27 March 2004

"Dear America" -- Some Less Dear Than Others

So since I'm into this "history thing," as some of my puzzled former schoolmates might put it, when I first saw the "Dear America" novels, I was intrigued. These small hardbacks are published by Scholastic and are supposed to be the diaries of girls in various points of American history. They started with, appropriately, Winter of the Red Snow, which is a Revolutionary War girl.

Of course, being written for the modern girl, we have no shrinking violets here. Our heroines are not the meek, prim little women they were supposed to be back in those days of "seen and not heard." Oh, each of the girls usually has a weakness, but they are usually strong characters in general.

The darn things are so expensive, though ($10.99 each), that I've been loathe to buy them except on sale or with a coupon.

I have six now, and they range from very good to annoying. Evidently there are others of the latter opinion: I read a scathing review of the volume that deals with the Carlisle Indian School. The reviewer is a Native American and not only dealt harshly with an experience which for the tribal children was harrowing and traumatic but which the "Dear America" book views as, although hard, eventually a positive experience, but who takes the writer to task for giving the female lead initiatives and characteristics, which, they say, a properly brought up female child in that particular tribe in that era would not have had. She would have not aspired to a boy's position or played boys' games, or done other things out of character with a female in that particular tribe at that time. Strictures on Native American girls were just as rigid as those of white girls.

Anyway, my favorite "Dear America" is still Christmas After All, the 1932 diary of Minnie Swift, although the improbable ending--shades of the Kings and the Five Little Peppers!--still makes me laugh. It was written by Kathryn Lasky, who has written some of my other favorite children's books, including the East Boston-based Prank, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. The characters seem very true to the 1930s and Minnie's observations are funny--and occasionally touching. Her cousin Willie Faye is unforgettable.

The only thing that bugged me was...the reviews of this book on Amazon.com! There is a scene in the book where a chicken--the family keeps chickens as a source of food in the lean Depression years--has its feet frozen to the lid of a garbage can after a winter storm. Multiple reviewers seemed to consider this event hilarious. What kind of people think an animal getting its feet frozen is funny????

I also have West to a Land of Plenty, Voyage on the Great Titanic, and When Christmas Comes Again, all which I found on clearance, and the two World War II stories, Early Sunday Morning and My Secret War, which I got on coupon.

Of those five, the Pearl Harbor story is my least favorite. Never mind Amber Billows has a first name that is totally wrong for the era; she's an annoying, whiny child who sets my teeth on edge. Not to mention that the one bigoted person in the story comes to such a bad end that it's ridiculous, like those old-fashioned tomes where little kids who did bad things were eaten by bears or died and went to Hell. Please. Or that Amber, to be really Politically Correct, has a best friend who's Japanese (and of course has her family accused of all sorts of horrible things after the attack).

Plenty I picked up because the lead girl, Teresa, is Italian. She's a bit feisty--read: she complains a lot--but she's thankfully not as much a whiner as Amber, and becomes a more likeable character as the story progresses. Also, there are amusing interludes where her pesty little sister writes in her diary. The story ends with a big punch as well.

When Christmas Comes Again keeps being stocked as a Christmas novel and it's not. It's the story of Simone, who volunteers as one of the "Hello Girls" (telephone operators on the front lines) during World War I. I'd never heard of the "Hello Girls" and found that part of the story extremely interesting.

Titanic is told by Catholic orphanage-educated Margaret Ann Driscoll, who gets a job as companion and helper to a rich American woman sailing on the Titanic alone. "Maggie" gets to experience the splendor of the Titanic first hand--but it's all old stuff: opulent staircases, grand dining rooms, dropping names like Molly Brown and John Jacob Astor. I would have been much more interested in a book about the second or third class passengers on the ship. Still, she's a likeable character, so the voyage isn't so bad after all.

Last is My Secret War in which Madeline Becker is about the most ordinary of the lead characters. She's your typical 40s schoolgirl with a crush on a male classmate and close encounters with a snobby classmate, who is then involved with the war effort. Later in the book, some bad news fells her, which felt very natural against the heroic effort of some of the other girls in the series. The hook in this one is that the author worked a real World War II event--German U-boats trolling the East Coast--in with Maddy and Johnny's shore patrols. Of the two WWII books, this is much better. Avoid Amber at all costs.