Wildthorn by Jane Eagland

“‘I told you, that isn’t my name.  I am Louisa Cosgrove. And I’m not meant to be here.  There’s been a mistake.’

He pauses…then turns to read the page of cramped writing I can see inside the folder.

It suddenly occurs to me-perhaps they’re pretending they don’t know who I am. Perhaps they’re trying to drive me mad.

I take a deep breath. ‘I’m not mad, Doctor.  You can see that, so-‘”

There’s been a terrible mistake. Instead of being driven to a manor where she was to begin her position as a companion, Louisa is taken to Wildthorn Hall, an asylum.  They call her Lucy and interpret her every protest as further evidence of her illness.  But who had her committed? More importantly, how can she get out? Does her family really believe she belongs here? Or worse, is it possible that they do not even know where she is?

Amidst the groans and suffering of her fellow patients, Louisa recalls her outside life.  True, perhaps she read more than was considered seemly for young women, and her ambition to become a doctor was certainly unconventional.  But moral insanity? Surely having dreams of something other than a husband and family does not amount to an illness!  In order to save her life and be united with her love, Louisa stages a risky escape attempt.  But on the outside, there are many dangers for a young woman, and it seems her troubles have just begun.

I did absolutely nothing today but finish this book; I got it yesterday night.  First, it’s about time we have some good queer historical fiction! Even better, this is a queer story that doesn’t revolve around a coming out. Louisa, from her childhood on, has preferred science to sewing and riding horses to making calls.  However, she is not committed to the asylum because she is a lesbian, rather, because she exhibits unfeminine characteristics and ambitions for her time.  In this way, the book is an interesting commentary on the restrictive expectations for women in nineteenth-century England.

For those of you looking for a love story, don’t worry.  It’s there, it is sweet, and it defies the bleakness of the novel’s setting.  For a young adult book that reads like the lovechild of The Well of Loneliness and Jane Eyre, the tender romance is refreshingly hopeful, but not wildly so.  It is not so perfectly constructed that it seems unrealistic, but it is a lovely surprise!  I’ve been waiting to read this book for a long time, and I couldn’t have ordered a more perfect compilation of everything I love in a read-for-pleasure book. I haven’t been this happy since I discovered Sarah Waters. Oh, and one more awesome thing-this novel is based on a true story (Seriously. Isn’t that awful?  We should all be welling over with gratitude for our feminist predecessors, because now we don’t have to worry about being tossed in an asylum because we were inconveniently un-feminine.)

Happy Reading!

Author’s website (look, she has another book out!): http://www.janeeagland.com 

Eagland, Jane. Wildthorn. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2009. 349 pp. Ages 14 and up.

If you liked this book because of the historical setting, you might like the classics Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Older readers looking for lesbian love stories set in Victorian England will go crazy over Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters.  For a fantasy featuring girls who fall in love, try Malinda Lo’s Huntress.  Creepy gothic feel? Try A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray! And for a French medieval trilogy about assassin nuns (ok, not technically related to England or asylums or lesbians), I’ve been wanting to read Grave Mercy. It looks fantastic!

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Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes

“The TV says the governor has asked the president to declare a state of emergency.  The National Guard has been called up.  Now the breathless weatherman is saying the hurricane will hit Mississippi and Louisiana. Both.

I’m feeling ANXIOUS: FULL OF ANXIETY. GREATLY CONCERNED, ESPECIALLY ABOUT SOMETHING IN THE FUTURE OR UNKNOWN.

I’m feeling more anxious because I looked up unfathomable in my pocket dictionary.  UNFATHOMABLE: BEYOND UNDERSTANDING, IMPOSSIBLE TO MEASURE.

In math, I learned everything can be measured.  Air, water, wind. Volume. Velocity. Depth.

So why not a hurricane? There, I’ve said it.”

Lanesha lives with her adoptive grandmother, Mama Ya-Ya, in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward.  The pair may not be blood relatives, but are closer than any family-they are all each other has in the world.  Lanesha and Mama Ya-Ya also share powers: Lanesha can see ghosts, and Mama Ya-Ya gets visions about the future.   When Mama Ya-Ya’s dream visions predict a hurricane, Lanesha tries hard to prepare for the coming storm.  She’s nervous, though; Mama Ya-Ya can’t fully understand the end of her visions about the storm, and the news anchors say it will be the worst they’ve had in decades.  When Hurricane Katrina finally hits the city, Lanesha has to be brave in order to protect everything that she loves.

I’d been wanting to read this book for so long, and it was even better than I expected!  Jewell Parker Rhodes’ depiction of the love inherent in Lanesha’s assembled family is so tender.  Mama Ya-Ya, Lanesha, and later, a stray dog and TaShon, Lanesha’s first real friend, are warmly devoted to each other, despite the stresses of their lives. Lanesha herself is a brilliant young woman; she’s compassionate, inquisitive, and wants to grow up to become an engineer.  I especially loved her passion for science and mathematics; she’s advanced enough that a teacher of hers gives her the teacher’s edition of a pre-algebra textbook for her to work through independently. It’s great to see a female character excelling in math, especially when presented in such a natural way.  Way to defy a stereotype!

And really, that is what this book is about-we all were exposed to so much press about the violence and poverty in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina that an untrue and unfair depiction of the city’s poor developed.  Jewell Parker Rhodes gently dismantles this image.  For example, Lanesha has the ability to see ghosts. (Don’t worry, this isn’t a ghost story, and the ghosts are benign or helpful, so younger readers are still good to go with this story.)  At school, she sees the ghost of an older classmate, one who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time during a gas station robbery-a subtle reminder that assuming all shooting deaths are gang-related, and that poor people are violent is just that, an assumption, and not true.  The inhabitants of Lanesha’s poverty-stricken neighborhood are humanized in this story; they look after each other and share their few resources.  This Ninth Ward isn’t ridden with senseless violence, neither before, nor after the hurricane.

The magical realism in this story (Mama Ya-Ya’s visions and Lanesha’s ghosts) is seamlessly integrated with the actual events of the hurricane, and it gave it another layer of appeal.  It also kept the book from being just a recounting of the storm.  I loved how it was used to connect Lanesha with her mother, who died in childbirth. This is just a lovely book, on so many levels.  Not only does it give some good perspective on the hurricane’s devastation, appropriate for a younger audience, it also demonstrates the legitimacy of non-traditional families and deconstructs stereotypes about young women and poor minorities. Rhodes tells us a story about the strength of love, even amidst destruction, and it is absolutely beautiful!

Happy Reading!

Rhodes, Jewell Parker.  Ninth Ward. Little, Brown: New York, 2010. 217 pp. Ages 10-14.

Author’s website: http://jewellparkerrhodes.com

Normally, when I’m reading, recommendations just come to me and I feel what books would be similar.  However, I don’t know of others so much like this, though I wish I did, and I’m getting ready to explore.  Zora and Me, is a wonderful one that I have read, a former winner of the  Coretta Scott King award.  It has the same feel of warmth and family-love, but it is set in the deep south during the Jim Crow era, so it is more historical.  We could also try Turtle in Paradise or Three Times Lucky.

Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

“Every fairy tale, it seems, concludes with the bland phrase ‘happily ever after’. Yet every couple I’ve ever known would agree that nothing about marriage is forever happy.  There are moments of bliss, to be sure, and lengthy spans of satisfied companionship.  Yet these come at no small effort, and the girl who reads such fiction dreaming her troubles will end ere she departs the altar is well advised to seek at once a rational woman to set her straight.”

Ben’s parents were assassinated and she ends up as a charge of Queen Sophia, who is determined to shape Ben into the image of proper royalty.  This means diets, dancing, needlework, and genteel conversation, and Ben wants none of it.  As a result of her truculence, Ben is relegated to a locked tower.  Rather than give in to despair or decide to comply meekly,  she begins teaching herself magic.  At night, she practices her craft, trying to gain enough skill to escape.  Her secret lessons are put into use when the kingdom is threatened by a neighboring country, and the fate of the nation rests on her knowledge and skills.

I am constantly searching for fairy tale retellings that do not favor beauty over character, and uphold marriage as the ultimate goal for young women, and I’ve finally found one!  Ben is overweight, though the descriptions of her body are neutral, rather than shaming, and her body never approaches the stereotypical ideal throughout the course of the novel.  (I am always heartbroken when authors begin with a character who is not traditionally beautiful, but she transforms during the story, leaving us with the ultimate message that being conventionally pretty is still necessary for a happy life.)  Even though Ben is taken captive and spends two months as a prisoner of war on a starvation diet, she never becomes slender; I like this nod to the idea of a set weight point for each body, and the acknowledgment that diets do not work.  (Did you know that only five percent of all dieters are able to keep the weight off permanently?  But if businesses can use advertisements to make women feel ashamed of their bodies, they will still spend lots of money on diet products, even if 95 percent of them will not be able to lose weight long-term.)

Furthermore, Ben discusses her marriage with the most straightforward feminist speech that I’ve ever read in a young adult book, and I am so grateful to the author for it!  This book is a treasure: it strikes the right balance of magical fairy tale elements, well-rounded characters, and creative plotting, and the message it sends about beauty and self-reliance is refreshing.  Look for dragons, political intrigue, a hilarious commentary on the odiferous nature of adventures, and a reversal of the kiss-the-unconscious-princess-and-love-will-wake-her-up trope. Though Ben does seem overwhelmingly, unilaterally grumpy and spoiled in the first sections of the book, she develops into a multifaceted, realistic character in the second half of the book, and it’s worth pushing through the crankiness.  Final awesome thing?  The full title of the book: Princess Ben: Being a Wholly Truthful Account of her Various Discoveries and Misadventures, Recounted to the Best of her Recollection, in Four Parts.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.catherinemurdock.com/cm/home.html

Murdock, Catherine Gilbert. Princess Ben. Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 2008. 344 pp. Ages 14-18.

If you liked this book, I think you’d love the graphic novel Castle Waiting, for the strong feminist message.  If graphic novels aren’t your thing, though, you would probably like Beauty, Fairest, Everor Ella Enchanted. There are so many good books out there for readers who love fairy tales, but are disheartened by the beauty myth present in so often in them!