Many girls go through a middle grade historical fiction phase. In the not so distant past (ie: my childhood), this phase was often marked by books such as Anne of Green Gables, The Little House books, The Root Cellar by Janet Lunn, and the plethora of World War II novels for children.* Nowadays, young historians are more likely to turn to the fabulous series that exist, such as Dear Canada (Scholastic) and Our Canadian Girl (Penguin) in addition to the many fantastic stand-alone novels we publish here in Canada. For a sampling, check out the list of Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction winners and finalists, here. **
But what does this reader turn to once they reach YA age? Historical fiction has a reputation of being either bloody (boys) or wholesome (girls). Furthermore, in a sea of paranormal and dystopian romances, how can historical fiction make a stand? With quality storytelling, of course! And Saundra Mitchell is one of my favourite storytellers.
The Spingsweet begins in Baltimore in the late 1800s, where Zora Stewart is mourning the death of her young fiancé. Unable to resume a life of parties, tea, and social engagements, she stages a moment of ruin and her mother has no choice but to allow her to move west to live with her widowed Aunt Birdie and young cousin Louella. West Glory is barely an upstart town and Zora is surprised- but then reinvigorated- by a life of hard work. It is here that she discovers that she is a springsweet, a person who has the ability to sense water under the ground. This talent could mean valuable income for poverty-stricken Birdie and Louella, but it also causes unwanted and potentially dangerous attention.
I have yet to read Vespertine, which is the first in this historical trilogy about young people with uncanny abilities with the elements. The third installment will be Aetherborne (has there ever been a trilogy with nicer titles?). You do not need to have read Vespertine to enjoy Springsweet, although if you’re like me, you will want to go back and read it. Amazingly, this is a middle book that doesn’t feel like a middle book. In fact I didn’t realize it was sequel until halfway through***.
This is one of many testaments to Saundra Mitchell’s abilties. It is no secret that I love Saundra Mitchell. I reviewed her most excellent summer ghost story Shadowed Summer here. Mitchell’s language is carefully chosen. Her prose is beautiful but rather spare (much like the landscape she is writing about) but her skill is such that it doesn’t take a lot of words to conjure a rich story. She is rather like Zora, a ‘word’ sweet summoning a story that is clear and simple with no frippery. The characters use period language and sentence construction which added to the authenticity of the book, but contemporary readers won’t balk at this at times formal or unfamiliar manner of speech.
I was in desperate need of something fresh and this book did not disappoint. I was more than happy to try something other than dystopian, paranormal, or speculative fiction.To be fair, there is obviously an element of magic in The Springsweet, but amazingly Mitchell so completely naturalizes the magic that it just feels like a highly specialized skill, like athleticism or musical ability. Plus the book isn’t about magic, it’s about the thrill and freedom of frontier life.
Lovers of historical fiction like facts and details. There is plenty of that here. I also appreciated how Mitchell did not glorify the grueling pioneer lifestyle. There is nothing romantic about having to do hard labour on an empty stomach. Living in a soddy (literally a house made of sod) is dirty. Carrying a yoke and buckets of water to and from the well is exhausting and painful. All of this is well-represented, but so are the moments of satisfaction, relief and joy that Zora and Birdie have in their hard-won lifestyle.
Even in grief, you get a sense of how feisty Zora is at the beginning of the book and she continues to come into her own as she discovers her skill as a springsweet, learns to fend for herself in the prairie and care for Louella, and comes to terms with her feelings for Emerson. Emerson is the ‘bad boy’ corner of a love triangle that also includes the aristocratic and more formal wannabe poet from Baltimore, Theo de la Croix, who follows Zora to West Glory in order to win her hand. I generally dislike love triangles but this one worked for me. Emerson and Theo are both worthy- though very different men- representing changing attitudes in America at the time. When Zora makes her choice, she is also making a statement about who she wants to be, and I liked this.
Obviously lovers of historical fiction will eat this up and clamor for more, but The Springsweet will also appeal to readers who like a strong female heroine or have a taste for fine writing. At times I was reminded of Bones of Faerie, partially because the writing is so great, but also because the magic is naturalized in a similar manner. Teens who hate magic will probably still love this book. While not totally wholesome, it isn’t racy, so younger readers can enjoy it, too. There is awesome witty repartee, plenty of sexual tension and a few good kisses to swoon over. Without giving too much away, the book ends on a fantastic cliffhanging sort of note. Well not exactly a cliffhanger, more of a door-opener****. I look forward to Aetherborne, but in the meantime, I’m off to find Vespertine.
The Springsweet is published by Harcourt and will be available in Canada from Thomas Allen on April 17th, 2012.
*Arguably WWII novels is an entirely different genre and is vast enough to exist as it’s own slice of the MG historical fiction pie.
**Why DO we love historical fiction so much in Canada? Is it because we don’t have a grander sense of our own history? Is it because we are hungry for the simplicity of the struggle provided in the classic man vs nature conflict? Perhaps a heady topic appropriate for a separate discussion.
***The reading copy I have does say “The stirring companion to The Vespertine” but I missed this somehow. I generally prefer to read the first page than the copy on the back of the book, so serves me right.
****This is my own term and I’m totally claiming it. Whereas a cliffhanger lives you in a precarious NEED TO KNOW situation and has an air of unfinished business, a door-opener ties up the story arc but gives you a glimpse into what the next book will be, like getting a peek through an open door. Personally I think a door-opener requires more skill and is far more difficult to pull off. Off course Saundra Mitchell does so with aplomb. Did I mention that I love her?
Many, many thanks to Heather at Thomas Allen Canada for the review copy.