Allison's Book Bag

Round-Up of NE Juvenile Fiction

Posted on: November 20, 2011

Pioneers, hired hands, the dust bowl, small towns, blizzards, and tornadoes were featured in the selection of Nebraskan juvenile fiction I am reviewing this week. After searching through lists of regional books available at my local library, I found three authors for a total of five books to read. Holding up the Earth and Together Apart by Dianne Gray were written in this last decade. The first was selected by the American Library Association for its list of best books for young adults and nominated for a Golden Sower, among other awards. The House Without a Christmas Tree by Gail Rock, written in 1975, was another one of those Midwest books that I read as a child before Nebraska meant anything to me. Like The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, it inspired sequels and movies and feels like a seasonal classic. Night of the Twisters and In Care of Cassie Tucker were both written in the 1980’s. Both received Golden Sower nominations, but Night of the Twisters is also a regional classic—known to most of Nebraskan students.

TOGETHER APART

Cover of "Holding Up the Earth"

Cover of Holding Up the Earth

To my surprise, my favorite find is author Dianne Gray and her book Together Apart. When I first read the book’s synopsis, I thought it would be another book about storm survival. While the blizzard that affected the lives of the main characters was a real event known as The School Children’s Blizzard, Together Apart is about much more. Many people who survive natural disasters say that the main thing is that their family lived. While that may be true, it is also just as true that the real story lies in what happens after the disaster. Together Apart is what happens to the fictional Hannah Barnett, whose two brothers died in the blizzard of 1888. As for Hannah, she huddled with a local boy to keep warm—incurring rumors in the community about their relationship and causing estrangement with her farming family. Needing her own space to grieve, Hannah applies for town for work. She receives a job from the unconventional Eliza Moore, who prints a gazette promoting women’s suffrage. Together Apart is also about Isaac, the boy with whom Hannah huddled to stay alive. When Isaac tires of abuse from his step-father, he runs away but only to the nearby town because he wishes to stay close to his mom. There are plenty of other things I could tell you about Together Apart, such as how much I loved the chapter about the play that Hannah writes about Fair Wind and Wild Wind, but I’d prefer for you to discover these delectable treasures for yourself by reading the book.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

HOLDING UP THE EARTH

Shifting the point of view as Dianne Gray does in both Together Apart and Holding up the Earth is not my favorite literary technique, yet she manages it pretty well. In the latter, she actually switches between the voices of five different girls to bind together her story of fourteen-year-old Hope, a foster kid who has been shuffled from home to home since the death of her mom. Hope visits her new foster mom’s Nebraska farm and through old letters, a diary, and stories hears the voices of four girls her age who lived there in 1869, 1900, 1936, and 1960. Through their tales, readers are introduced to the life of pioneers and hired hands and of life during the dust bowl and later nuclear testing days. And through Hope’s voice, readers learn about farming and small towns, but also something more. May we always have memories that shape us, but may we also always move forward to make new ones. Dianne Gray has written a third book, and based on the strength of her first books, I’ll be checking it out too.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

Cover of "The House Without a Christmas T...
Cover of The House Without a Christmas Tree

THE HOUSE WITHOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE

Some have speculated that The House Without a Christmas Tree by Gail Rock is inspired by true events in the author’s life. Indeed, there are many reasons to think this. Consider that main character Addie Mills lives with her dad and grandmother—and that the dedication reads “To Grandma and Dad”. Then there is the prologue, in which the narrator states that she now lives in the city, but once lived in Clear River, Nebraska. She often thinks of that little town and that special Christmas in 1946 when she was ten-years-old. There is also the epilogue, but I can’t tell you about it without ruining the ending for you. As for the story itself, in many ways it feels like what anyone in a small town might experience—up to a point. Addie and Carla Mae are best friends who like to hang out at each other’s homes. This particular December day, they’re talking what to buy for the student exchange at school and Addie is stumped about what to buy snobby Tonya. As Addie and Carla Mae spell their names with soup noodles, the conversation shifts to what each girl wants for Christmas.  Sound like typical small town life? Oh, and Addie and Billie have a crush on each other, but of course neither will admit it. Then Carla Mae asks, “How come you haven’t got your Christmas tree up yet?” Addie parrots the argument that her dad uses: they cost too much. The reality is sadder, to the point that the topic is a forbidden topic. Sometimes even true stories can become cliché. When telling my husband about this book, he easily guessed its big secret. Yet my biggest problem instead is how long the secret is withheld and then how quickly Addie’s problems are resolved once we know the truth behind them. Even so, The House Without a Christmas Tree remains a charming seasonal classic that everyone should read once.

My rating? Read it. Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

A tornado from the June 3, 1980 Grand Island t...

Image via Wikipedia

NIGHT OF THE TWISTERS

Ivy Ruckman is not a new name to me. Actually, I suspect most elementary Nebraska teachers are familiar with Night of the Twisters , another book in my round-up that is based on true historical events. On June 4, 1980, a string of seven tornadoes devastated the central Nebraska town of Grand Island, killing four people, injuring one hundred and thirty-four, and destroying five hundred and thirteen homes and sixty businesses. Unlike Together Apart, Night of the Twisters focuses on that Grand Island tornadoes and so reads like more of a straightforward adventure. While I won’t fault Night of the Twisters for that little detail, the opening bothers me every time I reread it: “When I was a little kid, I thought a red-letter day was when you got a red-letter in the mailbox…. Now that I’m older and more experienced, I know that there are black-letter days as well as red-letter ones. Those BIGGEES, the real blockbusters that mess up your life….” The observation feels forced, just as much as the slow pace of the first few chapters. Yet I have to hand it to Ivy Ruckman, every time I reach the point where the first tornado hits the Hatch house, I am unable to put down her one hundred-and-fifty page book. Better yet, for a while after reading it, every noise around me and every change in the weather puts me on alert. After living in Nebraska for over ten years, I understand how Midwesterners can become complacent about weather alerts. Whenever I read Night of the Twisters , I am reminded why that is not a good idea.

My rating? Read it. Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

IN CARE OF CASSIE TUCKER

In Care of Cassie Tucker contains the same slow and forced introduction as Night of the Twisters. On the first page, Ruckman writes that when school let out in the spring of 1899, Cassie’s teacher suggested she keep a journal. “Someday,” she tells Cassie, “you’ll be glad you did.” Of course, Cassie lived to regret it, and those last months of the century were the most exciting of her life. In both Night of the Twisters and In Care of Cassie Tucker, found myself wishing that Ivy Ruckman had simply plopped her characters into the middle of the action rather than hitting us with so much foreshadowing. The result is a lackluster start. In the first chapter of In Care of Cassie Tucker, Cassie’s younger brother is screaming about their rooster. Cassie rescues her brother and then teaches him his numbers. Next, Cassie helps sets the table. Then her mother sends her outside to do chores. Just like in movies with the same flaws, all these precursory events to the real story are intended to develop the character, but just make me antsy for the action to start. I don’t want to hear “What I didn’t know that long-ago Thursday … that everything was about to change.” I want the out-of-town cousin to arrive already! Once he does, I was able to settle back and enjoy the story—which fortunately turned out better than those aforementioned perfunctory movies. My favorite chapter is when Cousin Evan teaches Cassie to swim, something forbidden in those conservative days. I also like their many discussions about religion, with Evan being an atheist and Cassie being a Christian. Ruckman’s strength in writing about storms also shows itself in the chapters about a blinding blizzard. Despite its initial slow pace, In Care of Cassie Tucker kept me glued to my chair right to the very last page.

My rating? Read it. Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

Whew! It’s been quite the week of fast-reading, but I have enjoyed my finds. I’ve also learned more about this state that has become my adult home. Of course, there’s plenty more to discover about Nebraska. For example, in the back of Together Apart, Dianne Gray writes about how a group of survivors from The School Children’s Blizzard compiled their stories into a book titled In All Its Fury: The Great Blizzard of 1888. She found it an invaluable resource and recommended it to anyone wishing to know more about this tragic storm. It’s on my list of books to read. Hopefully, some of the books about Nebraska that I’ve reviewed will make it onto your lists. Or at the very least, perhaps they’ll encourage you to start your own regional list of books. Happy reading!

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