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Book Review: CAN YOU SEE ANYTHING NOW? by Katherine James

It took me quite some time to read Can You See Anything Now? by Katherine James (Paraclete Press, 2017).

Can You See Anything Now?

That might seem like a strange way to start a book review, but hear me out. It’s 2018, and while calling 2018 one of the worst years in human history would be inaccurate and short-sighted, it’s fair to say it’s been a stressful time, a year of daily assaults on peace and justice, a year to twist the brain of any reasonable, logical person inside out.

(Actually, they’re currently saying 536 CE was the worst year in human history, so let’s all take a moment to be thankful we missed that one.)

I have not reached for heavy books. There have been too many hard things in the world to make me seek them in books. I cannot count the number of books I have abandoned this year, with a “Nope. Not today.”

Can You See Anything Now? is a heavy book. Any review must be honest about that. It’s a book in which characters struggle with suicide, self-harm, and addiction, and their milder cousins despair, poor body image, and general malaise and loss of direction.

If we’re honest, we’ve all struggled with at least one of these things at some point, or we know someone who has.

I discovered Paraclete Press through Sarah Arthur’s literary devotionals, so I had already read excerpts of this book before publication in Between Midnight and Dawn, and I knew the basic outline.

Pixie, a college student addicted to cutting, accompanies her roommate Noel home over Thanksgiving break to a small New England town—where it seems no one believes they matter to the world—and falls into a freezing river, which leaves her in a coma while the other characters play out their lives around her.

Can You See Anything Now? won the 2018 Christianity Today Fiction Book Award, and I asked myself why.

Here’s the answer I came up with: it’s different. Very different, in fact, from what I think most people think of when they think of stereotypical “Christian fiction.”

For me, too often Christian fiction has a bit of an unreal quality. The characters are too good or too goody two-shoes, too devoted, too certain. They don’t ever say anything stronger than golly gosh or drink anything stronger than coffee. Serious struggles are too handily resolved with a prayer and a pie. None of this has been my experience in the church or in the real world.

If you are looking for a “typical” Christian read, this is probably not the book for you. If you’re looking for a light, breezy read, this is probably not the book for you. If you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts or self-harm, this might be a book to stay away from right now. I stayed away from it—all the while knowing I needed to write this review—for a while because wrestling with these things seemed like too much on top of the 2018 news cycle.

But if you find yourself in a place where you want or need to explore these issues—issues that do confront us every single day and must be dealt with—then try Can You See Anything Now?

Slow as I was to complete this review, I think it makes sense that I’m publishing it during the holiday season—and not just because Pixie’s accident happens over Thanksgiving. One of the things I love about this time of year is that, if we let it, it allows us to hold the light and the darkness in tension with one another. My avoidance of hard books in the face of hard news has come with a guilty conscience. I know I have a responsibility to look, to acknowledge the difficult things.

The title asks us, Can You See Anything Now? If we are to do that, we have to confront the darkness to find the light.* Fiction can be a great place to start that process.

*As O. Henry begs, “Forget the hashed metaphor.”

(I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)


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I have struggled to write this post. What does one say about a book one loves loves loves and thinks everyone should read right now?

I almost didn’t read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, which seems unthinkable. In some parallel universe, there is a version of me who has not read this book. Terrible, shuddering thought.

I found my copy at a used book sale, one of those where the paperbacks are fifty cents and the hardbacks are a dollar and I have to make two trips out to the car under boxes that laws of physics should not allow me to carry because for fifty cents, how could I not buy it? And then when I get home I have to do some serious geometry in my head to figure out how to get the books on the shelves, which is one very serious reason humanities people need to know math, too. And then the Miracle of the Bookshelves happens, and I can always squeeze one more in. This paragraph is in present tense because this scenario happens frequently.

(Here I had written several long paragraphs about what grad school will do to your feelings about literature and your fellow humans, but I took them out because, while they were funny and cathartic, they were also mean, and perhaps the most important lesson I learned in (trumpets, please) Graduate School in the Humanities is that mean and smart are not the same thing at all. Smart people don’t need to be mean.)

Suffice it to say that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came to me exactly when I needed it. Early in the book, Juliet Ashton, an English writer who begins corresponding with a member of the book’s title club, writes, “Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.”

I think it is true that if the book itself is strong, almost any reader will find something in it. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a strong book.

During World War II, the (English) Channel Islands, Guernsey among them, were occupied by German forces. Apparently, Hitler was so excited about having a toehold on England that the islands were completely cut off from the outside world from 1940 until the end of the war. Set in 1946 as Europe begins to recover from the war, this is the story of how a group of islanders survived those years.

I tend to avoid books about book clubs, mostly because I suspect them of being syrupy sweet, and I am often right. This book is not like that—I am often wrong, too, but I’m always willing to change my position in light of new evidence. Every character in it is a real person now, at least in my own head. Like its characters, the novel has a sense of humor, which is saying something for a book about the German Occupation.

I think what this book did for me, when I read it a year out of a long bout with graduate school, was  remind me that literature, that books, that stories themselves are the strong things, the real things, the things that matter to people who don’t study them for a living. And that, while there is occasional value to be found in theory, much of it is smoke and mirrors and “camera tricks,” as a couple of girls I once babysat were fond of saying.

It’s the stories that matter most. I hope you read this one and tell me how you like it.

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When I was twelve or so, I had pictures of two men on the wall above my bed. Plastering the walls with pictures of boys is not unusual for twelve-year-old girls, but what was unusual was that mine were not ripped out of magazines. Mine were prints, purchased at Cowpens National Battlefield on the same blistering day that I put my mother, brother, and grandmother on a forced march around said battlefield so I could get a better sense of place.

I always have loved primary research.

Cowpens and King’s Mountain are two of the more famous battles of the Revolutionary War in the South. (Nobody asked you, Guilford Courthouse! And Yorktown, you’re more Mid-Atlantic.) I grew up a county away from both, and I knew Cowpens as “the battleground” long before I knew when, how, or why there had been a battle there. I suppose people have been calling Cowpens “the battleground” for two hundred years and will probably go on calling it that for two hundred more.

The antagonists of the Battle of Cowpens faced each other over my bed:

Tarleton went by “Ban” (Who names their kid Banastre? Is he a staircase?), and he is one of the few bad boy crushes I’ve ever had.

Upon reflection, this may be why I struggled to find a living, breathing boyfriend.

If you grew up in South Carolina, chances are you’ve heard the phrase “Tarleton’s Quarter” used to mean no quarter, no mercy at all. Tarleton was an advocate of total war before total war was cool. (And I’m not saying it is cool—I’m just saying people do it more now. Maybe. It’s arguable.) Tarleton’s cruelty in backcountry South Carolina led many people who otherwise felt pretty meh about the Revolution to support the Patriot cause—or the cause of anybody who was against Tarleton, anyway. “Tarleton’s Quarter!” became the rallying cry of backcountry South Carolina.

But he was so cute.

I could talk Revolution in the South all day.

I first met Ban Tarleton in one of those books I regularly checked out from the public library: Who Comes to King’s Mountain? by John and Patricia Beatty. In the days before Amazon, I couldn’t find a copy to buy, so I slyly mentioned to my mom that the library replacement fee was only five dollars. I could just pretend I lost it, and hey, since I’m the only person checking this book out, anyway, the library gets five bucks! They can buy a couple more copies of Goosebumps, and everyone’s a winner!

This is the kind of thinking that leads a little girl to grow up and get a master’s degree in library science.

Mom (rightly, I guess, *sigh*) wouldn’t let me fake lose the book, but since I am now a grown-up with access to Amazon, I found my own copy a couple of months ago. Turns out it’s out of print, which is why we couldn’t find it back in the pre-Internet days, but I found a copy for ten bucks. Surprise of surprises, it’s a first edition with only minimal damage! I guess good things do come to those who wait.

Who Comes to King’s Mountain? is the story of fourteen-year-old Alec MacLeod, who lives in backcountry South Carolina with his loyalist parents in 1780. (A lot went down after 1776, but it doesn’t get talked about much, which is one reason I heart this book.) Alec wants to be a trader, not a farmer like his father, and definitely not a soldier, but his father forces him to join a troop of Colonial loyalists.

Before he leaves, Alec’s prescient grandmother looks into the flames and tells him he will encounter two beasts, one white and one red, and go to dark water and a high place. In Alec’s first encounter with the white beast, Tarleton (whose skin is so pale it glows in the sunlight), he decides he might be really opposed to fighting under this dude. In his first encounter with the red beast, Major Patrick Ferguson (who has bright red hair), he decides he is definitely opposed to fighting with these dudes. Because Alec has to hide to avoid being impressed by the British, his grandmother sends him to the dark water—the swamps of the Pee Dee River, from which Colonel Francis Marion, nicknamed the “Swamp Fox,” and his band of Merry Men harry the British. (That Robin Hood comparison was dying to be made.) Alec also encounters Patriot General Thomas Sumter, the “Fighting Gamecock,” and in the process of carrying out a mission from Marion, Alec winds up at the Battle of King’s Mountain in October 1780—the high place.

One thing I find really clever about this book is how the writers make it possible for Alec to meet many personalities who actually weren’t together very much and to view the war from a variety of perspectives without it ever feeling forced.

I wanted to see if “my” copy still remained in the library, and it does. The Public Library System of Greenville, SC has one archival copy and one circulating copy. I hope someone is checking it out.

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On the Prairie with HATTIE BIG SKY and Me

When Kirby Larson’s Hattie Big Sky won a Newbery Honor in January 2007, I had lived on the Midwestern prairie for less than two months, I was trapped in my house by three (three!) feet of snow and an ongoing blizzard that made it impossible to see the house next door, and I had no interest in hearing again how refreshing the stark prairie was going to be for someone who had spent twenty-five years being happily corrupted by the unconscious excesses of the East Coast. (Reflecting on this period of my life leads me to use lots of italics. They are part of this post. Deal.)

Like many a well-meaning and hyper-educated Eastern woman before me, I had followed a man. And if there had been a stagecoach to take me back east, I would have been on it. I had a car, of course, but I didn’t know how to drive in a blizzard, so there I sat, cursing Laura Ingalls Wilder for making me think this would be okay.

I might never have picked up Hattie Big Sky had I not (several years later) read an interview with Kirby Larson that contained those five little words I love: based on a true story. Larson based the main character on her great-grandmother, who homesteaded by herself in eastern Montana in the early 1900s. Why and how, I wondered, would a woman—or a man, for that matter—ever try to homestead by herself? Homesteading is hard work, and it seems unlikely that one person could ever make a go of it.

I looked at the cover: wide open sky, land so flat and clear you’d swear you can see the planet curve. After six years, I’d managed to conquer the feeling that the rotation of the earth was going to throw me off every time I looked across the prairie. Don’t laugh, prairie-borns. In my Eastern woodlands, you can hold on to the trees.

Moving to a city (albeit one that rises out of the corn), finding friends, and developing the simple acceptance that comes from long acquaintance meant I no longer hated the prairie. I could read Hattie Big Sky now.

I’m so glad I did because I loved this book. In the same interview, Kirby Larson said, “I wrote an ordinary book that even my lovely editor said, ‘You know, this is a quiet book'” (Imdieke 32). It has none of the whizz-bangs, none of the fireworks, none of the sexy makeup and packaging and marketing that make a blockbuster.

It is rare that I love blockbusters. Really love them, as in take-them-into-my-heart-and-let-them-sleep-by-my-bed-for-weeks-on-end-even-after-I’ve-finished-reading-just-because-I-like-to-have-them-near. I have brief, intense flings with them, but I don’t often trust blockbusters enough to love them.

I am hard pressed to tell you why I loved this book, why I couldn’t wait to get back to it when I had to put it down, why I felt welcomed into its world.

I think it had to do with Hattie herself.

Orphaned at a young age, “Hattie Here-and-There” (as she calls herself) has spent her sixteen years being shuffled from one relative to another, so when she inherits a homestead from her estranged uncle, she decides, almost without hesitation, to go. Alone except for her cat, Mr. Whiskers, Hattie sets out to prove her uncle’s claim.

Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the basics of homesteading were the same in most of the western United States: the government would give you “free” (after taxes and filing costs and closing costs and a lot of other costs) land with the condition that you had to make certain improvements on it within a designated period of time. If you didn’t hold up your end of the bargain, the land reverted to the government.

In January 1918, Hattie moves into her uncle’s claim shack. She has ten months left to prove a three-year claim. Her uncle has barely gotten started on the claim requirements, which include building, fencing, and cultivating one-eighth of the land. By November, Hattie must set 480 fence rods and plant and harvest 40 acres.

All of that sounds at once impossible and makes me feel like a real wimp for my feelings about yard work. (Hint: I don’t get the slightest bit of pleasure out of it.)

I liked simply being with Hattie as she discovered this new world and the people in it, as she both railed against the prairie and found her place on it, perhaps because she and I both managed simply to survive our first years. I didn’t have to prove a claim, but I did have to fight the soul-crushing isolation of being an outsider in a small town. Admitting defeat and beating a hasty retreat to the city is the best thing I could have done, so I understand and applaud the decision Hattie makes in the end.

I highly recommend Hattie Big Sky and can’t wait to read the sequel, Hattie Ever After, which came out only a couple of months ago. I didn’t want to leave Hattie, so I’m glad I can get back into her world soon.

What “quiet books” have you loved?


Work Cited

Imdieke, Sandra. “Newbies and Newberys: Reflections from First-Time Newbery Honor Authors.” Children and Libraries 10.1 (2012): 30-36. Print.


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Last week, my dear and thoughtful friend, knowing how I love a good children’s literature reader’s advisory question, called me from the reference desk.

“I have a student here who needs three historical fiction books for her children’s lit class. I gave her Sarah, Plain and Tall. Any other ideas?”

I made the sound my cat makes when she’s choking on a hairball.

Don’t give her Sarah, Plain and Tall,” I said.”Sarah, Plain and Tall is sooo boring.”

My friend held the phone away. “She says you don’t want to read Sarah, Plain and Tall because it’s really boring.”

The student got her books and went on her way, and it was only later that I became quite uncomfortable with the hairball noise I had made at the idea of Sarah, Plain and Tall. Had I blocked a reader from a book that might have been perfect for her? Who am I to judge, after all, what book is right for another reader?

When I went to my Newbery shelf to get another book for my Spring 2013 Newbery Reading Challenge, I realized I had a brand new, never-been-opened copy of Sarah, Plain and Tall. And I had no idea how it had gotten there. Being a big believer in book magic, I always make time to read books that very clearly put themselves in my way. And given my hairball noise and subsequent discomfort, I felt I owed it to the book to read it again.

Sarah, Plain and Tall, the 1986 Newbery Medal winner,is a very short book about a father and two children who live in some undisclosed location on the plains in some undisclosed year in the late nineteenth century. Sarah, the title character, is the mail-order bride the father sends for to help raise his children. Sarah agrees to visit from her home in Maine for a month and then decide if she will marry Jacob Witting and raise Anna and Caleb.

If you don’t think about how messed up the whole concept of mail-order brides is, this is a bittersweet story about the two children who desperately want Sarah to stay and their fear that she won’t.

I think I understand part of why I didn’t like Sarah, Plain and Tall as a child. When I was in elementary school, Hallmark Hall of Fame (or something very like it) made a movie of Sarah, Plain and Tall. In addition to the medieval phase I’ve written about before, I went through a pioneers phase brought on by lots of Laura Ingalls Wilder. My family will tell you many hilarious stories about this if you ask them.

(Side Note: In my first week of substitute teaching at a school near my new home on the prairie, I was supposed to read to the children from On the Banks of Plum Creek. In one day’s reading, we heard about a prairie fire, a late spring snowstorm, and a plague of locusts. And I began to seriously question my life choices.)

Anyway, when this movie came out, everyone went on and on about how much I was going to love it. We watched it in school, for some reason. Probably because it was the end of the year and the movie was vaguely “educational.” I had high hopes. I did not love it. I thought it was boring. I read the book. I did not love it. I thought it was boring. But I pretended to like it because my teachers seemed really invested in my liking it, and I didn’t want to disappoint them.

Sarah, Plain and Tall is a short book. My copy is sixty-seven pages with wide margins and large print. I read it at lunch the other day. And this may be another reason I found it boring as a child: I was expecting a novel, and I got a short story. I love short stories, but I think it’s probably similar to picking up a glass filled with what you think is tea and getting apple juice. For a minute, you gag.

If I had not experienced a major move from the east coast (and moving to the Midwest has led me to define myself as an easterner even more than as a southerner—the interior south is very different from the seaboard south, after all, and it’s all in perspective), I might still think find Sarah, Plain and Tall boring.

This time around, though, I felt a sense of kinship with Sarah, as I felt with Margaret Hale of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, Kit Tyler of Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and other fictional and real women who have, like me, moved to places where both the landscape and the culture and the people and the assumptions are so very different.

This is why it’s a good idea to read books more than once. Books change as we change, and sometimes we see things that weren’t there before. Book magic.

Have you ever changed your mind about a book? Are there any books you feel you should give a second chance?

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In Which I Judge MOON OVER MANIFEST By Its Cover and Am Surprised

My second Spring 2013 Newbery Reading Challenge book was Clare Vanderpool’s 2011 Medal Winner, Moon Over Manifest. I wasn’t sure I was going to be writing about this book here because I didn’t really expect to like it, and as you’ll see in About AiMP, I post only on books I like/recommend. Trust The Horn Book and me to review only recommended books. I keep good company.

But what is a reading challenge for, if not to force us to read books we would otherwise pass over? I’ve been passing Moon Over Manifest by for a couple of years because the cover shows a girl in overalls balancing on a railroad track. I doubt it will surprise anyone to learn that I’m not really an overalls and train tracks kind of girl. This blog is not called Adventures in My Overalls, after all.

Moon Over Manifest is narrated by twelve-year-old Abilene Tucker, whose single dad sends her to spend the summer of 1936 in Manifest, Kansas. Abilene spends the summer trying to solve several mysteries: Why did her father send her away? When is he coming back? What is the significance of the box of trinkets and letters she finds under her bed?

Through her own investigative abilities and the stories told by Miss Sadie, the town fortune-teller, Abilene works out how World War I and the Spanish Influenza Epidemic made the people in the town who they are and made her father the man he is.

What I liked best about Moon Over Manifest is the way the narrative switches between Abilene’s narration of the summer of 1936 and Miss Sadie’s narration of the events of 1917-1918. I like books that switch like this because they allow readers to examine how the past shapes the present on a micro-level.

Also, many of Abilene’s observations called to me on the level of one historian to another: her realization that there are no universals, that if you look at them long enough, other people’s memories somehow become your memories, that the only way to repay the past is to be determined enough to hear the story through to the end, even if it hurts.

These are the challenges we face when we face the past.

So in the end, despite the fact that I do not own a pair of overalls and actually listened when I was told never to play on train tracks (because that rule made a lot of sense to me), I enjoyed Moon Over Manifest.

Have any books surprised you like this?

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While You Wait for A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE

I am a bit sneaky when it comes to reading series. I like to wait until the entire series is out and then read it all at once. This helps me maintain a healthy level of dignity, in that I don’t have to go around drooling over the next installment and then go through withdrawal until the next book is out. Also, I don’t forget what happened in Book 1 by the time Book 7 rolls around. Also, it’s fun to read 5000 pages of one story at one go.

images-1But recently, it came to my attention that if I didn’t get myself familiarized with George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire epic, I was going to lose some serious street cred among all my nerdy friends. Thanks, HBO. Hence, borrowing Season One from my best friend. Hence, deciding I don’t want to wait another five or ten years to find out what happens. Hence, reading  Book One: A Game of Thrones and getting really salty about having to stop in the middle to read a book for book club. Hence, judging said book probably a bit more harshly than it deserves. Hence, starting the second book. Hence, seriously considering buying a House Stark tee-shirt because I love those direwolves so darn much. Hence, proceeding to lose all dignity…

It’s Harry Potter all over again. I started reading Harry Potter when five books were available in a planned seven-book series, and I’ve done the same thing with A Song of Ice and Fire. I never learn. But with Harry Potter, we knew the next books were going to come out within a reasonable amount of time. I am given to understand that we do not know this with A Song of Ice and Fire. So, in the meantime…

I realize I’ve written quite a lot about fantasy on a blog that is supposed to be about historical fiction. But, well, where do you think fantasy comes from?

I’ve heard that A Song of Ice and Fire is loosely based on the Wars of the Roses (c. 1455-1485) between the Lancasters and the Yorks, and Lannister and Stark do sound suspiciously similar, as do the general plotting and intrigue.

I like to call Martin’s work Wars of the Roses + Zombies + Dragons=Awesome. Because, really, what was missing from the Wars of the Roses was zombies and dragons. If dragons had been around, Shakespeare could have had Richard III say, “My kingdom for a dragon!” Which, no matter how much you love horses, seems like a much better trade.

I know many of us are anxiously awaiting the release of Books 6 and 7, and we may have to wait a long time, so today I’m recommending an old favorite of mine.

61V9SV884AL._SL500_SS500_In A Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S. Haasse is set during the Hundred Years’ War (c. 1337-1453) between England and France. The novel follows Charles, Duke of Orléans, from his birth in 1394, through his involvement in the House of Orléans’s feud with the House of Burgundy, to his capture at the Battle of Agincourt, through his years of exile and imprisonment in England, and finally back to France to his retirement and death sometime in the 1460s. The book is long (my copy is 574 pages), intensely detailed, and filled with loads of characters who all have to be kept straight in your head. But if you’re a fan of epic fantasy and medieval political intrigue and battlefield action, that’s why you’ll love it.

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“Kiss me, Hardy.”

My hidden talent is mimicry. I keep it hidden because it tends to get me into trouble, especially when I don’t mean to do it. I’m out of practice now, but there are still those times when I report, “So-and-so said,” and then proceed to say it with so-and-so’s exact inflections, not because I mean to but because the sound of the language gets in my head and I can’t help it.

This is what got me through the semester when I most unwisely took classes in three different languages at once. I probably made no sense at all, but I sounded like I knew what I was talking about.

Now I use this skill to glide in and out of the several dialects I’ve acquired from living in different parts of the country—sometimes subconsciously, sometimes very consciously indeed, and sometimes just for fun.

And now I really am giving away all my secrets.

Code Name Verity Cover

Secrets, of course, have their place in a spy novel, especially in one as good as Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

I have great sympathy for the first narrator because the things that get her into trouble are the things that get me into trouble. That talent for mimicry, that tendency to memorize long passages of poetry whether I mean to or not, that choice to study German because I love German.

Apparently, these skills would have been very useful to my country in the days when code was still based in human language, and so they get Verity into much worse trouble than they have ever gotten me. They get her a job as a British spy in occupied France, where she ends up a prisoner of the Gestapo.

But that’s not really what Code Name Verity is about. At its heart, Code Name Verity is about the friendship between two women, the spy (Code Name Verity) and the ATA pilot (Code Name Kittyhawk) who drops her in Nazi-occupied France and eventually takes over the narration. Perhaps I sympathize with Verity because the way she feels about her best friend is exactly the way I feel about my best friend, and one thing we don’t have enough of in this world is depictions of genuine friendship between women.

I started and scrapped this post four times before I realized the only way to write about this book was to write about myself. That isn’t as narcissistic as it sounds. It’s a testament to how stunningly good this book is that I can hardly talk about it. Code Name Verity is not “about” World War II or “about” the Gestapo or “about” spies or “about” pilots. It’s about Verity and Kittyhawk and their friendship.

Historical fiction that exists purely to teach me about a particular setting and sticks the characters in at the last minute annoys me. I study history to learn about people. Code Name Verity approaches from the right direction.

Ten totally meaningless points to the first person to get the historical reference in the title of this post.


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Terry Pratchett’s Take on Victorian London

UPDATE (1/28/2013): Dodger was just named a Printz Honor Book. The Michael L. Printz medal is awarded by the American Library Association for excellence in young adult fiction.

When I opened Terry Pratchett’s 2012 novel Dodger, I was not expecting historical fiction. I was expecting Terry Pratchett to be amazing, of course, and I had made up the idea that the book was a retelling of Oliver Twist, with perhaps some alternative history thrown in, as in Pratchett’s Printz Honor-winning Nation. (Nation is not strictly historical fiction, but Pratchett is well worth reading in any genre.)

The dedication got me wondering. “To Henry Mayhew for writing his book.” Mayhew. I was sure I knew the name, but I wasn’t sure why. About halfway through, I figured it out. Volume III of London Labour and the London Poor, in Four Volumes, Complete and Unabridged has been sitting on my shelf since I found it on the clearance table at my campus bookstore in round two of grad school. My edition calls Mayhew’s work, “The classical study of the culture of poverty and the criminal classes in the 19th Century.” I have never read it.

About halfway through Dodger, I also realized I was on familiar ground. This was—wait a minute—historical fiction. It didn’t feel like it, but it certainly was. A novel set in a specific time and place—London during the first quarter of Victoria’s reign—by an author who lived after it happened. While a number of unlikely things happen in the book, nobody time travels. Nobody uses magic. There’s not even any steampunk thrown in for good measure. The main character, Dodger, a seventeen-year-old tosher, is undoubtedly a product of his era.

But Dodger’s world feels fantastic. It feels like you step through the looking glass into another world. I think this is partly because Victorian London is so iconic (thanks to Dickens) and so well documented (thanks to Mayhew) that world building is easy for writers. But I think it’s also because Pratchett, like Dickens before him, knows the trick of making the realistic feel supernatural, feel horrific, feel speculative.

As Dodger races through the underbelly of London dodging Continental assassins, Sweeney Todd, and Sir Robert Peel to help a German princess escape her abusive husband, he meets a young writer for the Morning Chronicle named Charlie Dickens, Henry Mayhew, Benjamin Disraeli, Angela Burdett-Coutts (who absolutely deserves her own book), and finally the young Queen Victoria—who is amused.

The plot of Dodger is not likely, but neither is it impossible. When historical fiction insists on sticking to the strictly likely, it risks becoming strictly boring. The plots of most good books, and most good true stories, are usually fairly unlikely, when you get down to it.

When historical fiction is done well, as it is in Dodger, it feels like you step into another world. Because you do.

What books have done this for you?

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