Neela: Victory Song

Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Illustrator: Troy Howell

Publishing Year: 2002

Setting: Bengal, India, 1939


Neela's older sister Usha is getting married. The wedding is a large and generous party for the village, but not as lavish as Neela's mother would have preferred. But with the civil unrest due to India being under British control, and war in Europe, Neela's father thinks it's inappropriate to appear to be showing off. Too many people are going hungry.

The scaled-back wedding goes well, but the reception is interrupted by a group of young men in disguise, aggressively collecting funds to oust the British. Enough people on their side to provide peer pressure for the rest to hand over coins and jewelry. When the group leaves, some grumble that they shouldn't rock the boat, but most seem to be ready govern themselves rather than be under the control of a country thousands of miles away. Neela is proud to have contributed some jewelry, and proud that her parents and sister and her sister's new husband helped willingly too. But she's distressed when her father tells her he's going to Calcutta to see if he can do more to help the freedom movement. He's told Neela's mother that he's just going for business, but if he doesn't return, he's trusting Neela to reveal his true motivations, so that Neela's mother will know he died for a noble cause.

While he's away, the young man--really, a boy, about sixteen--who collected the offerings during the wedding shows up in dairy barn, badly wounded. Neela doesn't know enough about medicine to treat him (Samar) on her own, so she must trust her tutor and her mother to help. Both are reluctant, as they don't want to be branded traitors, but agree that they can't just let him die. Samar eventually recovers well enough to slip away just in time, when government soldiers come looking for him. He leaves a note of gratitude, with the name of a cousin in Calcutta through whom messages can be sent.

Neela also receives a marriage proposal while her father's away: a woman from a nearby village had noticed Neela and thinks that she'd be a wonderful addition to her (very well-off) family. Neela's mother jumps at the opportunity to get her daughter such a match, though the marriage won't be for a few years. Neela's only twelve, but an engagement date is set for just a few weeks away, on a date filled with lucky numbers. Neela is quite distressed at this: she knows that engagement means she'll lose much of her freedoms and she'll be scrutinized by everyone around her, and marriage will take away whatever choice she has left. Plus, her father's been gone the better part of a month now. A baoul (a sort of holy man who has been singing an illegal song about a free India) offers to ask after him in Calcutta, but when his anti-government views are disclosed he must go into hiding. He leaves some of his clothing for Neela; she can disguise herself as a man and go to Calcutta find her father on her own. Neela leaves her mother a note apologizing and explaining, and leaves.

In Calcutta, she's able to find Samar's cousin Bimala quickly. Her father is a high-ranking official, so they must be careful to not reveal Neela's intentions. The two happen upon Samar, posing as a street performer. Between him and a trusted servant of Bimala, they're able to find out that Neela's father is a prisoner not far away, and make a plan to free him and some other prisoners who will be deported that night. They're able to stop the truck they're on, leave the British soldiers on the roadside, and drive off. Neela's father is in the back. They're overjoyed to see each other.

Neela and Samar help her father to a train station--his leg is badly injured, perhaps broken. On the train back home, they're nearly discovered. But Neela uses some makeup tips from Bimala (who's in a drama  club at her college) to make it appear as though her father has smallpox. Terrified of catching the disease, the soldiers who are looking for the escaped prisoners stop the train and force Neela, her father, and Samar off--conveniently about a mile from Neela's home. Samar leaves to return to the freedom fighters, and Neela and her father make their way home, reuniting with her mother.

Then and Now: A Girl's Life

A Hindu girl in Neela's time might only receive a little formal education, and would expect to marry between the ages of eleven and fourteen, to a man picked by her family. She would move in with his family following the wedding, which might be the first time she would meet them all--including her husband. She would also start seeing some very interesting changes in her world as the people of India began to rise up against the English who had controlled the land for two centuries. Gandhi was the most recognizable leader of the freedom movement, encouraging non-violent protests. The world grew sympathetic to India's plight, it won its independence in 1947 without war. India is now the world's largest democracy. Though girls in rural areas still don't receive much education and there are still large pockets of poverty, girls in cities excel in universities, including STEM fields. In 1966, India elected its first female prime minister.


Dedicated to "my favorite young people: Abhay, Anand, Rahul, and Neela." Thanks to "my spiritual teachers, Baba Muktananda, Gurumayi, and Swami Chinamayananda, for their love. My agent, Sandra Dikkstra, for encouraging me to grow in this new and joyous direction. My editor, Tamara England, for her perceptive guidance. My mother, Tatini Banarjee, for making the time I write about here come alive for me. My friend, Indira Chakravorty, for generously sharing with me her extensive library of Bengali literature. My husband, Murthy, for his continued support. My niece, Neela, for loaning me her name. And my son, Anand, for being my first, best, and most enthusiastic reader."

The author grew up Calcutta. She chose the name Neela because it means "blue" in Bengali, a color that symbolizes infinite possibilities.

A couple weeks ago, I was talking with a woman from India about arranged marriage. She told me that her parents were looking for matches for her, and that while they went through a lot of effort to be sure that a given man was from a good family and so on, it was always up to her whether she actually liked the man. Apparently they'd made a few matches already that hadn't panned out. In the book, the bride and groom aren't allowed to meet until the wedding itself. I think the modern take is better.

Neela's father doesn't use corporal punishment like most of his peers, but instead prefers discipline that's informative and productive. For example, when Neela gives away an expensive piece of jewelry to help fund the freedom fighters (she didn't realize it was so pricey, nor that it was supposed to be part of her dowry), he has her take over for a retiring servant. Her parents will set aside the money they save in not hiring a new servant until she repays them.

The first of these books was set in the 1500s. By the time this one was set, my paternal grandmother was twenty, my paternal grandfather was fourteen, my maternal grandfather was ten, and my maternal grandmother was six.

The King County Library System doesn't have a copy of this book. I got it from Hood River County in Oregon through an inter-library loan.

Unlike the other Girls of Many Lands books, this is written in third person.


Kathleen: the Celtic Knot

Author: Siobhan Parkinson

Illustrator: Troy Howell

Publishing Year: 2003

Setting: Dublin, Ireland, 1937


At twelve, Kathleen is the eldest of her sisters, and when her mother has to attend a birth (she's the area's unofficial midwife) or her sometimes-employed father is busy looking for or going to work, she often has to run the household. But she's new to it, and doesn't have it fully down yet. The mother superior at her Catholic school notices, and after a meeting with Kathleen's mother, gets her father a parttime job assisting the elderly gardener, and has Kathleen enroll in line dancing classes. Some of  Kathleen's snobby classmates are in it, and lie to her that it's free, causing a lot of embarrassment when the teacher asks for payment at the end of class. Thanks to her father's new job, she can pay for the one class, but it would be too much to pay for further ones, which is a shame because Kathleen really enjoyed her lessons and she's naturally talented at line dancing.

The teacher noticed Kathleen's talent, and offers one term of lessons for free, thinking that if Kathleen excels enough her family can reach some sort of payment arrangement. Kathleen is even going to be in a competition! But her excitement fades when she learns she'll need a dance costume, something she knows her family can't afford. Inspired by the story of St. Bernadette, Kathleen prays a novena (a series of prayers said over nine days) to her asking for a dance costume. When one of the nuns finds out that Kathleen wants something so trivial, she's enraged--fortunately, she only finds out on the last day of the novena. But no dress materializes, so Kathleen decides the nun was right that she should only pray for important things and not bother God or the saints about little ones.

However, Kathleen's mother finds out about the competition, and right away says that she has her eye on some blue fabric at a store--if someone buys just a bit more, there will be enough of a remnant to buy the needed yardage at a discount. It's blue fabric, not green like it should be, but Kathleen knows better than to press the issue. The important things is that she can compete.

Of course it's not as simple as that. Kathleen's mother comes down with something serious, and another customer buys the entire bolt of fabric. Kathleen's aunt Polly comes to the rescue: she reassures Kathleen that her mother is well-loved by the neighborhood for her services, and will recover (although Kathleen still worries that her mother has tuberculosis), and, inspired by Gone with the Wind, they can make a proper green outfit from Polly's curtains. When the dress is finished, Kathleen's mother even has enough energy to embroider a Celtic knot design on it. She continues recovering slowly but surely.

At the competition, Kathleen discovers that the snobby girls have matching outfits made of the blue fabric. One also says very loudly that she heard Kathleen's is made from curtains, but Kathleen ignores her--it's the best way to deal with the girl. She focuses on getting ready, telling St. Bernadette that she doesn't expect to win or even dance well. She just doesn't want to fall over. And because she is the main character, she wins, securing a spot in the class.

Back home, Polly has a surprise: she's brought a cake to celebrate. And it looks like a wedding cake. Despite how often she and Kathleen talked about being old maids together, she's getting married in a few days (because Lent is coming and they can't get married during those six weeks) and moving to America. Kathleen is a little hurt by this, but also excited for her aunt. She's more excited for herself though, thinking about how she'll travel all over with line dancing.

Then and Now: A Girl's Life

When the Great Depression hit Ireland, many of its citizen were already poor, thanks to decades of politic and economic turmoil. But even in the midst of their troubles, the Irish found opportunities to relax, like music, dance, and drama competitions. These competitions, especially Irish line dancing, are found all over the world today. Ireland is split in two, part of the island self-governing and part of it under the crown of England. The conflicts between the two sides has grown bloody from time to time, but lately (at least at the time of publishing), less so. Ireland values its children, requiring them to be educated until at least age 16. Many girls continue to college, and sometimes politics: Ireland has had two women serve as president so far.


Dedicated to "the 1930s generation: to my father and in memory of my mother; to all my aunts and uncles." Acknowledgements go to Fr. Benedict Cullen, of the Capuchin Order, and to Peter Pearson, artist and historical historian, "for help with locating visuals on the Father Mathew Hall. Thanks also to my dad, Harry Parkinson, whose first-hand experience of life as a child in Ireland in the 1930s was invaluable."

The author grew up in Ireland, but in the 1960s when life was easier than depicted in the books. She notes, however, that people still talked, joked, and believed much the same as they had three decades prior.

I like how Kathleen's father demonstrates where the stars "go" during the day: he lights a candle so Kathleen can see how much dimmer it appears in sunlight than in the dark, just as the sun's light washes out the weaker starlight.

Aunt Polly is really Aunt Mary, but thinks her given name is too everyday. She's only twenty, and very fun to be around. Kathleen considers her a close friend.

One of my cousins did Irish line dancing. Unlike Polly and Kathleen, she hates Gone with the Wind. She says it's the most boring book she's ever read.

Polly gets a cigarette craving, but since she's in Ireland, asks for a fag, which jumps out even though I know it's slang for cigarette.

With Polly reconsidering a cigarette (she only smokes part if it) and not eating much plus the neighbor girl having a baby out of wedlock in the first chapter, it seemed like she might be pregnant, but there was no such reveal. Plus the dangers of cigarettes weren't well known yet.

My parent's wedding date was influenced by Lent too. It was first Friday after Easter (the first Saturday was already booked). Catholics can marry during Lent now, but not on certain days like Good Friday.

Does the glossary in the back of the book really need to define porridge?


Minuk: Ashes in the Pathway

Author: Kirkpatrick Hill

Illustrator: Patrick Faricy

Publishing Year: 2002

Setting: Yup'ik Eskimo Village, Alaskan Territory, 1890


When a missionary family of three from the United States east coast arrive in Minuk's village, she and her best friend Panruck are very curious about them. The father seems a bit dismissive of the Yup'ik ways, while the son (David) is more interested in learning about them. Minuk and many of the other children spends lots of time with the mother Mrs. Hoff, who explains a lot about their way of life. Some of it makes no sense to Minuk, like corsets and taking a Sabbath day to do nothing, but others like writing seem wonderful. She can see that the Hoffs are as sincere in their beliefs as she is in hers, but isn't convinced that they're right. For example, David gets very sick and the Hoffs refuse to have a shaman visit because they say the shaman does evil things. But the shaman heals people. However, the Hoffs' medicine (which they willingly share with the Yup'ik, who gladly accept it), ends up healing David. She also doesn't understand why the loving god the Hoffs tell her about would allow a place like the hell they describe to exist.

Minuk starts to wonder about the various beliefs she's been taught, by the Hoffs and by the elders in her village. She notices that both are sometimes unsure why their traditions exist. Things have just always been that way. And both agree that a man should be the head of a household, to the point that Mr. Hoff thinks it would be a bad idea to teach Minuk to read, lest she think herself above her future husband if he can't read.

Shortly after the Hoffs arrive, Panruk has her menarche, becoming a woman. After a ritual lasting several days, including throwing ashes in a pathway, she and Minuk (who is about a year younger then her best friend) can't play together anymore. Soon Panruck is married, though it doesn't work out and she leaves him, a simple procedure for the Yup'ik people. Mr. Hoff hears about this, and says that people shouldn't divorce (but it's not like they had a sacramental wedding, and Panruck's reason for leaving her husband--that he would kill any girl babies--would be totally acceptable in most any church except crazy ones, although Mr. Hoff isn't privy to that information). Minuk hasn't yet had her menarche, but a boy about her age, Mellgar, expresses interest in her, and she agrees that when she's a woman, they can marry.

While the Yup'ik appreciate the medicine and some other amenities the Hoffs provide, Mr. Hoff makes his family quite unwelcome by disrupting an important ceremony, the mask dance. He decries it as heathen superstition, interrupting the ritual so critical to enduring success and good luck in the coming year. The elders agree that they should stop associating with the Hoffs, although they agree to let Minuk help the white nurse who stays with them, as she's only interested in saving lives, not converting souls and lifestyles. Minuk learns a lot from her, not just medicine, but also that women are gaining more and more opportunities in the world.

But the nurse's expertise can't help when an influenza epidemic rips through the Yup'ik. Only Minuk and her five-year-old brother survive out of their family. Panruck dies too, and so does Mellgar and his whole family.  Discouraged not only by the lack of conversions but by the tragedy, the Hoffs prepare to leave. The nurse offers to take Minuk back with them, so that she could learn to be a nurse or even a doctor. Minuk knows that her heart is with her people, and stays with what's left of her tribe. But she's grateful for all she's learned from the visitors.

Then and Now: A Girl's Life

When European explorers arrived in what would become Alaska, they brought with them exotic diseases that ravaged the native population. Thanks to smallpox, influenza, and measles, the Yup'ik were reduced to just over a tenth of their previous population. Older generations were hit hardest, making it difficult for the younger people to keep up with the traditional way of life. The influence of Christian missionaries, who often urged converts to give up their former way of life entirely, didn't help. But today the Yup'ik population (and that of other tribes) has rebounded, and they strive to strike a balance between enjoying the modern conveniences of the twenty-first century while still passing along important cultural traditions.


Dedicated "fondly to three Alaskan women: Sylvia Olson Boullion, my friend of almost 60 years; Ruth Olson, her mother; and the late Pat Oakes, who loved Alaskan history." The author also acknowledges the "explorers, travelers, and anthropologists who carefully observed, asked questions, and wrote about what they saw...sav[ing] what might have been lost forever, so that we...can understand a little of [Yup'ik life] more than 100 years ago." She also thanks explorers Lr. Lavrentiy Zagoskin and Edward W. Nelson, Moragian missionaries John and Edith Kilbuck and Herman and Ellan Romig, a Russian priest named Iakov Netsvetov who recorded Yup'ik history in the 1800s; writers Wendell H. Oswalt (who also critiqued the book), Ann Fienup-Riordan, James W. VanStone, and Dorothy Jean Ray.

The author grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her (step) grandmother, an Alaska native, remembered meeting Russian travelers when they first came to Alaska, and told fascinating stories of her first experiences with a new culture.

This is a very interesting and well-written book.

It sounds like the Hoffs are some variety of Protestant, from the way they try to change so many aspects of Yup'ik life and "civilize" them, and how they're compared to the Orthodox priests who used to come from Russia when Russia owned Alaska. Catholic missionaries to the American west tended to not do that, and had higher conversion rates. My (Protestant) history teacher, at the Christian school I attended, said Catholic missionaries were more successful because the had 1500 years more practice than Protestants.

One reason the Hoffs leave is that they open their Bible to a random page and the verse they first see is about leaving, which they take as a sign. This reminds of a dark joke another teacher at my school told, wherein a man did the same thing. First he opened his Bible to the passage about Judas hanging himself, then to a verse reading, "Go ye therefore and do likewise." Context is important.

My great-grandmother was five when this book was set. My great-grandfather was four (he died in 1930 so I never met him, but I was able to meet my great-grandmother, who lived be 103). My great-grandfather and his brother-in-law (Great-Grandma's brother) had a seafood company run out of Alaska, the Alaska Glacier Seafood Company. It was one of the first such businesses in the area, specializing in shrimp. And one of my cousins is married to a man who's Alaska native...I'm godmother to their daughter; I wonder if she'd like this book. She likes the Caroline books...

One of my favorite quotes is one I read at the Woodland Park Zoo, in the section with Arctic animals. It's from an Ojibwe guide named Satatha, spoken to a missionary priest in 1890: "You have told me that Heaven is very beautiful. Is it more beautiful than the country of the musk oxen in the summer, when sometimes the mist blows over the lakes, and sometimes the water is blue and the loons cry very often? That is beautiful. If Heaven is still more beautiful, I will be content to rest there until I am very old."


Spring Pearl: the Last Flower

Author: Lawrence Yep

Illustrator: Kazuhiko Sano

Publishing Year: 2002

Setting:  Canton, China, 1857


Recently orphaned, Spring Pearl receives an offer to live with the Sung family, as the patriarch was life-long friends with her father. From the start, his wife and three daughters make it clear what they think of Spring Pearl: she's a classless, uncouth, uncivilized girl, only worth their time and charity because the father insists. Spring Pearl's parents didn't keep servants, having neither the money nor the inclination to do so, never bound her feet (her mother refused to put her through that pain), and taught Spring Pearl masculine pursuits like calligraphy (her mother also tried to pass on her gift with embroidery, but Spring Pearl just couldn't make her fingers move that way). Some of what Mrs. Sung says about Spring Pearl's late parents is so rude that Spring Pearl nearly leaves in favor of begging on a street corner somewhere, but Mr. Sung intervenes.

Spring Pearl isn't so sure he's done her a favor, considering that no one else in the house, servants included, likes her at all. While she's grateful for a roof over her head and the certainty of eating every day, it's hard to love with so much scorn and hatred aimed at her. Even Spring Pearl beats the son in several games (that he insisted on playing) resulting in his younger sisters winning many up things from him, the sisters still look down on Spring Pearl, and the brother manages to as well. The servants have also been making bets on how long it will be before Spring Pearl is kicked out. Mrs. Sung has Spring Pearl do sewing to earn her keep, but she's miserable at even simple projects. The only thing Spring Pearl enjoys is working on the neglected garden where she transplants a flower from her mother, and even that seems ruined when Mr. Sung has several influential men over to discuss the high taxes imposed by the government because of the threat of war with the British and French. They laugh at Mr. Sung for having his guest do servant work, and comment that no man will ever want to marry her.

Surprisingly, it's Mrs. Sung who lifts Spring Pearl's spirits. She reveals that she was raised by farmers, and is happy to see the garden improving (she does tell Spring Pearl to wear a hat outdoors in future, for her complexion). She also agrees that Spring Pearl has been honestly trying her best to seek but it simply doesn't work for her. Instead, Mrs. Sung has Spring Pearl start helping with business correspondence, an unusual thing for women to do in that time and place, let alone a twelve-year-old girl. Spring a Pearl is happy to have found a bit of acceptance.

The very next day, Mr. Sung is arrested on treason charges. Spring Pearl and the one servant who's been nice to her, nicknamed Doggy, (possibly because the longer she stays with the Sungs, the more money he wins in bets from the other servants) are able to visit him, bringing him some clothes and food. Spring Pearl has to give up the last thing her mother embroidered--her jacket--as a bribe to get in. Mr. Sung has been tortured in an attempt to force him to sign a confession. He instructs Spring Pearl not to tell the family about his condition, but they see right through her when she tries to comply. Spring Pearl is surprised to see the class-obsessed siblings band together to protect their home and family. A short time later, the Chinese government admits that it's outgunned, and allows the foreigners to trade their items, including opium. The local governor also releases Mr. Sung back to his family, and gets the jacket back to Spring Pearl.

But the troubles aren't over yet. Looter and rioters, both Chinese and foreign, roam the city. Spring Pearl speaks and understands English well, affording the Sung family some protection from the law-abiding foreign soldiers. She also happens to know a young man leading a raid on the Sung household, stopping a looting attack that would have left the family in poor shape, financially  and physically. It takes about a month for the unrest to calm, though small pockets of violence still exist.

One day when Spring Pearl is tending the garden, Doggy tells her to come see the family. Their demeanor is harsh, and at first Spring Pearl thinks she's being sent away. But it's an act: she's being welcomed into the family as a daughter. She retreats to the garden to marvel at this. Doggy tells her that his uncle is starting a new business venture with the foreign traders, and they need someone who can help translating. With the new international trade, they're willing to make Spring Pearl a partner in the business. She doesn't answer him, too surprised at the offer: just a few months ago she was a penniless orphan. Now she's adopted into a wealthy family, with an offer to make her own way in the world.

Then and Now: A Girl's Life

China has long been a country steeped in tradition. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, it also largely kept to itself. But after the being defeated by Great Britain and France in the 1840s' and 1850s' Opium Wars, China became a major player in world trade (this is not say the Opium Wars were good; their impetuous was Great Britain's desire to sell the addictive drug to China). Many Chinese men traveled to the United States, usually to build railroads. With China's borders opened, some traditions fell away--in the case of foot binding, this was a good thing. But even today boys are often valued higher than girls, and with restrictions on family size, female infanticide and sex-selective abortions happen. Fortunately there are many people in other countries willing to take baby Chinese into their families, offering a better option to the "problem" of having a girl.


Dedicated to "Felicity, Cory, and Lee, and all their many 'cousins' in this brave new world."

Yep wrote an author's note for the end of the book, telling how he learned Chinese history from his aunts, both familial and honorary.

Spring Pearl's father was fond of saying that receiving a gift is an art. He's not wrong.

Over the course of the book, Spring Pearl learns that Doggy does like her, bets aside. He respects her street smarts, and appreciates that she's not stuck-up.

Because Mrs. Sung's heritage is part Hakka, an ethnic minority, her feet were never bound and she didn't bind her daughters' feet, something that embarrasses them when they're overly-concerned with appearances in the beginning of the book.

Today is Thanksgiving in the US. I'm thankful there are only three more of these books. While they're interesting and I am even considering buying myself copies, it takes a long time to review them. The History Mysteries are also good; better than the historical character mysteries, and worlds better than the Baby-sitter Club mysteries.


Saba: Under the Hyena's Foot

Author: Jane Kurtz

Illustrator: Jean-Paul Tibbles

Publishing Year: 2003

Setting:  Gondar, Ethiopia, 1846


Life hasn't been easy for Saba. Her parents are both dead, so she and her brother Mesfin have been raised by their maternal grandparents. Recently, their grandfather died. There is political unrest in the area, and many in power would think nothing of stealing a child away for slavery. Saba's grandmother is also destitute. But when Saba and Mesfin are kidnapped and taken far away, Saba would give anything to be back in the hardships she had.

It's a long, hard journey to the city of Gondar. Saba relies on her older brother for strength, sure she would never make it without him. Their captors act strangely--they do small favors like giving them special food as treats "for the sake of your father." Saba at first thinks this is the customary thing to say when giving a gift, but upon arrival in Gondar, learns that her father was an important man, the son of a great warrior. Saba and Mesfin are separated in Gondar at first, and Saba is surprised to find herself pampered and waited on, when she thought she had been kidnapped as a slave. It seems the emperor wants to meet with Saba and Mesfin. When they are reunited after a short time, Mesfin has also heard the rumors about their father, and furthermore that they are descended from nobility--apparently their paternal grandmother was a princess. Saba is sure he heard wrong, but nothing else contradicts his story. And indeed, when they meet with the emperor, they are introduce as the grandchildren of his sister. Furthermore, it seems that her father might not be dead after all.

Saba and Mesfin are kept mostly separate. Saba has a private tutor, and learns about Ethiopian history, and how there are have been various power struggles among the nobility for some time. She thinks that Mesfin must be receiving lessons too, undoubtedly training him to take over the thrown if their father can't be found alive--after all, he would be next in line after the current emperor. But as the days go on, Saba comes to see that the emperor's wife is trying to get her son (from her previous marriage to a military leader who is now deceased) to lead the country. Mesfin could be in terrible danger. And Saba has been promised in marriage to one of several men hoping to gain the throne. When Saba learns that father is alive and in a nearby camp, she finds a way to free Mesfin (braving literal hyenas as well as the metaphorical ones, hungry for the throne). Together, the two leave the finery of the emperor's palace behind, and ride to where their father is. They know that he can help ensure the right person is on the throne.

Then and Now: A Girl's Life

Saba grew up in Ethiopia's "Age of Judges," named for a Biblical time period when, as the book of Judges puts it, there was no king and every man did as he pleased. There was a power vacuum, and different factions of nobility were locked in a bloody struggle for power. Commoners had different toils: in a land full of large predators and stricken by drought, something as simple as getting water was hazardous. They were also at risk of being kidnapped and sold as slaves. Only nobility received real education, and rarely the women. Today, rural life retains many similarities, with a lack of access to clean water, but in the cities many people have access to education and leisure activities. However, decades of political turmoil (the Age of Judges ended in 1855, but as recently as 1974 there was a military coup), widespread poverty plagues the re.


Dedicated to "Yohannes, whose determination and vision make dreams spring out of ashes." The author is also "deeply grateful to Dr. Richard Pankhurst, not only for reading this manuscript for also for writing so many bookds full of details about Ethiopian history. I'm also thankful for all the Ethiopian chroniclers and European visitors who took time to record what they saw and experienced in Ethopia. The Straw Umbrella by Dana Faralla gave me several great ideas. Yohannes Gebregeorgias and Hanna Taffessa helped me with some obscure bits of cultural research. And what would I do without my mom, lifelong avid reader and collector of books about Ethiopia? I used her copy of King of Kings: Tewodros of Ethiopia by Sven Rubenson as my definitive source about some confusing relationships and dates."

An author's note at the end of the book reveals that while Jane Kurtz is white, she lived in Ethiopia for most of her childhood, giving her first-hand experience with the culture.

The King County Library System doesn't carry this book, but I was able to get it on an inter-library loan from Pierce County, south of here.

A turning point in Saba's story comes when she attends mass for the first time, shortly after meeting with the emperor and learning her father might be alive. She's been raised in the Orthodox faith (Ethiopia has had a large Christian population since the first century AD), but never been inside a church. She's awestruck by the beauty of the place, and while still very confused about her situation, decides she can enjoy the nicer parts of it all.


Leyla: The Black Tulip

Author: Alev Lytle Croutier

Illustrator: Kazuhiko Sano

Publishing Year: 2003

Setting:  Istanbul, 1720


Leyla's father, once an accomplished artist who painted icons for the nearby Orthodox churches despite his Muslim faith, left to fight against the Ottoman Empire when it laid claim to the little country of Georgia. Russia declined to send reinforcements. The Turks won, and Georgia was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire. Georgian soldiers were free to return home, but Leyla's father never did. Months have passed with no word, and though Leyla and her older brother Cengiz work hard to raise tulips and vegetables (they can sell both, and of course eat the vegetables) while their mother is busy caring for the baby twin boys, but money is running out. One neighbor sees the tulip field, and comments that some varieties of tulip are very valuable, the most being the nigh unattainable black tulip. As another winter without Leyla's father draws near, some soldiers from Istanbul offer Leyla's mother a large sum of money...in exchange for Leyla coming with them to Istanbul to be part of the sultan's harem. Leya's mother refuses, but Leyla privately goes to the soldiers later, and sells herself. She takes some tulip bulbs with her

Soon she's on a ship. The soldiers announce that anyone misbehaving will be thrown overboard. No one else from her village is on board, but Leyla bonds with Lena, a five-year-old. She laments to some other girls that Lena's practically a baby, and already being given in marriage. An older girls retorts that they're being sold as slaves--no need to worry about a girl so young being married to some stranger. Reflecting on her treatment so far--being shoved below-decks in a crowded storage hold, having her mouth pried open so her teeth can be examined--Leyla surmises she must be right. She's been treated like an animal. When they reach port, an older woman trains them to be graceful, and a few days later the girls start being sold. One man approaches Leyla and tells her that he works for a man who wants to end slavery. He gives her a gold coin, telling her to keep it safe and it will bring her luck. Though confused by his cryptic speech about monarchs and maps and the breadth of the world, Leyla thanks him and gives him a tulip bulb. Lena ends up sold to someone, but for two days no one purchases Leyla. When she learns that a worse fate awaits her if no one buys her (she could be crippled or blinded and made to work as a beggar), she makes an effort to act demurely to the customers.

Soon, she has been sold, and is assigned to work with the Mistress of Flowers, a mute woman who acts as her owner's master gardener, to tend the tulips and other flowers. She and the other girls there work hard, but it's not grueling as Leyla feared it might be. Leyla finds a friend in Belkis, another girl from Georgia there who's been in training longer. She also starts more intensive training in harem life, during which she learns not to speak of the artistic ability she inherited from her father: according to the interpretation of the Koran in Istanbul, only Allah can make art with people, animals, and plants (Leyla's father reasoned that it was a sin to not use one's talents, and he never minded painting Christian icons because he viewed one's religion as a personal matter). Belkis tells Leyla the ins and outs of harem life: the trainees are competing for a spot in the harem, and within the harem itself women compete to become the favorites of their "husband"/owner and to bear children. Despite the competitive nature of the training, many girls, Leyla included, come to view the others as sisters. Though Leyla misses her family, she's glad to have found others to call family. And when secretly watching an event of the royal family, Leyla realizes that Lena has been given to one of the princesses, Fatma, as something between a plaything and a child. Lena's okay, and nearby!

Leyla has another chance to see Lena when the Padishah who owns the harem has a sort of party for the girls and women. It is at this gathering that Belkis is chosen to be part of his inner circle of favorites. Before Belkis moves into a palace apartment, Leyla uses the back of a discarded piece of calligraphy paper and some dyes to paint a picture of tulips for Belkis. Though Belkis is impressed and moved by the gift, she can't accept it. Her life will be more heavily scrutinized now, and she can't risk having something so heretical as a graven image. After Belkis leaves, Leyla doesn't let herself get close to anyone else. Everyone seems to leave her life when she does: her father, the rest of her family, Lena, and now Belkis. She paints some more in secret, getting dyes by subterfuge. She's sentenced to several days in jail when her deception is discovered, and finds her paintings missing upon her return. She worries that someone will use them against her, but happily it turns out that Princess Fatma has them, and wants Leyla to teach her and Lena to paint!

Princess Fatma is also due to be married soon. In April, the city hold a tulip festival, and the two-day wedding coincides with it, making for the most lavish celebration Istanbul has seen. The bulbs that Leyla and her brother worked to cultivate have bloomed, resulting in the desired black tulip. She wins a cash prize with her flower. The second night of the wedding, a prince who saw Leyla's paintings and recommended that she instruct Princess Fatma and Leyla introduces Leyla to a famous artist tasked with creating a visual history of the Ottoman Empire. He takes Leyla on as an apprentice.

One day, Leyla overhears a familiar voice. Her own father is painting a room nearby! With the help of the prince, he and Leyla are able to reunite. The prince is also able to negotiate freedom for Leyla's father, who will return home. Leyla must remain in Istanbul for now, so she sends gifts home with her father: her paintings, some black tulip bulbs, beautiful clothes for her mother. Furthermore, Padishah is so pleased with the work Leyla's father has done that he has a standing offer to return to work as a free man, with his family. They might all be together again one day.

Then and Now: A Girl's Life

During Leyla's time, known as the Tulip Period, Turkey was part of the Ottoman Empire and enjoyed relative peace. Women mostly stayed indoors, covering themselves with veils when the did go outside. Their families arranged their marriages, and some women became part of the sultan's harem or the harem of another politically powerful man, sometimes when captured in battles or sold if their families were desperate for money. Despite this, being chosen for the harem was considered an honor and a promise of a good life. But when the Republic of Turkey was established in 1923, its president, Kemal Ataturk, outlawed veils and plural marriage. Turkish women gained suffrage in 1934. Most people in Turkey are Muslim, and since veils are still outlawed, the women cover their hair with scarves. And while Turkey remains a modern country, its women still enjoy one good aspect of harem life: the strong sense of community.


Dedicated to Justine. The author then writes "This book was a gift. It is the result of my editor Tamara England's fortuitous bus ride in New York City that led her to Talat Halman, an old friend I hadn't seen for years. I was enchanted by Girls of Many Lands from the very beginning, but I had to have the encouragement of my agent, Bonnie Nadell. Tamara became my editor and proved the magic of author-editor collaboration. Rebecca Bernstein gave me invaluable research assistance and Will Capellaro designed a beautiful book. Ilmi Yavuz and my Turkish publisher, Senay Haznedaroglu, sent me books about the Tulip Era. And as always, I'm grateful to Robert, who not only continued to bring me coffee and love notes, but who was the first to read the manuscript for me. To all, and to my readers, one thousand and one kisses." She also includes a note about how she loved learning of the Turkey's Tulip Era.

For the first half of the book, Leyla is called Laleena.

While the book makes it clear that younger girls aren't going to be married until they're older (or, reading between the lines, won't consummate the marriage until they're older) and some will just be servants, it's still creepy that Leyla sees three and four year olds. My older daughter just turned four.

Some girls are assigned to taste food before meals, to check for poison. One falls to the ground, foaming at the mouth. She's taken away and never returns.

The Mistress of Flowers teaches the girls in her tutelage the meanings of several varieties: marigolds mean jealousy, periwinkles friendship, magnolias perseverance, pomegranates foolishness, and yellow tulips hopeless love.


Cécile: Gates of Gold

Author: Mary Casanova

Illustrator: Jean-Paul Tibbles

Publishing Year: 2002

Setting: Rileaux and the Palace of Versailles, France, 1711


Cécile is a poor peasant living in the French countryside. Her father is a doctor, but is rarely paid for his services, since so many of his patients are destitute as well. Despite his medical expertise, Cécile's mother died two years ago from pneumonia. 

One day when she's walking in the woods, Cécile comes across a wounded woman. She fetches her father, and the two get the woman's dislocated shoulder back in place. She recovers quickly once that's done, and asks how she can repay them. After all, she is sister-in-law to the king. Cécile's father asks for  her to be taken back to the palace at Versailles as a courtesan, so she can escape the life of a peasant. The noblewoman, who goes by Madame, agrees.

Upon entering the golden gates of Versailles, Cécile quickly learns that palace life is worlds apart from peasant life. She's to care for Madame's six spaniel dogs, while back in her village people would eat dogs if food was scarce enough.though she's grateful to not want for food or clothing or comfort, Cécile is on edge,worried about making a mistake and being sent back...or imprisoned. Then she earns that her father used to be a doctor for the royals, but was arrested and held in the Bastille for a year and a half before being banished from the palace, all for daring to speak his mind about what the best treatments would be, whether or not it was in fashion (for example, he thinks bloodletting is nonsense, and washes his hands often). 

Then Cécile rceives a terrible letter from the village priest. Her father came down with smallpox and died. When Madame finds out, she commiserates with Cécile. She lost her husband (the king's brother) a decade ago, and knows how painful it is when a loved one dies. In her grief, Cécile finds the courage to ask about the banished doctor. Madame reveals that not only was he the same man as her father, but they knew each other, and recognized each other in the woods those many months ago. Her father had often butted heads with the lead physician, Dr. Fagon, and when Madame's husband suddenly became very ill, Cécile's father argued against bloodletting and even threw Dr. Fagon's medical instruments in the floor, saying he wouldn't let him murder the royal family. Madame also met Cécile's mother once and remembers her as pretty and kind (she was from a noble family that had lost its money), but of course she had to leave too when her husband was banished. Ten years ago. Cécile would have been two then. She was born at the palace. Through sharing their grief, the two grow closer, Cécile coming to think of Madame like a grandmother.

Then the wife of the heir to the throne comes down with a grave illness, and dies. Her husband soon follows. Dr. Fagon calls Cécile to an inquisition, accusing her of poisoning the pair. But another doctor objects, saying the autopsies found nothing inconsistent with measles. The king himself, in attendance, agrees and Cécile is freed from suspicion.  

And then the young princes, great-grandchildren to the king, are stricken. Dr. Fagon again resorts to bloodletting and the older boy, only six, dies. Cécile convinces the nursemaids that the same methods will kill the two-year-old, and the young women protect the boy by barricading themselves in a room with him, risking their own lives in doing so. Cécile holds him through the night. By morning, his fever is broken. Though the boy recovers, a month later Cécile is summoned, and told that someone must be punished for defying the court doctors. She is banished from Versailles.

But the king's wife, herself from humble beginnings, recognizes the bravery that saved the boy. She sends Cécile not back to her village, but to St. Cyr, a boarding school where she can learn and be able to rise above her peasant upbringing.

Then and Now: A Girl's Life

The historical section contrasts the finery of King Louis XIV's court with the simple, often difficult life of a peasant. Children like Cécile didn't have much to look forward to, sometimes choosing the life of a nun or priest to escape the crushing poverty (although some orders take vows of poverty, they still have a better chance of getting food and having a place to stay than some more desperate peasants). Literacy wasn't wide-spread, and it wasn't until 1698 that schooling became compulsory. Education was provided by the church and including reading, writing, arithmetic, and catechism. Today, free public education is available for all, and many more people have access to comfortable lifestyles. Though France no longer has a king or queen, palaces like Versailles remain beautiful places to learn about history.


Dedicated to Kate Elise (the author's daughter). She also includes "grateful acknowledgement to Cindy Rogers, for joing me on a research trip to Versailles; Tamara England, for offering editorial insight and encouragement; Sally Wood, for assisting with historical research; my writers' group, for listening and responding; and my family, for being there every step of the journey." An author's note mentions that all the major events that happen in the book are hisorical fact, though the character of Cécile is made-up.

Madame is German, and scoffs at many customs of the French nobility, like painting their faces with white makeup, wearing heavy wigs, and rarely going outside because they fear they'll catch some sort of illness.

Cécile gets to know the king's great-grandchildren because they have to have the dogs visit them. The six-year-old even requests she dance with him at the Christmas ball (obviously, before he got sick).

Cécile notes that the princess gave birth with dozens of people watching and dies the same way: even her most private and painful moments are on display.


Isabel: Taking Wing

Author: Annie Dalton

Illustrator: Mark Elliot

Publishing Year: 2002

Setting:  London, 1592


A lot has happened in the months since Isabel Campion turned twelve. Her older brother Robert, once a dear playmate of hers, now works as an apprentice in a shipyard, and will be sailing soon. Her older sister Sabine is engaged to be married, and will also be leaving. Her mother won't see Isabel have another birthday: she became ill after giving birth to Isabel's baby sister Hope (who is herself sickly) and languished for a few months before dying. Sabine, always more grown-up than her age, has been acting as the lady of the house, and strict Aunt Elinor is very vocal in her disappointment that Isabel isn't more of a proper lady. Isabel's father has been giving his daughter a lot of leeway, but lately has come to agree with his sister. When Isabel gets to know the new servant, a girl about her age named Meg, she finds an opportunity to see a play, as Meg's brother works in a theater, acting out small parts. They venture into working class London and make it back fine, but the outing is the straw that breaks the camel's back. Isabel had no business leaving the house unattended and going into a strange part of town, when she should have been helping keep house. Desperate to have his daughter shape up, Mr. Campion sends his daughter to stay with a widowed aunt. Late in the evening as they ride through on a forest road, Isabel and the servant accompanying her are attacked by robbers, and the servant is murdered. Isabel is left alone, with no horse or possessions aside from the clothes on her back. Thinking of the story her tutor let her read that featured a female protagonist, and after calling for help in vain, Isabel decides she needs to help herself. She climbs a tree to wait for daylight.

By fortunate coincidence, a troupe of actors comes by along the road later, and Meg's brother Kit is part of it. Kit is horrified to learn of the man's murder, and Kit points out that Isabel is lucky to have been left alive and unscathed. He credits the good-luck charm Meg gave her when Isabel was leaving. Kit suggests that Isabel come with the troupe until it gets to her aunt's village in three weeks, disguising herself as a boy for the meantime. Since seeing the play, Isabel has dreamed of acting (at the time, solely a man's profession, with boys or eunuchs using their higher voices to play women). Kit introduces Isabel to his fellow actors as her brother Robert, explaining that with "his" education "Robert" can read the scripts to help the actors practice their lines, and that "Robert's" aunt will reward the troupe handsomely for getting him safely to her home. Isabel will be playing the part of a boy twenty-four hours a day for three weeks. She's even able to fulfill her dream, filling in one night for a sick actor. But it's hard for her to be someone she's not, and she decides acting isn't the life for her. If only she could divine what she would be happy to spend her life doing.

When she finally reaches her Aunt de Vere's house, Isabel wonders if she'll find any insight there. Her aunt is a kind woman, and Isabel gets along well with her ward, Olivia, who is about the same age. Aunt de Vere took in the orphaned Olivia and treats her as her own (she lost five children born to her, shortly after birth). Isabel is surprised to see that Aunt de Vere is well respected for her medical knowledge, even by men. Isabel finds herself learning to be a nurse like her aunt, and also learning falconry. Her aunt encourages her to reach for her greatest potential, and Isabel thrives.

Then a letter arrives from Sabine in London. There is an outbreak of bubonic plague. Baby Hope is gravely ill, and Aunt Elinor says she has the plague. Sabine is pregnant and unable to risk contracting an illness. Isabel quickly goes to London, and find that while Hope is very sick, she lacks the tell-tale symptoms of the plague. Isabel and the maid Alice tend to Hope while Aunt Elinor rests (her nerves are beyond shot). Little by little, Hope improves, enough that Isabel is comfortable leaving the house on an errand. While out, she happens across Kit, who informs her that Meg tried to help a woman stricken with the plague. The woman's husband abandoned her and their children. But Meg and the children contracted the disease, and everyone left in the home died. Isabel can't understand why Hope, so frail as a young baby, could survive her mysterious illness while robust and energetic Meg was felled by another.

A few days later, Hope is fully recovered. Isabel's father returns home from a trading voyage, and when he learns all that has happened, he says Isabel should back to her Aunt de Vere--not as punishment, but to learn more about medicine. He promises to bring her siblings to visit frequently. Later, in a moment of quiet reflection, Isabel holds the good luck charm Meg gave her, marveling at the fact that her father has set her free to decide what to do with her own life.

Then and Now: A Girl's Life

During the Elizabethan era, England enjoyed peace and prosperity for the first time in a long time. With the luxury to turn to leisurely pursuits, creativity flourished, enriching art, music, literature, philosophy, and fashion. England's place in the international trading community helped fuel its creativity. While many people enjoyed a comfortable life, there was of course still a lower class, relegated to crowded slums. But even the lower classes were able to take time to experience culture, as Shakespearean plays were attended by all.


Dedicated to "my new granddaughter, Sophie Beatrice, who was born while this story was being written."

The author's note explains that Dalton has long been fascinated with the Elizabethan age and was thrilled to be able to write about it.

This book is set earlier than any other Girls of Many Lands, History Mystery, or historical character books to date (and of course earlier than any Girl of the Year). Shadows in the Glasshouse is the oldest History Mystery, set in 1621, and Meet Kaya is the oldest historical character book, set in 1764. The "youngest" books for Girls of Many Lands, History Mysteries, and the historical characters are Neela: Victory Song set in 1939, Circle of Fire set in 1958, and Lost in the City set in 1977.

St. Edmund Campion was martyred in England about a decade before this book is set. He came from a well-off family...perhaps a relative of Isabel?

On the way to her aunt's, Isabel stays at an inn. Because she has no female traveling companion and it's considered improper for her to sleep alone, she has to share a bed with the innkeeper's wife (who isn't exactly a paragon of neatness--Isabel wonders if she's ever trimmed her toenails in her life).

These books have first-person narration.


History Mystery #22: Betrayal at Cross Creek

Author: Kathleen Ernst

Illustrators: Greg Dearth and Jean-Paul Tibbles

Publishing Year: 2004

Setting:  Cross Creek, North Carolina, 1775


Twelve-year-old Elspeth Monro just wants to show her good friend Mercy how much fun Scottish parties are, but the constant threat of war ruins what should have been a fun evening introducing her American friend to the customs Elspeth and her family brought from Scotland. Colonists who want independence from the crown have been badgering the Scottish immigrants, who are largely undecided which side of the war they stand on. Elspeth's grandparents are undecided, having lived through the brutal Scottish civil  war decades before. (Elspeth's mother died shortly after giving birth to her, and Elspeth's father died of an illness when she was five; she has three older married sisters back in Scotland.) Elspeth's grandparents are stopped on the way home from a party and accosted by some Patriots, demanding they declare their allegiance for or against England. Because of the specifics of the encounter, Elspeth's grandparents know that someone ratted them out.

Being hassled by Patriots is no small thing. Her grandparents already have almost no money or land, and if the war escalates, things will be even harder for the little family. Her grandfather is even wondering if she should quit her apprenticeship with Mercy's mother learning to weave, because she might be hassled when she goes into town. But Elspeth's grandmother insists that Elspeth should learn a trade, in case she needs to support herself. In her time and culture, all young women are expected to marry and keep house, but Elspeth's grandmother knows that sometimes husbands can be snatched away by war.

Elspeth wonders if the grudge her grandparents hold against the MacRacken family is behind their lack of allegiance being broadcasted. She's not sure why her grandparents don't like the other family, but she knows it has something to do with Battle of Culloden, a particularly barbaric time in the Scottish civil war three decades before. But her grandparents don't talk about it much: the memories are too painful.

Soon other Scottish immigrants are being confronted, some with physical violence. Elspeth herself is threatened by a menacing colonist. The war hasn't reached this part of North Carolina, so why do people care if some colonists have no allegiances? Who is behind all this?

Elspeth's grandfather calls a meeting of the Scottish immigrants in the little town. He says they have to decide who they stand for or risk further violence. Some of the men point out the the Patriots have good reason to want independence from the crown, and that the Scots can certainly sympathize. But others bring up the fact that the Patriots have been just as aggressive in pressuring colonists to pick sides, They also don't think the Patriots can win against the British military.

Some time later, Elspeth's two (male) cousins decide. They sign up for the Loyalist militia. Her grandfather, afraid to let them march off to war alone, signs up with them. Elspeth is sick with worry, not only for the safety of her family members who might fight in battle, but for the women left at home--what if the Patriots who had been hassling them earlier are angry when they hear about the Loyalist militia members?

And then word arrives that the Loyalist militia was in a battle. Most of them are killed or captured. Two days later, Elspeth finds one cousin, Robbie, hiding in the woods. Her other cousin, Duncan, is dead. Robbie doesn't know what happened to their grandfather.

Then the war arrives. Patriot soldiers raid her village. Her aunt's home is burned ot the ground, with Elspeth, her aunt, and the new mother they'd just helped deliver a baby (and the baby too) are forced out before the fire is set, but everything inside is destroyed. Elspeth also has an idea who might be talking to the wrong people. She's been looking for clues, and more and more they're pointing toward Mercy's father. She asks Mercy's mother outright, and she swears that her husband has said nothing. But something else she says reveals that Elspeth's grandmother has told Mercy's mother about the atrocities she suffered during the Battle of Culloden. Elspeth remembers the woven cloth from Mercy's mother that her grandmother has been so insistent to hang. It's a signal that Mercy's mother made to tell Patriot troops to leave certain homes alone. Her grandmother is the one who told the Patriots about everything.

Elspeth confronts her grandmother, coincidentally just as her grandfather arrives, having escaped captivity. Elspeth's grandmother confesses, explaining that in the aftermath of the battle, she angrily turned away a woman who had been her friend--part of the MacRacken family--and refused to share the small bit of food she had. Her friend's two-year-old son starved to death. Elspeth's grandfather points out that two of their own sons suffered the same fate, as did countless Scottish Highlanders, but her grandmother explains that when they had almost nothing left, she gave up her humanity. She can never support the British after that, and hoped that a bit of (non-physical) intimidation might have swayed her husband to the Patriot side. Patriot soldiers arrive then, and Elspeth's grandfather surrenders.

Three months pass. Elspeth goes to Mercy's house, to bury the hatchet. Mercy's mother apologizes for the deception, but not for supporting the Patriots. Elspeth has forgiven her grandmother, and forgives Mercy's mother as well. She also says her goodbyes: her grandfather will be released soon (Robbie is back fighting for the British) and most of the Loyalist Scots are moving to Nova Scotia in Canada, away from the fighting. Though she'll miss Mercy, Elspeth is looking forward to finally living near the ocean again, as she did in Scotland. She gives Mercy some things to remember her by, and Mercy and her mother give her a coverlet woven from a design Elspeth drafted herself, woven of wool carded by Mercy's father: a gift from all of them.

A Peek into the Past

The mid-1700s saw a large influx of Scottish Highlander immigrants to the American colonies, desperate to escape crushing poverty and severe political turmoil. The majority of them settled in North Carolina. When the American Revolution broke out, many wanted to avoid conflict altogether (colonists were evenly split between Loyalist, Patriot, and not fighting). Knowing the reputation that Scottish Highlanders had as fierce warriors, the British tried especially hard to convince them to join their side. When the British lost, those who had been loyal to them were social outcasts. During the war, they'd been subjected to raids by Patriots even if the actual battles were being fought far away. Some went back to Europe, and many resettled in Canada.


Dedicated "with thanks to: my parents, for raising me on books; and Peg Ross, for being so Midwestern."

Elspeth's grandmother recounts being dragged from her home by six British soldiers after the Battle of Culloden, when they failed to find her husband. She says her children, incuding Elspeth's mother, were screaming for the soldier not to hurt their mother. The details aren't spelled out, but it sounds like there may have been more than a beating...one woman, six men...She sometimes has flashbacks.

I think it's really interesting that American Girl had a book written from the perspective of a Loyalist during the American Revolution. I'm glad they decided to.

One of my mom's best friends remembers her kindergarten teacher taking the pencil out of her left hand and putting it in her right, forcing her to become right-handed. How long has left-handedness been "allowed"? (Mercy's father is left-handed.) Although, even if left-handedness was discouraged in the colonies, I doubt it would have been a huge priority at the edge of a frontier in a non-aristocratic family.

Geez, some of these mysteries are dark.


History Mystery #21: Ghost Light on Graveyard Shoal

Author: Elizabeth McDavid Jones

Illustrators: Greg Dearth and Douglas Fryer

Publishing Year: 2003

Setting:  Glenn Island, off the coast of Virginia, spring 1895


One stormy night in May, twelve-year-old Rhoda Midyette is awakened by her mother. Her father, who is in charge of the US Lifesaving Station for the area, is out doing a rescue. Rhoda and her mother are to meet them at the beach and help the survivors to their house, where they'll give them plenty of food and hot coffee. It's a bad storm, and the rescue boat itself capsizes near shore. Fortunately, the rescue crew on shore is able to help everyone safely to land. As the excitement dies down, Rhoda takes a moment to talk with Mr. Kimball, her father's best friend and her own best friend's father. Her best friend, Pearl, has been sick with rheumatic fever for a few weeks, and Mr. Kimball sadly reports that she's not getting better. Rhoda gets permission to visit, and sees that Pearl is indeed ill. She's very weak and pale. Her father is afraid she'll waste away like her mother did years before. But Pearl still has her exuberant personality--her body just can't let her show it much. There is an experimental treatment in Norfolk, but it's too expensive for Pearl's family (just her father and her frail grandmother) to afford. To keep both their minds off the possibility that Pearl might succumb to the disease, Rhoda tells her ghost stories, a favorite pastime of theirs. On the way home, she sees a strange light bobbing on the waves and spooks herself, thinking it's a ghost ship.

On the way to school the next morning, Rhoda sends her three younger sisters on ahead while she takes a detour to the beach. She sees footprints and hoofprints in such a pattern that she surmises a wrecker must be on the island--a person who deliberately tricks passing ships into thinking that there's safe passage by hanging a lantern on a horse to imitate a bobbing boat, and then loots the resulting shipwreck. Rhoda had heard stories but never really believed them. Even now she can't really believe someone she knows (it's a small island) could commit such callous acts of murder. Rhoda also spies a whelk shell with a hole in the end (sea stars eat shellfish by drilling holes like this), making the shell into a perfect horn. She decides to take it for Pearl.

When Rhoda visits her friend after school, she tells her about the possible wrecker. Pearl's grandmother overhears, and tells them about the time she saw a gruesome shipwreck caused by a wrecker. Rumors still float around the island that one of those who died is a ghost, the Mangled Mariner. Rhoda starts to wonder if she saw a ghost. She tells her father about the light and the tracks, but he doesn't think there's a wrecker. The hoofprints are from one of his workers walking his horse--with no lantern to deceive sailors. Rhoda feels embarrassed for bothering him at work--he only has one day off a week--and goes to hunt for the turtle eggs she promised Pearl. She sees the light again that night. And a few nights later, she overhears Mr. Kimball arguing with someone about not doing something no matter how much money he's offered--is be being blackmailed, forced to do something so he can afford treatment for Pearl? Surely he can't be the wrecker...can he?

Rhoda takes a moment to peek into the shed on the Kimballs' property. There's a lantern hidden there, and other things that seem to indicate Mr. Kimball might be the wrecker. Could he really be that desperate to raise money? Pearl surprises Rhoda in the shed, having stumbled out to see why Rhoda's going through her father's railroad work equipment, and accuses Rhoda of not trusting her family (Pearl doesn't know that Rhoda is wondering if Mr. Kimball is a wrecker). Pearl faints then, and Rhoda gets her back in bed and runs to get Mr. Kimball from the Lifesaving Station. While there, Rhoda also tries to talk to her father, but he's too busy. Rhoda finds herself confiding in another worker, Harlan. He worriedly reveals that Mr. Kimball has been acting strangely, and tells Rhoda to keep her suspicions secret for now. The two set a trap for for Mr. Kimball, Rhoda feeling awful about every bit of the situation. She stops by to see Pearl again.

Much to Rhoda's surprise, Pearl is out of bed. And she's furious with Rhoda for sneaking around the shack. Rhoda tries to explain without letting on the horrible things she suspects Mr. Kimball is doing when Mr, Kimball himself comes home, with the man who was threatening him earlier. Rhoda and Pearl hide and overhear bits of conversation. When the other man leaves, Pearl confronts her father, who confesses--but not what Rhoda expected, to her relief: he's a thief, not a murderer. He didn't quit his railroad job to come work at the Lifesaving Service. He was fired, and stole some equipment he felt he deserved, figuring he could sell it to get enough money to scrape by. But when he was offered an honest job, he never did sell the items. When Pearl became so ill, he made a shady deal to sell them under market value, only agreeing to the low price because of how they'd been stolen in the first place. Then he says something during the course of his confession that makes Rhoda realize Harlan might be up to something!

Rhoda rushes to the beach where she'd seen the light. Harlan is there, leading a horse with a lantern. And a ship is headed for the rocks, deceived by his treachery. Thinking quickly, Rhoda blows on the whelk shell, scaring the horse and making it bolt, taking the lantern with it. Harlan gives chase, and Rhoda runs back to the Kimballs'. Mr. Kimball takes her to the Lifesaving Station, where they find the man who bought the stolen railroad equipment, reporting a wreck--the one Rhoda just prevented. Harlan had been alerting him about the wrecks so he could claim them (and whatever unclaimed money was within) and split the profits. The man says he didn't know that Harlan deliberately lured the boats--two or three including this night's. Rhoda's father is shaken that Harlan slipped under his radar like that. Two people died in the last wreck. But he's proud that his daughter thought quickly enough to save this last boat. A few days later, a small boat Harlan was known to have used was found wrecked. He most likely drowned.

The book ends with a letter from Rhoda to Pearl, written in August. Pearl is convalescing well in Norfolk, and might be home as early as September. Rhoda hopes, like Pearl does, that they can pick up their friendship right where they left it.

A Peek into the Past

Due to the high volume of shipwrecks on the Atlantic coast of the US, Congress established the United States Lifesaving Service in 1878. The service expanded to include the Pacific Northwest, Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes, and treacherous rivers. It became part of the Coast Guard in 1915, by then credited with saving 178,000 lives.


Dedicated to "Mr. Thomas Scheft, my seventh-grade English teacher, who was the first to ell me I would someday be an author, and to all the Mr. Schefts everywhere, those teachers par excellence who truly believe in their students."

My grandmother had rheumatic fever as a child, and it damaged her heart permanently.

There's no solid evidence that wreckers existed, but the idea hasn't been disproven either.


History Mystery #20: Gangsters at the Grand Atlantic

Author: Sarah Masters Buckey

Illustrators: Greg Dearth and Douglas Fryer

Publishing Year: 2003

Setting:  New Jersey shoreline, 1925


Twelve-year-old Emily Scott is tagging along on a trip to the Grand Atlantic hotel her eighteen-year-old sister Dorothy has been invited on. Emily and Dorothy used to be very close, especially when they lived on a farm, but after their father was killed in the Great War, they and their mother moved to Philadelphia, where they could stretch their money more easily; Mrs. Scott teaching instead of farming. And then Dorothy got a college scholarship to Vassar, and became a fashionable flapper, and doesn't seem to have time for Emily anymore. Even Mrs. Scott thinks Emily is immature for her age. So why is she allowed to go to the New Jersey beach with her sister? Emily happened to witness some bootlegging gangsters beat up a store owner, and it's safe for her to get out of town for a while. Dorothy's been invited by her friend's family, so Emily will probably not get to see her sister much, but she'll be safer.

Shortly after arriving in Shell Cove, New Jersey, Emily meets Gwen Chapman and the dachshund she's watching, Max (Emily has a dachshund at home). Gwen had polio when she was younger, and uses a wheelchair or crutches and leg braces to get around, but that doesn't stop the two girls from having fun together. Emily's happy to find someone nice her age staying at the same fancy hotel, and Gwen is happy to Emily around Shell Cove, where her uncle manages the hotel they're in. Max belongs to one of the hotel guests.

Gwen isn't the only interesting person Emily sees that day. She also spies Mr. M, the gangster who ordered the beating she witnessed. Dorothy convinces Emily that she must have just seen someone who looks like him. Besides, they have to get to dinner with her friend's family. While eating, Emily sees that Dorothy's friend is very well-off and a bit stuck-up. It seems that Dorothy has to put on a show to be accepted and downplay her less-than-impressive past (not that the Scotts are scandalous--they're just boring). Seeing Dorothy with her fashionable friends gives Emily an idea: she'll cut her hair into a bob and if Mr. M really is in town, he won't recognize her. Gwen happens upon Emily as she's trimming, and helps even out the short do. She also sees a sketch Emily made of Mr. M (Mrs. Scott teaches art and music; Emily is a good artist) and says she's seen the man--he's a guest at the hotel. Gwen's taking care of a parrot in the room next door, and when the girls go to find out out if they can listen in on anything, they hear Mr. M discussing, among other things, "that kid from Philadelphia who skipped town." He knows Emily is at the hotel!

Some spying and reconnaissance lead to Emily and Gwen to one conclusion: Mr. M is a liquor smuggler, and has a shipment waiting off the coast in international waters (twelve miles from shore at the time). He's blackmailed one of Dorothy's friends, Frank, into the use of his boat to get the alcohol. And since Frank and Dorothy are dating, Dorothy could be in danger, too. Emily happens to recognize an undercover law enforcement officer, and tells him that a nearby yacht club is hiding a speakeasy. She knows Dorothy and her friends are going there (Dorothy doesn't drink since she doesn't care for the taste and because she knows someone who was blinded by poorly-made alcohol). If the group is arrested, they won't be able to be forced into the dangerous smuggling run. With the tip from Emily and Gwen, the officer carries out a raid on the speakeasy and and also catches Mr. M and his cohorts.

In the morning, Dorothy is furious about having spent a night in jail, but Frank comes by the room to explain how much worse the night could have been. He's from a farming town and ended up owing money to the mob due to trying to keep up appearances. He'll have to return to the farm for about a year to work off his debt, but he and Dorothy will stay in touch. Shortly after, Mrs. Scott arrives, having been told about Dorothy's arrest. Gwen whispers to Emily that she has a surprise planned. When Mrs. Scott meets Gwen's mother (her father was also killed in the war), she' s offered a summer job teaching art at the hotel! Since the mob torched the Philadelphia apartment building--everyone got out safe--Mrs. Scott figures it only makes sense to stay for the rest of the summer while the renovations take place. Emily and Gwen can hardly wait to continue their fun!

A Peek into the Past

The 1920s saw two important constitutional amendments passed: the eighteenth established Prohibition, making alcohol illegal (exceptions like Communion wine were allowed), and the nineteenth allowed women the right to vote, the last group of adults given the vote in the US. Prohibition ultimately failed, repealed in 1933 with the twentieth amendment (guess the nation had to sober up to grant women's suffrage?). Alcohol was smuggled in to many places around the country, and made secretly in others. Gangsters supplying alcohol could make things very dangerous for people living in those areas. Still, the 1920s were an exciting time: women's fashions were becoming less restrictive and women had more job opportunities, and the population in general was becoming more relaxed about social rules, allowing themselves to enjoy entertainment like jazz dances and movies. But while the upper class had more leisure time, the lower class still struggled. Furthermore, racial prejudice made life difficult for non-white Americans and for immigrants, and diseases like polio spread quickly through the cramped communities where poor people often lived (the diseases also affected the upper class too, it just spread easier in close quarters; epidemics don't care how much money you have).


Dedicated to "J. J., A. W., and J. M. With love, always."

In an author's note, the author thanks many people who helped her with the book: Don Canney, historian for the US Coast Guard; Jill Radel of the Museum of Yachting; Carrie Brown, historian; Nancyrose Logan; her husband and children; her mother, who told her stories about growing up fearful of public swimming pools that might carry polio and who was relieved and grateful when the polio vaccine was invented; and her editor Peg Ross.

Keep your vaccines up to date! Let's make polio extinct, like we did with smallpox.

Dorothy says she doesn't smoke despite it being fashionable for college women her age, because it would make her teeth yellow. She did try it once, and illegal alcohol, but found both disgusting. I'm certainly going to tell my kids about the health dangers of smoking (which weren't well known when this book was set), but if they skip smoking because of vanity instead of knowledge...well, at least they won't be smoking!

The bit when Emily and Gwen realize the Ws are upside-down Ms reminds of seventh grade art class. One of my friends had a folder for the class that had "NEW NEW NEW" printed on it in gold letters. He thought it was hilarious--and so did the rest of us twelve- and thirteen-year-olds--to turn flip it around and read it out loud as "MEN MEN MEN."

Mrs. Scott gets her hair cut into a bob after it's singed in the fire, and marvels over how easy it is to care for. I know for some people short hair is a flattering look and very easy to take care of, but I laughed when people suggested a short "mom haircut" when I was pregnant. Mine is so thick and wavy/curly that it really looks best and is more manageable when past my shoulders.


History Mystery #19: Danger at the Wild West Show

Author: Alison Hart

Illustrators: Greg Dearth and Jean-Paul Tibbles

Publishing Year: 2003

Setting:  Louisville, Kentucky, 1886


Twelve-year-old Rose Taylor is helping her twenty-year-old brother Zane practice for his part in the wild west show and wishing she could ride in the show too. She's knows she's good enough, but her mother has forbidden it at least until Rose is grown--understandable since Rose's father two years ago falling from a horse in a show. For now she has to settle with playing some pioneer woman who needs saving, just her brother's assistant.

While the cast is getting ready, two distinguished guests who will have small parts start arguing about the Dawes Allotment Act, which, if passed, would take away even more land from the Native American tribes in the west. General Judson is in favor of it while Senator North is against it. They quiet down long enough for the performance, but during it Rose thinks Gen. Judson is hamming it up too much--until she sees the blood. He's actually been shot.

After the show, Rose goes to see another performer, Ma-to-sea (a Sioux chief modeled after Sitting Bull). She wants to ask him about the Dawes Allotment Act and other things she feels uneasy about, and how terrified she is to perform after having the general slump onto her lap, unconscious and bleeding. She brings up the animosity between the men (Gen. Judson was part of the forces fighting against Ma-to-sea's tribe). But he doesn't say a word. Rose leaves him to his silence, concerned. Could her friend be capable of hurting the other man? Her brother tells Rose there's no way. A man like Ma-to-sea wouldn't sneak around covertly to assassinate someone. He'd make sure everyone know who did it and why, and he'd get the job done. Zane assures Rose that the shooting is being investigated, and that the culprit will be found out and punished soon.

Now able to relax a little, Rose helps Oliver, a boy her age, learn more about wild west shows. Oliver's father is actually the man in charge of the show, but Oliver's been home in Boston most of the time and hasn't been around horses or guns or any wild west things much before. He's learning well when the police arrive. And arrest Zane for attempted murder.

It doesn't look good for Zane. It's well known that he's friendly with many Sioux, and therefore think he would have reason to want to hurt anyone trying to pass the Dawes Allotment Act. One of his distinct guns was also found hidden near the stage, and it's clearly the weapon used in the crime. Remembering that she left Zane's gun case out in the open instead of putting it away like usual, Rose realizes that anyone wanting to frame Zane could have easily stolen one of the guns. Sen. North approaches Rose and her mother, expressing interest in seeing the real culprit brought to justice. He takes the Taylor women to the jail where Zane is, but only men are allowed to visit inmates. Sen. North goes to see him, with the basket of food and clothes Rose and her mother packed, and questions from them as well.

He comes back with the news that Zane was with someone else during the shooting, but is honor-bond to not tell who. Rose remembers that he had a woman's handkerchief, prompting Sen. North to say delicately that Zane is likely protecting the woman's virtue. Rose is able to find the handkerchief, conveniently monogrammed, and with Oliver's help, match it to the woman she suspects Zane was with. It's the local mayor's daughter, Abigail Reed. She also overhears that the wild west show is in debt, and one of the partners wants to be bought out of his share--no wonder the people in charge don't seem to care that Zane was arrested, they're too busy worrying about money. Rose, Mrs. Taylor, and Oliver try to visit Abigail, but her father has found out that she's been seeing Zane and, worried about her reputation, has forbidden her to leave the house or receive visitors.

It seems like they've hit a dead end. Rose and Oliver talk over the events of the shooting, and Rose has a flash of insight. The shooter's aim was beyond amazing, to have hit someone sitting in the middle of stagecoach during a performance. Unless the shooter was aiming for Sen. North, seated by the stagecoach window, instead of Gen Judson. Rose talks with Ma-to-sea, who is mostly quiet, unwilling to get involved in other people's problems. But he gives her enough information that she realizes the man who wants to be bought out, Mr. Pearson, had the motive and opportunity to attempt to shoot Sen. North (he supports the Dawes Allotment Act, wanting to buy cheap reservation land in South Dakota--an impressive feat as it was the Dakota Territory until November 1889). Just as she's realizing this, she hears that Sen. North will again be playing a small part in that evening's performance. She has to warn him!

The act is already starting, and Rose sees a man with a gun in the shadows of the grandstands. She quickly jumps on a horse and rides out to, telling Sen. North to duck and yelling about the gunman. Rose hears a gunshot, and feels a searing pain in her shoulder. She manages to get her horse to the edge of the performance action before falling off. The man in charge of the show runs to her aid, but thinks her talk of a man with a gun is some sort of hallucination brought on by the pain (he hadn't heard her yelling before she was shot) and that her arm was only injured by her fall. Sen. North rushes over, saying he saw a man with a gun, too--Mr. Pearson. He's run off, but before Rose loses consciousness, she sees Ma-to-sea and some other Sioux performers riding up with Pearson. They've caught him.

When Rose wakes up later that night, she sees Zane sitting with her. Abigail was able to get to the police station to tell them that Zane was with her and couldn't have shot anyone when Gen. Judson was wounded. The Sioux who found Mr. Pearson also found a suitcase full of embezzled money--the wild west show isn't really in debt after all. Sen. North arrives to thank Rose for saving his life, and the show owner apologizes for not working to exonerate Zane. Rose tells them how Oliver and Ma-to-sea helped her solve the mystery. The owner has one more thing to say: after watching her ride to save the senator, the audience and the newspapers have already named her Trick-Riding Rose. She's going to have her own act in the show once she's healed! Oliver even helped Mrs. Taylor figure out how to sew a split skirt for riding easier, and Zane may have helped with her stage name.

A short time later, Rose is well enough to practice riding. She goes to find Ma-to-sea, to thank him for helping her solve the mystery (Oliver has been tutoring Rose, so she sees him often--also, Abigail now helps Zane with his act). He tells her that he's going back to his tribe. If the Dawes Allotment Act is passed, they'll need him more than ever. He gives Rose a gift: his horse. Rose is overwhelmed, and stammers that she has nothing for him, but Ma-to-sea counters that she reminds him that not all settlers want to drive the native peoples away, and that's gift enough. Rose mounts the horse--her horse--and right away she can tell that she and the horse will be performing for sold-out crowds in no time.

A Peek into the Past

The historical section is about wild west shows. The one run by Buffalo Bill Cody was the first to have a woman performing a part other than a damsel in distress--Annie Oakley, the famous sharp-shooter. Native Americans, largely forced onto reservations by this time, could also find employment in wild west shows--one of their few options. But like African Americans in minstrel shows, they faced taunts and jeers for their heritage. Sioux Chief Sitting Bull, one of the last chiefs to surrender to the US government, worked with Annie Oakley, and was saddened to see that the wealthier settlers didn't take care of those worse off. His distrust of the settlers sadly held true when the Dawes Allotment Act was passed in 1887, forcing the people on reservations to be split up onto smaller plots (allotments) of land, effectively destroying the tribal culture.


Dedicated to cowgirls everywhere.

I think someone was underlining vocabulary words in this book. Prosperous, coyly, roustabouts...Whoever it was also scribbled out the D in almost every instance of dead, died, and related words. The word "kill" was left alone, though. A couple chapters have the word "the" scribbled out. Who was reading this?

Rose and her mother have the same middle name: Hannah. My older daughter and I share a middle name, and my younger's daughter middle name is my first.


History Mystery #18: The Strange Case of Baby H

Author: Kathryn Reiss

Illustrators: Greg Dearth and Douglas Fryer

Publishing Year: 2002

Setting:  San Francisco, April 1906


Twelve-year-old Clara Curfman find herself awoken by her dog jumping her bed early one morning. She's confused at first; the dog should be asleep right now. Then the room starts shaking--it's an earthquake. Clara hears her mother calling for her to get out the house, but first she gets her wheelchair-bound father. The three huddle outside with Humphrey and their lodgers as aftershocks hit. When the shaking finally stops, Clara can see fires. Her mother quickly set about cleaning up--their home was relatively undamaged structurally, and surely there will be people who need places to stay. She puts Clara to work cleaning the broken glass and dishes. Since it's unsafe to light the pilot lights--there are reports of explosions--the lodgers put together a make-shift grill pit with rubble to cook over.

Only one area in the house is off-limits: the room of Clara's older brother, Gideon. He was killed two years before in a boating accident, the same one that injured her father, the captain of the voyage. His room has become a shrine to him. Since the accident, Clara's mother has been harshly critical of her surviving family, and Clara's father has become meek and withdrawn, overcome with guilt.

That evening, Clara finds a different kind of shock on her doorstep. Someone left a baby in basket, with a note explaining that he's an orphan. Clara takes the baby inside, and her mother instantly cradles him, declaring him to be the spitting image of Gideon at the same age (about six months). Clara quickly discovers that he's not really: for one, when she gets some rags to serve as a new diaper, she discovers the baby is a girl. And not bald, either--someone shaved the baby's head. The baby also has a very fancy rattled engraved with an H despite the ratty shirt she was wrapped in, and a bit of paper with something about Cliff House on it. Why would someone try to disguise the baby's sex and class? Clara's mother doesn't seem to mind--the baby's hair probably caught fire so someone quickly shaved it off, and as for the clothes and rattle, they were probably just things picked up in the rubble. Clara's father explains that she just needs a child to love.

The next day Clara and her parents go on a walk with the baby, who they're calling Henrietta, to see how the city is faring. The streets are cracked and littered with debris; it's hard to push the wheelchair. A young woman confronts them, claiming to be the baby's nursemaid and insisting she be allowed to the take the child to her parents in Oakland. Apparently the baby is in danger. But Clara's parents don't believe her story and threaten to call the police, which makes her back off. That night, Clara hears some strange noises that worry her dog as well. She startles a man and a woman, who run off into the night. She finds a torn scrap of clothing, the same color as the dress the supposed nursemaid was wearing.

In the morning, Clara goes Golden Gate Park, where displaced people are setting up shelter. She leaves information about Henrietta on a notice board (and also a note for her best friend Emmaline, whose family seems to have disappeared). She also spies a notice about a six-month-old baby named Helen, who lives in Oakland and was visiting San Francisco with her nursemaid. Could that be Henrietta? But why did the note say she was an orphan?

The woman in red, named Hattie, returns, and the pieces of the puzzle start to come together. Hattie is indeed the baby's nursemaid, and the baby is Helen. Her fiancé, Denny, got tangled up in some scheme to fake a kidnapping to extort enough money for a pair of brothers to go to Alaska to search for gold. The note about Cliff House was part of a ransom demand, where the money was to be delivered. Denny and Hattie hadn't wanted to go along with the plan, but they--and Helen--were threatened at gunpoint. The kidnappers ordered Hattie to disguise Helen. Then the earthquake hit, and Hattie tried to hide Helen. But the kidnappers have seen the notices from the parents searching for Helen, and are intent on still carrying out the plan. They've broken Denny's arm as a warning in the meantime.

Clara's mother and Hattie set out with Helen to the police station. It starts raining, and Clara follows at her father's suggestion, to bring them back until the weather clears. But the kidnappers find them, and steal the baby. The police are able to find Helen's parents, and arrange to provide cover for Helen's father while he hands over the money. But the kidnappers don't give Helen back, worried they'll be arrested. They row away into the night to meet a ship in the bay, leaving Helen on their rowboat. Desperate, Clara swims to her--close to where her brother died--and finds Helen wet and cold, but alive. The boat is taking on water. Clara rows for shore, unsure if she's strong enough to make it before Helen succumbs to the elements. As she struggles against the waves, Clara suddenly feels as though someone is helping her, and thoughts of her brother flit through her mind. Soon she and Helen are back on shore, and Helen is safe in her mother's arms.

A few days later, things are calming down. Emmaline returns, having been visiting her grandparents in another city. Helen and her parents visit, and fill in some details. Hattie and Denny have disappeared, probably to Alaska. Helen's parents suspect she had more to do with the kidnapping than she let on. One of the kidnappers drowned in the storm, the other has been arrested. Helen is safe from them. To show their gratitude, Helen's parents insist they pay for Clara to someday attend the college that Helen's grandfather works at in Oakland (Mill College). Helen has dreamed of being a teacher, but the family's savings were wiped out after the accident two years ago. Now she'll have her chance.

A Peek into the Past

A massive earthquake struck San Francisco at twelve minutes past five on the morning of April 18, 1906. Its exact intensity is unknown, but estimates range from 7.7 to 8.25, with 7.8 being the most widely accepted measurement. The shaking was felt as far away as Oregon, southern California, and Nevada--all far away from the epicenter two miles west of San Francisco. Following the quake, fires raged over much of the city. Eighty percent of the infrastructure was destroyed, and at least three thousand people were killed (Good Luck, Ivy mentions this earthquake). A quarter of a million people were homeless, and many ended up living in temporary tent cities and shelters built by the US Army. With donations of time, money, and supplies from those in San Francisco and around the country, the city was able to eventually rebuild.


Dedicated to "Helen Curfman Mason, beloved great-aunt, and once again for Tom Strychacz, my husband, my hero. You inspire me."

The men staying with Clara's family are briefly drafted to help put out the fires. They come back shell-shocked, having seen some truly terrible things.

A subplot involves a teenage boy named Edgar, who was living with his uncle, his parents having died of influenza some time before. His uncle was killed during the earthquake. He ends up being taken in with Clara's family, and in the final scene of the book he's the last to sit at the table, and ends up taking Gideon's spot. Clara and her parents seem happy it's no longer empty.


History Mystery #17: Mystery at Chilkoot Pass

Author: Barbara Steiner

Illustrators: Greg Dearth and Douglas Fryer

Publishing Year: 2002

Setting:  Eastern Alaska, fall 1897 (Klondike Gold Rush)


Hetty McKinley has just landed in Alaska Territory from San Francisco with her father and uncle (her mother died some time ago), and her best friend and her mother, too. The vast wilderness stretches before them: it's seventeen miles to Chilkoot Pass, then down to a lake where they'll spend the winter. In the spring, it's off to find gold. They left on their journey the day she turned twelve. She considers starting the adventure a good birthday present.

But things get off to an inauspicious start. As the group departs the ship, some people find their luggage waterlogged and damaged. Hetty's best friend Alma Vasquez might have to return to San Francisco on the very same boat when her mother discovers her money pouch is gone. Hetty's family had some of their luggage thrown in the water by careless sailors too, but it's unclear if enough was ruined that they'll need to turn back. Despite the setbacks, most people are determined to press on. Alma's family is going to cook their wet food and that of a few other passengers' to sell at a restaurant. The people who lost food can earn money to either continue north or head back home. Hetty's Uncle Donall takes a break from gambling (with money borrowed from Hetty's father) to help gather firewood for the restaurant. Although she was initially sad to be leaving San Francisco, Hetty is now excited to be starting her new adventure. An aspiring novelist, she's sure she'll find lots of story fodder on the journey.

Soon the families are ready to head for the mountain pass. A woman named Sarah Lancaster attaches herself to the group. Hetty's not sure it's a  good idea to let Sarah tag along. She seems too delicate for the journey, although she is nice and Uncle Donall seems taken with her. As the group begins hiking the trail, Hetty's not sure what to think of Sarah. She turns out more capable than her appearance would indicate, but she also goes through a trunk someone abandoned on the trail, in a way that seems heartless to Hetty. Soon there are more troubles. Mrs. Vasquez discovers half her money stolen (it was hidden in two places), and Hetty's locket bearing a picture of her late mother is missing too. Hetty remembers what her mother told her when she was ill near the end of her life: Hetty's father isn't good at managing money, and Uncle Donall is too good at charming money from people. She taught Hetty how to properly take care of finances before she died. Hetty wonders, although she doesn't want to, if Uncle Donall is a thief, desperate for something to gamble with.

As the group presses on, more items go missing. A man is found to have stolen a few things, and flogged for it. Hetty's father falls ill, and so does a little girl. She ends up dying from it. Another family's baby dies, too. Death is expected on such a hard journey, but the little ones dying are hard to accept.

The flogging seems to have done some good at least. Mrs. Vasquez's money is returned, plus some extra cash. Seems someone was eager to get stolen things away and back where they belonged. Hetty still thinks Uncle Donall, and perhaps Sarah as well, is behind at least some of the disappearances. Hetty's father soon recovers from his illness, too. Slowly, Hetty and the others make it to the Golden Stairs, fifteen hundred steps carved out of ice that lead over Chilkoot Pass. They'll cross in the morning--but then her father collapses.

They end up snowed in by a blizzard while Mrs. Vasquez tends to Hetty's father. During the long wait, Uncle Donall confesses stealing the money from Mrs. Vasquez, but nothing else. Hetty and Alma learn some more about the other people in their group, but nothing to help them find their lost things (some stole the doll Alma's late father brought her from China, too). When the weather clears, Hetty's father is still weak. Sarah offers to pay some Alaska natives to help him over the pass--the fancy hat she wears actually conceals hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. No way she's the thief; she has plenty of money! And why is she so willing to help? She and Uncle Donall are engaged, so she's nearly a member of the family. But a rare autumn avalanche strikes, and kills 15 people. It seems there is so much sad news. Hetty is relieved to have some good: when the weather clears, her uncle will marry Sarah at the top of the pass. But as she helps Sarah get ready, she finds the stash of stolen goods in her things. Sarah is the thief.

Confused, Hetty doesn't say anything until after the wedding. It turns out Sarah was doing some sort of scavenger hunt. She didn't realize people would miss their sentimental items so, and seems truly contrite. Hetty says she must return everything in person, and apologize. Sarah agrees tearfully. People forgive her, and as if a sign that everything will be okay from here on out, the Northern Lights dance in the sky.

A Peek into the Past

The United States was in the grip of an economic depression in the last nineteenth century, so news of giant gold nuggets in the Alaska Territory spurred many men to sell all they had and head north. The land was largely unsettled, and they had to bring in their own supplies, as much as a ton of food and other equipment per person. Some women accompanied their husbands or sweethearts, and a few children, but not many. For about two years, many people found at least small fortunes in the land that everyone had mocked Secretary of State William Seward for buying from Russia thirty years before. He'd paid two cents an acre, $7.2 million in 1867 money, what was viewed then as an incredible waste of money for a hunk of remote ice. But the gold rush and later advantages (for example, oil fields) redeemed Seward.


Dedicated to "Susan Cohen, my super agent, who found this history/mystery series for me [and] for Peg Ross, my editor, who helped me find a better story than I thought possible."

This morning I was flipping through a book while waiting for my older daughter's appointment to start. It happened to be Call of the Wild by Jack London, set during the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush. Really good book. Hetty meets Jack London and various other historical characters. I'll probably grab my own copy later tonight and finish reading it.

Hetty says her middle name is Stubborn. From the context she might mean she is stubborn, but people used to name their kids things like Temperance and Futility, so I wonder if that's actually her legal middle name.

Speaking of names...Hetty McKinley, Mount McKinley...coincidence?