Three historical novels, quick review style

I’ve read a ton of books for Cybils lately, and there is no possible way I could get through all of the reading and write up full reviews for each of the titles. But I can offer shorter reviews of a number of titles — and I’m going to quit calling them Twitter-style because, well, I can’t even pretend they’re that short. Alas, here are three historical novels, covering three vastly different time periods.

Purple Daze by Sherry Shahan follows six teens growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles during 1965, a year of war, civil unrest, and much more. Told through verse, the book reads quickly, but left me wanting a lot. The characters are underdeveloped figments of what they could be — they each become a representation of an issue, down to a girl giving herself a coat hanger abortion, a boy being drafted to war in Vietnam, a boy choosing to drop out and join the Marines, and so forth. The thing is, they could have been full and powerful, but instead, things stand in for development.

There’s an overwhelming sense of nostalgia at play in the story and it chokes any potential rise and fall in character arc. We know what kind of razors one of the girl uses (Lady Schick), but that’s about it. Given that verse is a challenging format to develop strong, definitive characters within — let alone six — I felt really let down when the sparse words were to brand names.

Moreover, the use of other voices choked the narrative. Not only were there six underdeveloped characters, but then there were interludes of presidential addresses, along with briefings about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. It took me out of the story and further distanced my emotional connection with the key characters in the story. What could have been an emotional knock out given the era became one note: flat.

It felt like the point of the book was to educate and little more. A good story, especially a good historical, does that without being obvious. This one made it obvious to the point of leaving me curious why there needed to be six characters in the first place. The writing left much to be desired, and the nostalgia factor won’t win over the intended teen readership. Other books do this better, stronger, and without sacrificing story for sentiment.

The Year We Were Famous by Carole Estby Dagg follows mother-daughter duo Helga and Clara (who is the 17-year-old daughter) as they embark on a cross-country walk from their small town in western Washington state to New York City, all of which is based on a true story from the author’s family. It’s 1896 and the family farm is in trouble; money is hard to come by, and the family doesn’t want to give up what they have. After trying to come up with a solution, Helga decides to respond to a publisher’s advertisement offering a $10,000 prize for someone who could make the journey across country, by foot, in months.

The time period for the novel is spot on, and the journey is enjoyable. I think I found this novel so fascinating because it was based on true events, and it’s a road trip before the concept of the road trip existed. Dagg’s novel works well in its diary format, as Clara depicts the journey well and in a believable teen voice. One of the challenges I had with this format though was the interspersing of letters inside. Clara kept postal communication with her family and with a reporter she met in Utah, and when those sneak into her diary, the story slows to a crawl. It takes the reader out of the adventure; even though it’s not info dumping, per se, it has a similar effect in providing too much tell and not enough show.

My biggest challenge with the book, though, was there wasn’t enough character development. We get the adventure and the weariness of walking (imagine walking that far – my mind still spins thinking about that and how there weren’t the road conveniences we had so they had to rely on the kindness of strangers), but we don’t really get enough of who Clara is. I wanted to know more about her; it’s here I fault the format because the diary doesn’t quite offer enough opportunity for internal thought here. It’s instead a record of events.

That said, this book was an enjoyable read, and it’s one I can see having huge appeal to younger teens and even for those tween readers who read up. Content isn’t really an issue here. An interesting time period, as well, and one I don’t think there is much about, especially when it comes to American events and experiences. Plus, it’s reverse what you’d expect — rather than a movement west, it’s a movement east.

Taking Off by Jenny Moss takes place in 1986, right before the launching of the Challenger, where we find 18-year-old Annie struggling to decide what it is she wants to do with her life. She lives near Houston and the space center, and her entire life has sort of amid this bubble of people who are career-driven and are eager to get out in the world and do Big Things. Annie isn’t sure she wants that though. She loves writing poetry (and this is sort of a secret, actually, since no one would ever take that seriously as an ambition), and she really likes her boyfriend Mark. Why leave a place that’s good for her?

Then she meets Christa McCuliffe at a friend’s dinner party, and her mind starts shifting. Suddenly, she’s looking at this ambitious teacher who is so down to earth and friendly, and Annie begins to realize that maybe getting outside of her comfort zone is something she needs to do. Not just that, but Annie is determined to watch Christa launch into space, and she convinces her father to take her to Florida to watch the launch. Despite knowing how that story ends, it’s still sort of surprising, and that’s a huge credit to Moss. She captures what I presume the emotions surrounding the launch well; I say presume because I was a baby when it happened, but I experienced every emotion Annie did in those moments following lift off.

For me, this book was all about Annie. She was such an interesting character to me, and I related to her in a lot of ways. I feel like a lot of what I thought about as a high school senior were the things she was thinking about, and Moss captured the emotions of feeling lost and clueless spot on, without making Annie sound like a wimp or like she was hopeless. In fact, I felt Annie had a lot more to offer than she gave herself credit for, and when she has her moment of realizing what her dreams really were, I felt the journey to get there paid off.

My biggest problem with the novel, though, came down to not believing how quickly Annie could attach herself to Christa’s story. They met by chance at a dinner party, though Annie had read about her in a magazine. I expected more of a fascination with Christa pre-party to make the post-party obsession more believable; Annie makes a journey half way across the country to see her launch into space, yet I didn’t quite buy the emotional ties here. Pushing this a little more would have made the story tighter and more powerful. Teens fixate on those they admire, and given how much Annie found herself fixating internally, I was a little let down how quickly and radically she connects to Christa.

The romance is sweet, and the story itself is one you could hand over to teens of any age. Although I question why so many novels lately have been set in the 1980s (a combination of a lack of technological conveniences and the fact it’s probably a time period a lot of authors are familiar with because of their own experiences), this one works because it’s actually about a historical event.

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