Review: The Revenant

The Revenant by Sonia Gensler. Knopf, an imprint of Random House. 2011.

The Plot: 1896. Willie Hammond, 17, knows what she doesn’t want; she doesn’t want to leave school, abandoning her (and her father’s) dreams of an excellent education. She doesn’t want to return to the family farm, with her mother, stepfather, and half-siblings. She doesn’t want the endless toil and drudgery of being treated as a hired hand by her mother and stepfather.

So Willie runs away, pretending to be Angelina McClure, English teacher, heading to the Cherokee Female Seminary in Indian Territory. How hard can it be, Willie wonders? What could possibly go wrong?

Well, the first thing is the students aren’t a bunch of ignorant children desperate to learn their ABCs. They are elegant, wealthy, educated, and sophisticated. Willie is probably younger than some of her students! Speaking of students, Willie also didn’t count on handsome Eli Sevenstar, a friendly (and slightly flirtatious) senior at the nearby boy’s school.

What Willie really didn’t count on was the ghost — the ghost who haunts the school, who haunts her room, and is growing more dangerous every day.

The Good: The two things that come to mind first about The Revenant are “ghost story” and “historical fiction.”

Ghost story: The year before Willie arrives at the school, Ella Blackstone, a senior, drowned in the nearby river and her boyfriend ran away. Ella’s ghost makes herself known in both subtle ways — cold spots, tapping sounds — and more dangerous ways — a teacup breaks, cutting a girl, another falls down steps, a third breaks a leg. Students and teachers alike whisper about exorcisms and seances. Willie doesn’t believe in ghosts, but she does believe that there is more to the story of Ella’s disappearance. The Revenant is a satisfying ghost story, balancing the supernatural with mystery.

Historical Fiction: The Revenant does what I like best, shining a light on history that is either little known or little covered. Here, it is the Cherokee Female Seminary as well as the Indian Territory of the late 19th century. After one of Willie’s thoughtless comments to her fellow teacher, Miss Adair (by the way, Miss Adair is a graduate of the Seminary) (“who would have thought I’d need such fine clothes for Indian Territory?”), she is told “there are many different tribes, each with its own traditions and customs, you know. And each tribe has it’s own ideas of what it means to be civilized.” For the 19th century Cherokees, Willie (and the readers) learns about different tensions based on wealth, status, family, full/mixed blood status, and “progressive” or “traditional” families. The author’s note details the research she did, including review and feedback. Further information about that research is in these interviews: a three part interview at Novel Novice; The Apocalypsies Interview; Article at the Tahlequah Daily Press; the YA Highway Interview.

But now, on to what fascinated me most about The Revenant: no, not the ghost story. No, not the history. And at this point, there will be spoilers. So, stop reading now if you don’t like any type of spoilers.

You were warned.

What fascinates me most is Willie herself. Gensler is rather fearless in her depiction of Willie. Even though Willie is telling the story, it quickly becomes apparent that Willie is far from perfect. She’s immature, quick to judge, has run away from home, and as a teacher is in over her head. Also? While she is a teacher (or, rather, pretending to be a teacher and older), she engages in a flirtation with Eli Sevenstar, who, while not Willie’s student, is still a student. As mentioned above, Willie makes statements that are offensive to the modern reader such as “an Indian in law school?” (By the way, the person she is talking about? Eli!) Rest assured, this bias ends, but it’s both shocking and unsettling to read. Such casual bigotry did (and still does) exist, and Gensler takes risks by having her main character say and think these things.

Further risk taking is shown in Willie’s “speak first, regardless of who is around” attitude. The comment about law school? Is made in front of her students! Yet Willie never wonders if part of the antagonism she gets from these same students may be motivated by the things Willie said around them.

Miss Adair, who becomes Olivia, a good friend, believes in spirits and seances. Willie’s reaction? A laugh and “I find this notion of spirits very backward.” Later, Willie excuses her rudeness with “I was too brash, just like my papa. It’s an unfortunate fault, for its left me terribly lonely. I should have apologized long ago . . . .” That is how immature Willie is: she excuses her own mean statements with “oops, that’s just how I am!” and then considers the bad consequences in terms of the impact on herself (loneliness) not on Olivia.

Willie’s flaws are also highlighted in her teaching. Willie does have some good, inspired moments; and not surprisingly, she finds teaching those younger than herself easier than teaching those closer to her own age. Willie avoids doing what she doesn’t want to do or what she doesn’t know how to do — for months, she avoids marking her student’s essays. Imagine never getting a grade from your teacher! I love, love, love Willie for having these faults and find them very age-appropriate and believable, and it helped make Willie a full, real person. I love that Gensler lets Willie be real. Truthfully, an untrained seventeen year old pretending to be a teacher would act just like Willie does! Willie has the potential to be a good teacher, and that shows in her passion for literature (especially Shakespeare), but when it comes to things like grading and discipline, Willie has a lot to learn.

Just like my papa.” You’ve been thinking, OK, this analysis of Willie’s character isn’t really spoilery. But it is; because of Papa. And the real “revenant,” or ghost, is not Ella.

It’s Papa; not as a ghost, but as the father who shaped his daughter. A father who was a drunk, who played his daughter against his wife, who preferred to dream instead of to do and instilled in his daughter a feeling of superiority over those doers who actually work, like her mother and stepfather. That Papa is a drunk is not revealed until the final chapters, but some readers may pick up on clues before then that Papa was not the perfect specimen that Willie believes him to be. Willie loves her father, admires him, respects him. When I got to the end of The Revenant, I suddenly saw Willie as a child of an alcoholic and it shifted how I saw Willie and her actions in the first part of the book. Willie worships her father, excuses him because he is a charmer, and dismisses the parent who was left to pick up the pieces. It takes Willie a long, long, long time to even admit to her father’s faults  (“If Papa had been a drunk, [my mother] drove him to it“) and even longer to stop blaming her mother. One confrontation leaves her mother saying, “You think you can take care of yourself, but you are too much like your father in doing so — lying, cutting corners, hurting others.”

And that is what I like about Willie and Gensler’s risk in writing Willie: because for almost 300 pages Willie has been doing all that her mother says, lying, cutting corners, hurting others. She’s been her father’s daughter, but because she’s been lying to the reader about her dear, perfect, Papa, the reader doesn’t realize that something is happening other than immaturity. What’s also risky of Gensler is that Willie’s year away teaching and ghost-hunting does nothing to force Willie to stop and confront her own past. It’s not until Willie is forced to go home (I warned you!) that she has to stop running from her own history, her own ghosts.

So, come to The Revenant for the ghost story and the history; but leave thinking of the way children are molded by their parents and how that haunts them their entire lives. Who is brave enough to exorcise away the lovely fantasy of a doting father?

Review: Texas Gothic

Texas Gothic by Rosemary Clement-Moore. Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House. 2011. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Amy Goodnight’s summer job is taking care of her aunt’s Texas ranch while her hard working aunt goes on a vacation to China. Along with her older sister, Phin, they’re taking care of the dogs, the goats, and the plants that make up Aunt Hyacinth’s herb farm and organic bath products. What Amy didn’t plan on was the destructive neighborhood ghost. Lucky for her, the Goodnights know more than a little about the supernatural. Amy may try to present a typical place to the world, but the truth she hides yet cannot deny is the Goodnight family is a family of witches. Too bad the very cute next-door-neighbor cowboy doesn’t believe in ghosts or witches and just want the trouble-making Goodnights to stay out of his way and off his land. 

The Good: In my review of Clement-Moore’s The Splendor Falls, I compared it to books by Barbara Michaels: “You know all those Barbara Michaels books you go looking for? Young girl, old family home, dueling love interests, with the three s’s: setting, suspense, supernatural? And when they’re done, you wonder what to read next?” Texas Gothic shows that Clement-Moore is this generation’s Barbara Michaels, and I guess it’s more accurate to say that those teen readers who like these books should be shown the Michaels books rather than vice versa. It is 2011, after all. (For the record, both Leila at Bookshelves of Doom and Vicky Smith at Kirkus make the same comparison).

Let’s see if Texas Gothic contains the elements I listed in the review for The Splendor Falls.

“Young girl” — Amy Goodnight, just graduated high school and on her way to college. For good measure, there is her older sister, Phin, who takes a very scientific approach to her own witchcraft studies. Two young girls! And then there is cousin Daisy, who — well. Let me just say, if you’re a fan of NCIS, you’ll love Daisy.

“Old family home” — Aunt Hyacinth’s farmhouse is a hundred years old. Technically, it’s not Amy’s family home, but I think this counts.

“Dueling love interests” — I wrote this meaning two possible love interests for the main character, and that isn’t present here. However, from first meeting, cute cowboy Ben McCulloch and Amy are dueling. He is annoyed that rumors of ghosts are interfering with his management of the family ranch, a responsibility he took on after his father died. He blames Aunt Hyacinth for the rumors, and fights Amy and her family tooth and nail. Just as Amy needs to convince herself to embrace her witch side, so, too, does Ben need to be convinced that ghosts and witches are real. “They fight endlessly but like each other” is really hard to pull off, because if people are fighting, how can they get to the point of liking each other? The cause for the fighting makes sense — Ben feels his family and home are threatened by made up stories, Amy doesn’t like her family mocked. As time goes by, the cause for fighting shifts. Ben still doesn’t believe in ghosts, so when he sees Amy putting herself in danger he gets angry at her foolishness. Amy gets angry right back at his failure to trust and respect her when it comes to the supernatural. As for the like — well. Did I mention that they first meet when Amy is in her underwear? (It covers more than a bathing suit, but still). Amy admires Ben’s sense of responsibility that led him to drop out of college to take care of the family business — plus, he’s cute. Ben admires Amy’s dedication to her own family.

“Setting” — Texas! Texas Gothic is full of details that made this Jersey Girl believe she was experiencing those wide-open spaces and the herb farm. Excavations to build a bridge reveal a body, long dead, and so a group from the University come out to conduct a dig. Ben is not thrilled with that — especially when more bodies turn up. (Not to give away any spoilers, but the bodies are of European descent).

“Suspense” — first is the ghost, of course. Is there a ghost? What does the ghost want? There have been rumors of a ghost — the “Mad Monk” — for years, including the Mad Monk being responsible for accidents that seriously hurt people. Amy, Phin, and members of the local University’s forensic team try to determine whether the bones have anything to do with the ghost. Clement-Moore does a great job of weaving together two different suspense threads — the ghost as well as the story of the ghost. Well versed in tv and media, the crew quickly realize that stories of ghosts could be used and manipulated by people to hide other activities, or just to cause trouble.

“Supernatural” — ghosts and witches are real! And, from the start, Amy knows it. She feels her job in the family is to protect her family from outsiders who wouldn’t understand, including stopping her older sister from honestly sharing her knowledge and opinion with those who don’t believe in ghosts and witches. Oh, remember Aunt Hyacinth’s herb farm and organic bath products? Spells! You can literally wash that man right out of your hair. Amy’s combination of familiarity and distance with the supernatural is a great way to introduce the reader to the world of witchcraft in Texas Gothic.

I loved Amy and her family. Amy’s desire to protect/deny her heritage stems from an incident when, as a child, she and her sister went “ghost hunting” for a La Llorona that ended with the two girls almost drowned and their furious father threatening to take them from their mother. Amy reacted by boxing up all her ghost books and keeping witchcraft at arms length; while it’s not explicitly said, Phin’s reaction is to view witchcraft as one big science project, matter of chemistry, physics, tests, cause and rection. I would love to see Texas Gothic the start of a series of related books, with Amy, Phin, Daisy and other Goodnight women solving more supernatural mysteries.

Review: Shadowed Summer

Shadowed Summer by Saundra Mitchell. Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House. 2009. Review copy from publisher. Book website.

The Plot: Iris and her best friend, Collette, are fourteen. It’s summer, a hot, humid Louisiana summer; the last summer of childhood. They play some of the make believe games of their childhood, but this year it’s different. Collette is flirting with their neighbor, Ben; and Iris sees a ghost — the ghost of Elijah, a teen who disappeared years before. He speaks to her: “where y’at, Iris?”

The Good: I love the description of Iris and Collette and their games of knights or witches or “whatever good things we thought up or got from our library books. We found magic everywhere, in the trees and the wind, in teacups and rainstorms. We were bigger than [our town of] Ondine, better than the ordinary people who came and went and never stopped to wonder what lay underneath the church’s tiger lilies to give them such bloodred hearts.” It is while playing at spells in the cemetery that Iris first hears and sees Elijah.

This is a story of two friends, Collette and Iris, with Iris (the narrator) still interested in their imaginary world while Collette will play only when boys can’t see. When Iris tells Ben “we can call up the dead tomorrow,” she does it to embarrass Collette and keep Ben away. Collette initially hushes her until she realizes Ben is interested. Then, Collette uses it. The triangle of Iris, Collette, and Ben is a quiet one, one that is equally about children growing unevenly to adulthood as it is about the feelings they have for each other. Iris is annoyed at Collette’s attention to Ben, Collette gets angry if Iris isn’t nice to Ben then gets jealous if Iris and Ben get along too well, and Ben … Ben is a fourteen year old boy, and he flirts with Collette but also with Iris. Each is growing into who they are, leaving behind childish things.

Iris sees a ghost. As she and her friends prepare to leave childhood behind, the most childish thing one could believe in — ghosts — visits her, talks to her, haunts her, wrecks her room. The ghost is real; and, it turns out, Elijah — the boy who died years before — has a connection to her family. It’s not coincidence that he appears to Iris. That Elijah is real is not just proven by a witchboard and the notes he leaves Iris, it’s proven as Iris solves the mystery of his disappearance and death. And yet — and yet — there is a part of me that wonders whether Elijah’s ghost was real, or whether it was Iris’s last grab at remaining a child. Elijah and her search for who he is, how he died, where his body is are all things that she can do, that she can act on, that can stop her from worrying about Collette drifting away and from the way Ben almost flirts with both of them and the inevitable changes that life brings. As Leila at Bookshelves of Doom put it,  “It’s a genuinely creepy ghost story, as well as a coming-of-age story.  And it’s also about how relationships between best friends can change, about a single father who works third shift and is raising a daughter and about life in a very small town.”

I enjoyed this interview with the author at Cynsations (Cynthia Leitich Smith).

Review: Dreaming of Amelia/ The Ghosts of Ashbury High

Dreaming of Amelia by Jaclyn Moriarty. Pan Macmillan Australia. 2009. In the United States, released as The Ghosts of Ashbury High, Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, 2010. Reviewed from Australian edition; gift.

The Plot: Amelia Damaski. Riley T. Smith. Two new students at Ashbury High.

How curious, the other students think, to start a new school in the final year. How mysterious, no one knows anything about Amelia or Riley. How romantic, the two are clearly a couple. How cool, they muse, how anything Amelia and Riley touch seems to be that much more important.

Perhaps what people should be thinking is “how dangerous.”

Lydia, Emily, and Cassie and their friends spend their final year of school wondering about Riley and Amelia and figuring out their own lives and loves, with a ghost or two thrown in for good measure.

The Good: It’s Jaclyn Moriarty. ‘Nuff said. I’m a but surprised that while I’ve read (and own) all of Moriarty’s Ashbury High books (Feeling Sorry for Celia, The Year of Secret Assignments, The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie), I’ve only reviewed one of them, Bindy Mackenzie. I’m not going to keep you in suspense, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2010. The entire post is all my reasons why.

Moriarty’s books are about the students at wealthy Ashbury. The tone, spirit, and themes of each book differs; characters shift from main to supporting to absent from book to book; Ashbury remains the same. What also remains the same is the fresh, constantly changing ways to tell the story, using letters, emails, post-its, journal entries, school reports. Because each book is unique and stands alone, you don’t have to read all the other books. Also? Moriarty’s books are FUNNY. It’s a combination of the characters being funny, in their observations and thoughts and what they say, and how Moriarty tells the story.

While funny, Moriarty’s stories are about serious subjects. The Ghosts of Ashbury High (while I read Dreaming of Amelia, I’ll use the US title to be less confusing) addresses an issue that lurked in the background of all the Ashbury books: the socioeconomic differences between the “haves” of Ashbury and the “have nots” of everyone else and the impact of privilege and wealth on the lives and choices of the teens.

The Ghosts of Ashbury High is told in a mix of school exams and reports from the perspectives of various students and teachers. The reader sees how Lydia, Emily, and Cassie see Riley and Amelia, and how Riley and Amelia see the rich, spoiled teens of Ashbury High. Is someone silly or spoiled? Dangerous or wise? What is the truth? It varies from person to person.

Remember how this is told via exams? This adds another layer — all that is learned is told through a lens, a specific lens of the exam. And not just any exam! The instructions: “write a personal memoir….draw on your knowledge of gothic fiction.” “write the story as a ghost story.” If a story is part of an exam, and not just any exam, but a Gothic fiction exam, how does that change how the story is told? Personally, I adore this method of story-telling, the way it’s a puzzle with shifting perspectives, the way the story changes and alters depending on the teller. Yes, for the first fifty or so pages I kept a list of characters because it is a huge cast, but it’s like any group of friends. I quickly got to know them well enough not to need my list.

So, that is one story — how two teens from the “wrong side” of town adjust to Ashbury High and how they impact those around them.

Another story is of a tight group of friends who have been friends forever figuring out how to include two new faces.

Another story is of teenagers on the edge of adulthood, running to and away from their futures.

And, of course, there is the ghost story. Ghosts real and imagined; ghosts created out of want and need. The ghosts of students past.

And there is the history. Tobias’s history project involves researching local history and discovering things about the Irish convicts sent to Australia in the early nineteenth century. Are they the ghosts that haunt the story? Or is that simply the way he tells the story? I love history, so this unexpected bonus — IRISH CONVICTS, yay! — was awesome. I did wonder, a bit, how American teens would react to this bit of history. I read the Australian version which includes a historical note about Castle Hill and the transported Irish convicts. I haven’t read the US version, so I’m not sure what (if anything) was added under the assumption that “oh, Americans won’t know or understand that.”

In looking to see how bloggers wrote about the Australian history aspect of this book, I found this spot-on perfect review at The Book Smugglers, told in pure Moriarty style. If you’ve read Moriarty’s books, you’ll enjoy it; if you haven’t, its the perfect sampler to decide whether it’s your flavor.