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May 2023

Historical Fiction Roundup

30th October 2010

Blue Willow by Doris Gates

Janey and her family have been on the move since their farm failed in the dust storms of Texas.  Janey can’t even imagine staying in one place for more than a few months, and her dream is to settle in a house like the one pictured on her precious blue willow plate.  This Newbery Honor book told Janey’s story gently, and was enriched with illustrations by Paul Lantz, whose drawing style reminded me of Lois Lenski.

Bound for Oregon by Jean Van Leeuwen

A fictionalized account of the Todd family’s journey to Oregon, told through the eyes of 9 year old Mary.  Written for upper elementary/middle grades, the story is authentic, full of details and awe inspiring.

Lost Childhood: My Life in a Japanese Prison Camp During World War II
A Memoir by Annelex Hofstra Layson

When the Japanese invaded the island of Java during World War II, they imprisoned the island’s Dutch citizens in prison camps for the duration of the war.  Annelex was 4 years old when she was sent to a prison camp with her mother and grandmother.  In this slim volume, she shares her memories of that horrible experience in order to honor those who suffered, and to share the lessons of compassion, freedom, and positive thinking that she learned in the camps.

Annexed: A Novel by Sharon Dogar

Anne Frank’s story has been told in many ways by many people.  But what about Peter’s story?  For the first time, an author explores what life may have been like for Peter VanPels, hiding in the annex with Anne and 6 other people.  This novel is based on Anne’s diary, other historical documents and extensive research.  Haunting, powerful, heartbreaking.

On to Oregon by Honore Morrow

22nd September 2009

A fictionalized account of the Sager children’s journey on the Oregon Trail.  When their parents both die on the trail, John, the eldest, must assume the care of his 6 siblings, one just a newborn baby.  Determined both to keep his family together, and to reach Oregon, John grows from a sullen, irresponsible boy to a hardworking, determined young man as he works to care for his family and fulfill his father’s dream.

The story of the Sager children is an incredible one.  I’d love to learn more about the true story of these children.  One of the Sager children, Mathilda, wrote an account of their journey to Oregon and their subsequent involvement in the Whitman massacre.  The book can be read online.

The thing I enjoyed most about Morrow’s story was the gentle, all-knowing narrator tone which she adopted.  Parts of the book could be quite overwhelming to children–the death of parents, attacks, starvation, loneliness, etc.  Morrow’s gentle narration makes it seem as if the children weren’t quite so alone.

Aiden and Maddy are starving to death on their Kansas farm when Jefferson J. Jackson finds them.  Jackson agrees to transport the siblings to Washington.  In return, Aiden will pay off the debt once they reach Washington, by working as a lumberjack.  In the middle of their trip, Aiden befriends some Nez Perce Indians who save his life.  When the Nez Perce find Aidan again in Washington, and ask for his help in obtaining the precious smallpox vaccine to bring back to their people, Aidan must decide if he will risk his life to help.

This was an excellent book and possibly one of my favorite pioneer books of all times.  From the opening pages, I was hooked on Aidan and Maddy’s story.  And although most Oregon Trail fiction ends with the first glimpses of the Williamette Valley, McKernan continues her story beyond the Oregon Trail.  The Devil’s Paintbox is rich with historical details, ranging from the Civil War, to drought in the midwest, the development of the smallpox vaccine, relations between the Native Americans and the pioneers, lumberjacking and much more.  I learned a lot while enjoying this incredible story.

This book was different.  On the surface, it seemed like one I would really like–your basic “traveling the Oregon trail” book.  But I wasn’t a big fan of Fisher’s writing style.  She had way too many descriptions that slowed down the book, and when the action did take place, she would only allude to it, so, for example, I would realize pages after it had actually happened, that someone had died.  Basically, I had to concentrate too hard on the reading part to be able to enjoy this book.

My other major criticism has to do with the content.  (Spoiler alert ahead.)  A major part of the book is devoted to an extramarital affair.  The main characters engage in this affair without thought to the consequences for all of the children involved, and with the overall feeling of “something so beautiful must be right.”  Even though in the end, the characters physically do the right thing, emotionally, the reader is left with the feeling that true love should have triumphed and that everyone settled for second best in remaining faithful to marriage.  I know that this worldview isn’t limited to this one book, and that it pervades society as a whole.  Still, had I realized that this was the path Fisher was going to take, I would have spent my time reading something else.

I’m kind of on an Oregon Trail kick right now.  This book is a fictional account of a real woman, Mary Rockwood Powers.  Powers wrote letters home to her family, describing their journey, and this book is based on those letters.  The title is certainly an accurate description of this family’s journey.  Mary’s husband scorned advice from experienced trail travelers and purchased beautiful horses to pull their wagon instead of oxen, left late in the spring, and began the journey alone without a wagon train or adequate provisions.   Once on the trail, her husband had a mental breakdown, and Mary was suddenly responsible for making life or death decisions for their family.  Step by step, Mary led her family to California, somehow managing to outlast the trail.

While I certainly admire Mary’s courage and determination, the book itself was somewhat exhausting to read.  The journey was long and harrowing, and there were few lighthearted moments to break the monotony of the struggle.  In that, O’Brien did an excellent job of portraying to the reader a small glimmer of what life on the trail must have been like.

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