The Hired Girl

by Laura Amy Schlitz
First sentence: “Today Miss Chandler gave me this beautiful book.”
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Content: ┬áThere’s some harsh illusions to domestic violence in the beginning and some illusions to sex near the end, but nothing actual. It’s in the YA (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Joan is a 14-year-old Pennsylvania farm girl in the early 1900s who longs to be Educated and See the World. However, ever since her mother died, she has been increasingly chained to the farm by her boorish and harsh father. He forces her to withdraw from the local school, but the last straw was when he burned her books. So, she packs up in the middle of the night, and heads to Baltimore to Make Her Fortune.

Her fortune turns out to be Solomon Rosenbach, who finds her distraught in the park with nowhere to go. He brings her home and his mother hires Joan — who is pretending to be 18 and is going by Janet — to be the hired girl. From there, Joan becomes a part of the Rosenbach family’s lives, sometimes with positive results and other times not so much.

It sounds pretty mundane, but in Schlitz’s hands, this time period comes alive. Not only does she capture the cusp of the women’s movement: the idea that women can be educated and can be live without husbands and fathers, she captures a girl who is out discovering not only the world, but herself. Additionally, Joan’s voice is so captivating that it makes the book a delight to read.

But what I liked best — being religious myself — is the way Schlitz addressed religion. The Rosenbach’s are Jewish, and while not Orthodox, they do practice their religion. And Joan is a Catholic. Or at least, she’d like to be because her mother was. Schlitz explores prejudice and Antisemitism, explores how to practice your own religion while respecting that of other people around you. All of which is not only relevant, but interesting.

I do have to admit that I kind of lost interest near the end, when there is some Drama involving another Rosenbach son. But, Schlitz even handled that well, and the last chapter gave the book a good ending.

Overall, a good book.

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Room With a View

by E. M. Forester
First sentence: “‘The Signora had no business to do it,’ said Miss Barttlet, ‘no business at all.'”
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Content: ┬áThere’s some mild swearing, but not much at all. It’s dated, and English, but not too difficult to understand. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I don’t know when I first read this one; probably sometime soon after the Merchant Ivory movie (which I own still on videotape!) came out in the 1980. I don’t know when I got the copy I own, either. (A duo with Howard’s End). I do know that it’s loved enough that it’s falling apart.

And it’s well worth it.

I love Lucy’s innocence and Charlotte’s fussbudget-ness and George’s impulsiveness and Mr. Emerson’s progressiveness and Cecil’s snobbishness. I love Forester’s commentary on the Victorian English upperclass. I love it all. (And yes, I do firmly have the movie in mind when I read.)

I don’t have much more to say; this has been one of my comfort reads in the past, and it was absolutely delightful revisiting it again after being away for so long.

The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate

by Jaqueline Kelly
First sentence: “To my great astonishment, I saw my first snowfall on New Year’s Day of 1900.”
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Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: It’s a bit old-fashioned and there are a lot of scientific words, but if you’ve got that sort of 9 year old reader, it’d be perfect for them. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the library.
Others in the series: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

I was super excited to find out that my favorite scientific Texan was back in a second installment. I really adored Calpurnia the first time around, and was very excited to spend more time with her. It’s 1900, and Calpurnia is doing her best to keep up with her scientific studies with her grandpa. It’s hard, especially with pressure from both her parents to be more ladylike. Calpurnia would much rather be tromping around the forests and swamps near their central Texas home, collecting specimens. Or studying the stars and weather.

Then a hurricane hits Galveston (a fact which sent me to Google to find out if it was real. It was.), and Calpurnia’s life changes. In to town blows an older cousin (who is, understandably, distraught) and a veterinarian. All of a sudden, Calpurnia has found a calling. The problem? She has to fight to let people even consider the idea of her wanting to be a vet.

Much like the first one, the charm in this is in the narration. Calpurnia is such a delight to spend a book with. This time, I felt her frustration and pain at being a second-class citizen, in her school, in her house, around the town. It seems that everyone, except grandpa, decided already that girls can’t do anything non-girly, and it was a wall Calpurnia kept banging up against. I admired her perseverance in breaking down barriers.

Also, like the first one, I thoroughly enjoyed all the science and the little historical details that Kelly uses to make Texas in 1900 come alive.

Delightful.

The Madman of Piney Woods

by Christopher Paul Curtis
First sentence: “The old soldiers say you never hear the bullet that kills you.”
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Content: There’s nothing, language wise. However, Curtis tackles some pretty heavy issues: slavery, of course; but also Irish immigration, abuse, racism. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I would exercise caution about giving this to sensitive children. Good for discussion, though.

It’s 1901, and Benji is a pre-teen in the all-black town of Buxton, Canada. He has a couple of younger siblings that get on his nerves, a best friend who is a good orator, and is both an aspiring newsman and someone who loves the woods. Red is a pre-teen in the nearby town of Chatham. His grandmother was an Irish immigrant, and he’s positively scared of her wrath. He spends his days in school, with his friends — one of whom has an alcoholic, abusive father — and at home dealing with his grandmother.

They’re the most unlikely of friends, but when they do meet, they hit it off.

Which comes in handy the night that the Madman of Piney Woods — a local homeless black veteran of the Civil War — is shot. It’s up to Benji and Red to make everything turn out, if not okay, then at least better than it could have ended.

Perhaps I should have taken the time, once I figured out that this was set in the same place, to reread Elijah of Buxton. Maybe I would have connected to it better. But, I think the main problem I have with this one is that the plot took a long time to show up. It’s told in alternating chapters, one Benji (who was more interesting than Red), one Red. And it took FOREVER for them to meet. (More than halfway through the book!). Once they met, the plot picked up, and I was able to finish fairly quickly. I did appreciate that Curtis was exploring ideas and themes that are tough to manage: the way humans treat other people being the primary theme. It’s an important thing to expose kids to, and to do so with a bit of a mystery story (more or less) is a good thing.

But that wasn’t enough to make me love this book, even though I really wanted to.

The Cure for Dreaming

by Cat Winters
First sentence: “The Metropolitan Theater simmered with the heat of more than a thousand bodies packed together in red velvet chairs.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves my place of employment.
Content: There’s some pretty disturbing parenting, and enough horrible people to make anyone angry. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but it’d be appropriate (though they might have a difficult time understanding the politics of the situation) for younger readers.

It’s the turn of the 20th century, Olivia Mead is several things: a burgeoning scholar, the daughter of the local dentist, 17-years-old, and (most importantly) a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement.

This does not make Olivia’s father happy. So, when a hypnotist comes to town, he decides to hire the hypnotist to change Olivia, and make her bend to his will.

Fortunately, Henri the hypnotist is on Olivia’s side. Even though he does what her father wants, despicable as it is (he needs the money), he phrases the words so that Olivia will see the world as it Truly Is. Which means, her father is demonic, covered in blood. The rich socialites are bloodthirsty vampires. Women who don’t support suffrage are slowly turning invisible. And the women who do? They’re glowing from the inside out.

Sure, there’s more plot to this one than that, but who cares? This one has a strong feminist agenda and it’s not afraid of it. The father had me seething. The rich handsy boy whom the father liked made me want to smack him. Henri was nice enough, but I really loved Olivia and her struggle against the system (and the Man) and her desire to be Free. I was just cheering her on: you go girl!

I’m not entirely sure that the historical details were completely accurate, and I was kind of hoping for more of a supernatural element (like her father turned out to REALLY be a demon). But I’m not sure it matters. This is one of those books that’s just enough of a fun ride to let everything else slide.

Bluffton

My Summers With Buster
by Matt Phelan
First sentence: “Life in Muskegon, Michigan was quiet.”
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Content: Nothing. Nada. Not a bit. Perfectly fine for graphic novel/history buffs of all ages. Resides in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore.

The thing I like best about Matt Phelan — aside from his gorgeous art; it’s so very unlike anything else being drawn out there — is the way he takes historical events (like traveling around the world, or the Dust Bowl) and turns them into something… intriguing.

This time out is probably the most successful — for me, at least — of his books. It’s about the summers Buster Keaton and his family spent on Lake Michigan outside Muskegon. Now, in spite of being a Michigander (of sorts; I claim it mostly because my parents are still there), I’ve never been to that side of the state, and had no idea that Buster Keaton (!) summered on the lake.

And that discovery was part of the overall charm of the book. It’s nominally about a local boy, Henry, and his dislike of being “stuck” in Muskegon (even in 1908) and how dull, ordinary, everyday it all was until the day when the vaudeville performers showed up. Henry goes out to their compound by the lake, affectionately name “Cobwebs and Rafters”, and becomes intrigued by the antics of Buster. They become friends, of a sort, pulling pranks, playing baseball, but Buster refuses to teach Henry any of his “tricks”. That doesn’t stop Henry… determined, he tries out things on his own. (And doesn’t succeed terribly well. I think this was done to emphasize just how talented Buster was.)

My only complaint is that I don’t think Phelan quite knew how to end it. Instead of being the story of one summer, it’s the story of many summers over the course of many years. Henry grows up, stays put, and opens a movie theater. I’m not quite sure what the purpose of this was. Maybe to show that Buster grew into someone famous? Perhaps. It did take away from the fun of the first summer, the joy of meeting someone new, someone unique.

It’s worth taking a look at for the art, though. And for the joy of that first summer.