. This is the sort of debut that most likely causes writers like Harper Lee to go back in the house and never publish anything else, lest the second novel be considered a let-down after the first.  I hope, however, that we’ll see a lot more of Arden.

Our story commences in the house of Pyotr, a minor prince whose wife has died in childbirth. He loved Marina dearly, but as his daughters grow closer to marriageable age, he knows he must go to Moscow to seek a new bride to run his home, and marry his elder daughter Olga to a man of wealth and power. And though Olga’s match is a good one, it’s in Pyotr’s remarriage that things go badly wrong.

A brief note about the setting and other details involved with time and place. First know that this story does require a relatively high literacy level; for those that struggle with a high vocabulary level, it may prove to be more work than fun. However—for those reading digitally especially—please note that there’s a glossary at the back of the book. And those that are able to read this digitally on a device with a touch screen will be happiest of all, because it’s so easy to touch a word and get a definition immediately. I also ran a few searches due to curiosity, since I was not at all eager for this book to end. I took my time with it, and while I was buried in this magical world, I was nevertheless learning details of history and geography that I hadn’t known before.

Because I taught teenagers how to write for a number of years, it’s my natural inclination, even in an absorbing story such as Arden’s, to go back and look again to see what specifically produced this alchemy.  Undoubtedly, the development of multiple characters in a deft, expert manner is essential. There’s not one character in this story that I don’t believe. Every last one of them is real to me, a feat in and of itself when writing fantasy. It takes confidence and authority to tell the reader that although the story contains all manner of supernatural elements, it’s all true, and so are its characters.

But also, there are real life details true to the time and place that Arden weaves in seamlessly. As I reread some key passages, I note that when the men come indoors from the snowy woods, they aren’t merely cold, dirty and tired; they’re covered in scratches, they’re voracious, and their boots steam and stink up the room once they remove them. In another scene, when Pyotr travels far from home, he can afford fine guest lodging, but although he gets a big, soft, fluffy bed, he also has to put up with vermin, because they were a part of everyone’s life.  Such details contribute to the immediacy of the story.

It’s Arden’s outstanding word smithery that makes this story a standout. When Arden writes, the mists clear and we are transported, quivering in the snowy forest of the 14th century Russia, tearing pell mell across frozen ground on the back of a noble stallion, facing down death as demons scream and shadows dance.

I won’t spoil any of the subsequent plot points for you, but please know that this is a multifaceted story with a lot of secondary threads that contribute to the main story rather than distracting us from it.  To do so in a debut novel is stunning. A particularly interesting side character is Dunya, the nurse that has raised Vasya and has held onto a talisman intended for Vasya at great personal cost.

Messages and possible themes come out of the woodwork once one looks for them. A story such as this one, in which Vasya defends the old pagan deities against the religion of Kostantin, would once upon a time have caused conservative Christian parents to come screaming to the school with their lawyers on their cell phones in one hand and a flaming torch in the other. It could happen still, but what greater honor could Arden ask than to find her way into the ten most frequently banned books?

Meanwhile, in this trying time for independent women, we need strong female characters like Vasya and Dunya to remind girls and women that we are powerful, and that together, we can conquer those that would strip us of our autonomy and march us barefoot back to our kitchens. I have no idea whether any such direct political purpose is intended by Arden, but it certainly serves as a potent message: we will be oppressed only if we let that happen. Those that have even a fraction of Vasya’s independence, confidence and courage can not only prevent the door opportunity from slamming shut;  we can knock that door off its fucking hinges, for ourselves, our daughters, and theirs as well.

 

’All my life,’ she said, ‘ I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.’”

 

Those looking for themes here have a banquet of opportunities. Though I would say the story is one of solidarity among women, or of woman’s independence, there are so many other possibilities. One could make a case that this story is about loyalty; one could claim it’s about family. One could say it’s about the victory of the collective good over the pride, greed, and ambition of the individual.

One thing I can say for certain is that The Bear and the Nightingale is impressive any way you approach it. It holds the potential to become a favorite of the genre, handed down lovingly from one generation to the next.  Buy it for yourself, for your daughter, your mother, or for any woman that you love, or for someone that loves women and good fiction. A book like this doesn’t come along every day.

Don’t even think of missing this book. You can get it Tuesday, or better still, you can pre-order it now.

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, by Lindsey Lee Johnson*****

themostdangerousplaceThe place is Mill Valley, California, the most affluent community in the USA, and yet there’s serious trouble in paradise. Although this title is being marketed as a novel for young adult readers, a lot of adults will want to read it. It’s thought provoking and a real page-turner. Thank you to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review. I actually finished this book some time ago, but often I find that the most interesting, complex books are ones I will want to give considerable thought to before I review them; everything I have read and thought has to gel. So I apologize to the publishers for my tardiness, but it’s not a matter of not caring; maybe it’s a matter of caring too much.

My own background is in teaching inner-city teens and street kids, but Johnson makes a good case for attention toward the privileged yet sometimes neglected children of the upper middle class. This sophisticated story features a number of characters—teachers and students—in detail. We follow them from eighth grade into and to the end of high school. There’s baggage and drama left over from middle school that high school counselors, teachers, and administration won’t know about, and it carries over and influences events in ways no one can foresee.

One key player is Molly Nicholls, a brand new teacher whose age is closer to that of her students than to many of the teachers she works with, and who can’t tell the difference between caring for students, and becoming their peer; between the professional distance used by her colleagues to protect themselves both legally and emotionally, versus jaundiced burn-out.  Molly is flattered when students come to her with complaints about other teachers, and she loves it when they tell her that she’s different than they are. But then she hits a crisis point that may abort her new career if mishandled; and the fact is, these new ‘friends’ of hers are going to graduate, while she’ll be left behind with the colleagues she’s alienated.

She just doesn’t get it.

That said, we also meet students that are stuck in a variety of unenviable positions. Young Abigail believes that she is special indeed; Mr. Ellison, everyone’s favorite teacher, spends extra time with her, drives her around in his car. His wife doesn’t understand him the way she does; she’s crushed when she realizes that he doesn’t intend to leave his wife, and that they have no real future together. She might be absolutely powerless were it not for the other power dynamic in place here, that of the socioeconomic disparity between the students’ families, who live in ostentatious luxury, and the teachers, who either commute a great distance, or live, as Miss Nicholls does, in a converted tool shed for an apartment. The relationships and the components that skew them are absolutely riveting.

Mill Valley kids don’t worry about where their next meals will come from; they drive cars far nicer than those of their teachers, and instead of allowances, they have bank accounts and credit cards.  But what many of them lack is parental time and attention, and most of them lack boundaries. And adolescents really need boundaries; they need small, frequent reminders to check them when they cross an important line. Their teachers don’t dare provide the discipline and structure; they need these jobs. And the parents often won’t.

For example, there’s cyber-bullying.  Tristan Bloch is a special needs student whose social skills often lead to miscues, and the primal behaviors of adolescents lock onto those miscues like sharks when there’s chum in the water.  Miss Flax, a teacher that counsels Tristan, makes a horrible error when she suggests that he make a move toward Calista, a popular girl who’s going through a family crisis herself as her mother lies dying in a dark bedroom and her father comes unstuck. Calista turns to her friends to deal with Tristan’s unwanted advance.  The whole ugly mess erupts on Face Book, and the result is tragic.

 

 “Teachers like [Miss Flax] were always encouraging hopeless kids like Tristan to inject themselves into the social scene with ridiculous gestures—declarations of love, blind stabs at friendship—as if middle school were a safe haven in which to conduct these experiments,  when in fact it was the most dangerous place on Earth.”

 

Then there are those like Dave Chu, a B student whose parents will be crushed if he isn’t admitted to an Ivy League college. Dave studies constantly, but he doesn’t have the talent to get where his parents need him to go, and they won’t hear of his entry into an ordinary California state college. Dave’s anxiety turns to panic, and ultimately he’s driven toward an extreme personal solution .

There’s a host of controversial material here, and also limitless potential for students’ reactions to what’s provided. I can see parents offering their child with a copy to read, and I can also see other parents hot-footing it to their child’s middle or high school to demand its removal from the curriculum or even from the library shelves. One thing’s for sure though: it’s generated a lot of advance buzz, and that buzz will only get louder with publication. It’s meaty, complicated, and an unmissable read for parents of adolescents, as well as those considering entering the minefield of teaching.

You can buy this book January 10, 2017, and you should.  Highly recommended!

The Education of Dixie Dupree, by Donna Everhart*****

theeducationofdixieduI rate this 4.5 stars and round it upward. Thanks go to Kensington Publishing and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. This courageous novel, one that takes place in the past but couldn’t be more timely, is going to create a lot of buzz. Get your marshmallows ready, because I think I smell hot tar and burning wood…or is it paper?

A note: there’s no way to review this without providing at least the basic elements of the story. If you want to avoid spoilers entirely, read the book, then come back and check my viewpoint against your own.

Although it’s billed as being a story about mothers and daughters, and about secrets that pass from one generation to the next, that wasn’t my take away from this one, I have to say. From where I sit, the story is about domestic abuse, and about domestic abuse, and about domestic abuse. I haven’t seen a solid YA novel take this on in such a straight forward manner, and I think there are a lot of children, girls in particular, that will benefit from reading it. Would I read it out loud to a class? No, I would not. Rather, it’s a story better saved for reflection and possibly for discussion in a small group or with a reading partner. It takes a lot of trust just to talk about this book. In some school districts, teachers may face the battery of parental approval and permission slips. Oh, good luck with that.

Dixie tells us her own story. She’s born in a tiny, impoverished hamlet in Alabama in the 1960’s. Her parents are having money problems, and their relationship isn’t going well. Evie, Dixie’s mother, is on the verge of a breakdown of some sort, and she takes out her frustration and rage on the child that looks just like her, and that of course is Dixie. In an effort to apologize, she sits down with her daughter later on and tells her that there are times she can’t control herself:

“’I can’t explain why I react like I do sometimes, you know? It’s done and I can’t take it back, although God knows, I wish I could.’

“I whispered, my voice hoarse, ‘God don’t hear us.’”

At one point a social worker shows up at the house and Dixie has to decide whether to spill it or sweep it under the rug. It’s interesting to see how it plays out.

Ultimately, Evie summons her family for help, and Uncle Ray comes all the way from New Hampshire to lend assistance. Unfortunately, Uncle Ray has a whole lot of demons of his own.  Dixie doesn’t like the way Ray stares at her as if she were his next meal; she doesn’t like the way he brushes up against her. But when she tries to tell her brother how she feels, he laughs at her and points out that she isn’t all that attractive, and her body hasn’t exactly grown boobs; why would a grown up man be interested in dumb old Dixie? And so Ray, who is the sole source of grocery and clothing money for this miserable clan, is left to do what he wants to do unchecked.

“Uncle Ray smelled different, not of Old Spice, but something else, something sharper.”

When Dixie threatens to expose him, Uncle Ray points out that it’s basically his word against hers, and would she prefer he close his checkbook and drive back to New Hampshire? By now Dixie knows what it’s like to be genuinely hungry for days on end. President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society plan has not yet taken root; there isn’t any assistance available from the state. Sometimes a kid had to stay quiet or starve.

“I felt something break, something turned off like a light switch in the very center of me.”

It’s a hard, hard story to read, and yet I can’t help think of all the girls and women that will read this book and know that they aren’t so strange or terrible, and that this does happen to other girls in other families.

I’ve tried not to give away more than the broadest contours of the story so that you can find out the details for yourself. One thing that I would change if I had the power is the whole adoption thread, which is superfluous and In its own way, more harmful than helpful. It’s almost as if the author is afraid to acknowledge that blood relatives will do this thing to their very own children; yet they will. Hell yes, they will. Any teacher that’s been in the classroom for a few years can tell you that much.

As for me, I have my own story.  [Skip paragraph if you prefer to stick to the book itself.] There were some awkward guitar lessons I had when I was about twelve years old. My guitar instructor had recently decided to teach out of his home; he lived alone. One day after my private lesson, my father asked me, in the car, how that lesson had gone. I was a little afraid of being made fun of, but I told him anyway that my instructor made me feel uncomfortable. I felt as if I spent as much time walking my folding chair away from his as I did working out the chords on the neck of my instrument. I’d move over; he’d move over. His hand would land on my thigh while we were talking. I’d flinch, pull away, and move my chair. He’d move his chair. All of this within the framework of a perfectly normal guitar lesson, if you ignored all the strange furniture and hand-moving. My father, who died in 1978, heard what I said and told me we could get another guitar teacher. I asked if I would have to be the one to tell the man that I wasn’t returning, and he said no. Just consider that chapter over and done.

If only it could be so easy for everyone.

The book isn’t easy, but girls deserve the chance to read it if they want to, and likely there are some boys that could stand to read it, too. This book is for sale now; highly recommended.

Second Daughter: the Story of a Slave Girl, by Mildred Pitts Walter**

seconddaughterstoryofaslavegirlSecond Daughter is historical fiction based on the true story of an enslaved woman that went to court and won her freedom in New England around the time of the American Revolution. I received this DRC free from Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media in exchange for an honest review. And it’s just as well, because if I had paid any money at all for this brief but troubled book, I would be deeply unhappy.

First, let’s examine the positive aspects that allowed the second star to happen. Walter has nailed setting, and when Aissa, the girl that serves as our narrator, describes the kitchen of her master’s house, we are there and can see it all. Here she does an excellent job. Other settings are also well told.

Second, the length, just 119 pages, is accessible for young adult readers, many of whom find it difficult, in these technologically advanced times, to focus all the way through a full length novel.

Unfortunately, the problems outweigh the virtues. I have two issues that plant this story on my literary wall of shame. The first is technical, the second philosophical.

Technically I see this as a decent if unmemorable read, and were I to judge this strictly on the writer’s skill, I would call this a three star novel. Overlong passages of narrative, often unbroken by action or dialogue and in lengthy paragraphs, are likely to hit the average adolescent’s snooze button early on. The choice to tell everything in past tense as opposed to the more widely used literary present deadens the pace further. When we finally do get a passage of dialogue, it is so stiff and stilted that not even the most engaging teacher, when reading this out loud to her class, could possibly breathe life into it. One character is depicted as speaking with a Sambo-like dialect, all “dis” and “dat”. If one is going to use a dialect, make it respectful and readable.  This verges on mimicry, and any Black students in the room that haven’t tuned out or gone to sleep yet are going to be pissed, and rightly so.

I can see that Walters meant well in writing from the point of view of a Black slave girl and in depicting a victory gained by Black people on their own behalf, as opposed to the usual torture, death, and despair that represented those kidnapped and forced into slavery. But this is also where I have to step back and ask what the ultimate effect of this book will be on students that read it.

For the average or below average middle school student, reading all the way through even a fairly brief novel such as this one will likely be the only book they make it through during the term in which slavery is covered in the social studies, humanities, or language arts/social studies block. Part of the power of good literature—which this isn’t, and in some ways that may be for the better—is that it drives home a central message. I can envision students that pay attention to this book, perhaps because the teacher is particularly engaging and has driven home its importance, and then walking away from the term’s work convinced that all any slave in any part of the USA ever had to do to get out of his or her predicament was to find a good attorney, take the matter to court, and bang, that’s it, we’re free. Let’s party.

This novel addresses a relatively brief period in the northern states, where slavery had been legal but had not been as widespread as in the Southern states. King Cotton had not become the dominant economic mover it would become by 1850, when its grip on all of US governmental institutions would be absolute. By then, northerners made their money indirectly from the cotton industry in everything from shipping, boat building, rope making, and banking to growing crops for consumption by Southerners and in some cases, for their slaves.

If one is going to teach about slavery, far better to do so as part of an American Civil War unit. It’s a tender, sensitive, painful thing for children of color, but it’s not okay to deceive them, however unintentionally, with the misimpression that all slaves had options that they didn’t.  Better to use portions of Alex Haley’s Roots; teach about the vast but much-ignored free Black middle class in the north that was the primary moving force behind the Underground Railroad; or to show the movie “Glory” in class to emphasize the positive, powerful things that African-American people did during this revolutionary time, than to emphasize something as obscure, limited, and potentially misleading as what Walter provides here.

I am trying to think of instances in which this book might be part of a broader, more extensive curriculum such as the home-schooling of a voracious young reader, yet even then I find myself back at the technical aspect, which results in a book that is dull, dull, dull. Literature should engage a student and cause him or her to reach for more, rather than make students wonder if it will ever end.

In general I have resolved to read fewer YA titles than when I was teaching and treat myself to more advanced work during my retirement. I made an exception for this title because the focus appeared to be right in my wheelhouse, addressing US slavery and the civil rights of Black folk in America. I regret doing so now, but it doesn’t have to happen to you too.

Save yourself while there’s time. Read something else. And for heaven’s sake, don’t foist this book on kids.