Locker Combinations is a Book Case feature by BookPage contributor and young adult (YA) literature expert Jill Ratzan. Using a variety of literary, cultural and educational perspectives, Jill guest blogs about the latest in YA lit and the general direction, trends and changes of the field.
Last week, the American Library Association announced the winner of the Michael L. Printz Award, the highest award in young adult (YA) literature. Four Honor books were also named. (Marcus Sedgick's Midwinterblood won the top spot.) Interestingly, all five books are set either fully or partially in the past, in time periods ranging from the fourth century to 1986.
Historical fiction creates ample opportunities for YA literature, but it also poses a number of challenges. One such challenge is the role of female characters. How can authors of YA historical fiction stay true to historical realities while also presenting the strong, independent female characters that contemporary readers have come to expect? Read on for four possible strategies.
When Cat Winters' spooky historical mystery In the Shadow of Blackbirds opens, the year is 1918 and protagonist Mary Shelley Black is on her way to San Diego to stay with her recently widowed aunt. Mary Shelley's father is in jail for supposed unpatriotic activities, her beau is away fighting in France and the deadly Spanish flu is raging around her. With no one else to provide for them, Mary Shelley and her aunt—like many women of their time—must take on roles previously reserved for men. So, while Aunt Eva's work in a shipyard seems shocking, it brings in much-needed money. And although Mary Shelley's own activities might ordinarily have been looked down on by a husband, father or uncle, the combination of war, sickness and imprisonment mean that she's essentially on her own.
The popularity of crime drama series like "Sherlock" and "Elementary" have made character Sherlock Holmes well known even to those who've never read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Victorian-era tales. Similarly, Bram Stoker's Dracula has become an icon of pop culture. Fictional Holmes and historical Stoker are known for their intelligence, their curiosity and their interest in the macabre . . . but certainly not for their strict following of social conventions. If the two had teenage sisters or nieces, these young women might naturally be determined to set their own rules. Colleen Gleason's The Clockwork Scarab is the first in a series of mysteries starring the imaginary Mina Holmes and Evaline Stoker. If these two characters seem to be more independent than other women of their times, perhaps that's because they're taking a leaf out of their famous relatives' books.
Historical fantasy—works that combine history with aspects of the supernatural—is emerging as a hot new genre of YA fiction. Unlike traditional historical fiction, historical fantasy doesn't aim to be a perfect reflection of real life in the time and place in which it takes place. Instead, it combines elements from that setting with elements from the author's imagination.
One especially noteworthy historical fantasy series, His Fair Assassin by Robin LaFevers (especially the recent second book, Dark Triumph), revisits the history of medieval Brittany and France by juxtaposing real historical figures with fictional, magically trained warrior nuns. (You read that right.) Because LaFevers' female assassins are intentionally imaginary, they have no need to answer to the standards of demure behavior expected of other women of their time.
In Kerstin Gier's Precious Stones trilogy, translated from the German by Anthea Bell, teenage Gwyneth comes from a family of time travelers, but she's always been the boring, untalented one. An accidental slip into the past, though, reveals her identity as one of the Circle of Twelve, a secret sect with a long-running mission. Beginning with Ruby Red and continuing in Sapphire Blue, Gwyneth (and her cell phone) travel from contemporary London to the eighteenth century, the early twentieth century and various points in between. Again, because Gwyneth is an outsider to the times she finds herself in, her modern sensibility isn't necessarily an anachronism.
Strong female characters are always welcome in YA fiction, and if this year's Printz winner and Honor books are any indication, genre-blending YA historical fiction is here to stay. Combining the two ideas can sometimes be tricky, but these recent offerings show that it can be done with style, sensitivity and pizzazz.
British novelist Jacqueline Winspear made a name for herself with a best-selling series starring an unconventional detective. Maisie Dobbs, a former maid who served as a nurse in the Great War, returned home to England to deal with her nation's troubled post-war psyche—and the resulting crimes.
But this year, Winspear is trying something new: She's written a novel set during World War I instead of after it, one that doesn't star her now-famous detective. The Care and Management of Lies (Harper) will be published in June. Its heroine, Kezia Marchant marries her best friend Thea's brother Tom just before the war breaks out. While Tom heads off to war, Kezia and Thea are caught up in the women's rights movement and struggle to hold onto the family farm.
Winspear is a perceptive writer with a historian's knowledge of the era she writes about. Even minus Maisie, her work should take readers on a fascinating ride. Will you read it?
RELATED IN BOOKPAGE
Read our 2005 interview with Jacqueline Winspear.
Alex Myers cleverly blends his own family history with fiction in his unique debut novel, Revolutionary. We meet Deborah Samson Gannett, Myers' own ancestor, during the American Revolution in 1782. When the 22-year-old servant can no longer bear her oppressive life in Colonial Massachusetts, she makes her break for independence. Disguising herself as "Robert Shurtliff," the tall and strong Gannett joins the Continental Army.
Myers' own experience in coming out as transgender makes Deborah's internal struggle over her newly adopted identity and fears of rejection incredibly palpable. In a special column written for BookPage, Myers explains his writing process:
I wanted to let her character emerge fully, without bearing the imprint of my own. Yet, so often as I wrote, I thought—she would have worried about using the bathroom . . . she would have glowed when someone called her “young man”. . . just like me. There were many times when I felt that point of contact through the page.
Watch this video with author Alex Myers to learn more about the book:
What do you think, readers? Are you interested picking up this historical novel?
As part of our Best Books of 2013 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list. Think J.R. Ewing and “Dallas.” Think Lonesome Dove. Think Faulkner. This stunning second novel from Philipp Meyer (following his critically praised debut, American Rust) combines epic storytelling, Texas tragedy and raw, powerful writing. Tracing the rise to power of the McCullough clan—from the birth of patriarch Eli in 1836 to the 20th-century struggles of great-granddaughter Jeannie—Meyer reveals more about Texas and its violent past than any history book ever could. Read our review or interview, or check out an excerpt. To see the full list of our best books of 2013, click here.
As part of our Best Books of 2013 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
With each iteration of Ursula's life, the reader becomes more and more invested in her fate—even as we are led to ponder the nature of fate and reality itself. It's fascinating to see the small variations in the lives of characters we have come to know and love, and Atkinson portrays British country life on the eve of World War I and the horrors of the London Blitz with equal skill. Life After Life is remarkable achievement from one of today's best storytellers.
Read our review.
The Visionist by Rachel Urquhart
Little, Brown • $26 • ISBN 9780316228114
On sale January 14, 2014
Rachel Urquhart's debut novel takes place in a Shaker community in the 1840s—the place where 15-year-old Polly and her younger brother flee after burning her house down to conceal the murder of her abusive father. But she finds that safety comes at something of a price in this harsh and restrictive community.
"Why must I pretend my brother is not my brother?" she asked. She no longer felt afraid of this stranger. Nothing moved her anymore, not love, not worry, not even sadness. She had become as hard and dry as a winter seed. "Mama said she had business to attend to," Polly said, not intending to speak her doubts out loud. "Perhaps. And yet, how could she have left us in a place where there can be no love?"
The girl let out a sigh. "There is love here, you will see. Brother for brother, sister for sister. But flesh bonds are forged in the fires of carnal sin. Your Ben, like you, was born of a filthy act. Here, that filth will be lifted. You shall see for yourself, if you are willing to renounce your blood ties and confess. Should you refuse, then you do not belong among us."
What are you reading this week?
As part of our Best Books of 2013 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
Helene Wecker's first novel announces the arrival of a formidable imagination. The Golem and the Jinni expertly blends Jewish and Arabic folklore against the vivid backdrop of 1899 New York City, where her title characters—golem Chava and jinni Ahmed—meet. Chava and Ahmed at first clash due to their opposite natures, but are drawn to one another by their shared experience as supernatural beings in a city of humans—not to mention their shared experience of being at the beck and call of various "masters." It soon becomes clear that combining their powers is the only chance for freedom . . . and perhaps even for survival.
Suspenseful, creative and entertaining, this book should delight fans of both fantasy and historical fiction. (And one of the best debuts of 2013!) Don't miss it.
Watch for our full list next week!
In an imaginative prelude to Charles Dickens' acclaimed classic, Great Expectations, Scottish novelist Ronald Frame allows readers a glimpse into the life of Catherine Havisham, a character who has chilled readers with her dour and ghostly literary presence for well over a century.
With Havisham, Frame nimbly explores what some could call hallowed literary ground—we first meet Catherine as the precocious child of a wealthy brewer and follow her through her years of growth and social refinement. Yet it is Frame's detailed account of her (infamous) relationship with the roguish Charles Compeyson that makes us truly sorry for saying such ugly things about her in our high school English classes.
Our reviewer Elizabeth Atwood gave high praise: "An excellent example of a present-day writer taking on a classic, Havisham gives the reader food for thought while reviving one of the great characters of Victorian literature."
Sounds like a true book nerd's story to us! Watch the stylish trailer below:
What do you think, readers? Have you picked up a copy of Havisham yet?
Emma Donoghue became a household name for readers after the her 2010 novel, Room, sold more than 1.5 million copies. But Room was actually an anomaly for Donoghue, who was known as a historical fiction writer—or, as she puts it, a "fact-based historical writer." She returns to the past on April 1 with Frog Music (Little, Brown), a story set in 1876 San Francisco that's based on a real-life crime. A heatwave is sweeping the city—and so is a deadly smallpox epidemic. But French burlesque dancer Blanche Beunon has even bigger problems: Her friend, Jenny Bonnet, has been shot dead, and Blanche is determined to bring her killer to justice.
As Blanche pieces together Jenny's past for clues, she discovers that her frog-hunting friend had more than a few secrets. Will she be able to solve the mystery of Jenny's death before the killer catches up with her?
In 2010, attorney Ronald H. Balson self-published his first novel, Once We Were Brothers, a haunting, fast-paced tale originating in Nazi-occupied Poland. The book opens in 2004, though. Philanthropist Elliot Rosenzweig is accused of being former SS officer Otto Piatek. The accuser is Ben Solomon, whose family took in the orphaned Piatek as a child, only to be brutally betrayed by him during the war.
Inspired by Balson's travels in Poland, Once We Were Brothers became a runaway hit, selling more than 120,000 copies. Three years later, the film rights have been optioned, and St. Martin's Press has published a new edition—released today—that will introduce this enthralling page-turner to an even larger audience.
In this guest blog post, Balson discusses how he was originally inspired to write the book:
In the early 2000s, I was hired by a small Chicago company that had an exclusive license to install telephone service in the Nova Sacz province of southern Poland. Unfortunately, they couldn’t deliver the project on time, and they lost their license. They, in turn, sued the manufacturing company. Although the lawsuit was filed in Chicago, the witnesses, the documents and all the evidence were in Poland. So, off I went. Many times.
I had read a lot about Poland during World War II, but I didn’t really know what to expect on my visits. I knew that Hitler had bombed 80 percent of Warsaw, and I knew the city had been rebuilt under the Soviet regime. But I failed to anticipate how much of the landscape would still show the wounds. Bullet holes remain in buildings. Plaques on brick walls commemorate ruthless murders that took place there. And the monuments. So many monuments, statues and memorials. Memorials to the fighters of the Polish Uprising, the Warsaw Ghetto, the Polish airmen and even the code breakers. And then there are the heartbreaking memorials to the camp victims.
Poland never stood a chance. It was facing the world’s largest, most menacing war machine. Yet, here and there, all across Poland, are glorious monuments in praise of heroism—to those who resisted, to those who fought in the uprisings and in the underground, and to those ordinary families who just tried to carry on and maintain their dignity in a time of insanity. They were heroes, all. That’s what the monuments tell us.
I became fascinated by the monuments and spent more time than I should have thinking about the people to whom they were dedicated. It was an easy step from there to Once We Were Brothers. My novel opens dramatically: A prominent philanthropist, Elliot Rosenzweig, is accused of being a former Nazi SS officer known as the Butcher of Zamosc, Poland. His accuser, Ben Solomon, claims that they grew up together in the same household, only to be betrayed by Rosenzweig during the war.
The underlying message of Once We Were Brothers, though, is one of heroism. Like the monuments, it lies in praise of the ordinary families of small-town Poland, who tried to live their lives in the face of the Nazi scourge. When their dignities were stripped from them, piece by piece, they did their best to carry on. The book’s message is also praise for the courage of those who resisted and those who served in the Polish underground.
An important section of the novel concerns a Catholic priest who risks his life to save the Solomon family. In a time when many averted their eyes and showed moral indifference, others, in the face of extreme consequences, displayed extraordinary courage. They are the ordinary folks—families, clergy, businessmen—who are honored at Yad VaShem as the “Righteous Among Nations.”
Ben Solomon seeks the help of a young lawyer, Catherine Lockhart, to bring Rosenzweig to justice. Over a series of interviews, he narrates the moving story of his family and of Rosenzweig’s betrayal. Although overmatched by Rosenzweig’s powerful team of lawyers, Lockhart must find the courage to confront them. To do so, she draws strength from Ben and his story. And isn’t that akin to the residual effect of the monuments? They are there to remind us of courage and moral conviction. Do we not draw strength and resolve from remembrance of these heroes?
If Once We Were Brothers entertains and informs, I am pleased with the result. But if the message of heroism is conveyed as well, then I have accomplished something that was born out of my visits to those emotionally powerful monuments several years ago.
Thank you, Ronald. Readers, will you be adding Once We Were Brothers to your TBR list? To learn more about Balson and the book, visit his website.