Even though I already own plenty of unread novels that meet this criteria, stacked up on my desk and waiting for me, of course I couldn’t resist surfing around to find some additional books. But if I don’t get to them within the literal month of March, I’ll just continue to celebrate Women’s History in the weeks following! I ordered a couple of books that I hadn’t heard of until recently, and a few classic favorites from my childhood as well.
The Green Glass Sea and White Sands, Red Menace by Ellen Klages. The Green Glass Sea won the Scott O’Dell award for historical fiction, a list which I just recently discovered. The novel is about Dewey and Suze, two girls who spend a year in Los Alamos as their parents work on the atomic bomb, the secret gadget that is supposed to end World War II. Dewey, interested in mechanical projects herself, disregards typical gender roles and Suze is a trouble maker of sorts, and so the two misfits form a friendship in the tense atmosphere of the secretive scientific community. White Sands, Red Menace is the sequel to The Green Glass Sea, and follows Dewey and Suze in Alamogordo, New Mexico, where Suze’s father begins working to develop rockets for the U.S. government following the resolution of World War II.
I’m interested in the ways that these novels foreground questions of women scientists – something that’s pretty rare to find in novels, YA or adult fiction (other than straight-up Sci Fi). I can count on one hand the (well-written) books that I’ve read about women scientists and/or girls that are interested in science: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondatjee are the only two that are springing to mind at the moment (feel free to share more with me in the comments section!). Gender and ethics questions are posed in both novels; both teen and adult characters are unaware at first how the atomic bomb will ultimately be used, and as they learn more about the device, they struggle with that grim reality. Suze's mother puts her chemistry career on hold and her relationship with her husband grows rocky, mostly because of their different positions regarding the atomic bomb. One reviewer wrote that the novels “nail… the uncertainty that many Americans experienced after the truths of Hiroshima began to surface,” which seems like an ambitious and admirable topic for a YA novel. On a smaller scale, Dewey and Suze are required to take home economics instead of shop – so it sounds like the author Klages has carried these themes of gender, science and ethics throughout the novels on many levels. I’m looking forward to checking out these books, which don’t seem to have gotten much attention in the blogosophere.
Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, and By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingles Wilder. I read the entire Little House series when I was young, but it’s been so long that I can hardly remember exactly what they were all about. My most distinct memories of these novels are actually the sensory descriptions, particularly of food preparation – curing meat in the smokehouse, canning fruit and freshly baking pies. I also remember Laura’s rapturous account to the general store and her chance to pick out the material for a new dress from amongst the bolts of flowered fabric, and her happy memories of a warm, family-filled Christmas celebration. My memories aren’t too far off, according to reviewers: “Every chapter divulges fascinatingly intricate, yet easy-to-read, details about pioneer life in the Midwest in the late 1800s, from bear-meat curing to maple-tree sapping to homemade bullet making.” So these novels are indeed heavy on the sensory details that stick with you, at least if you’re as fascinated with food as I am.
Most of the plots, however, are lost to me now, but I think the novels are pretty basic, focusing first on survival while Laura’s family is living in a log cabin in woodsy Wisconsin, then as they set out for Kansas in a covered wagon, searching for a new home. They end up living near Plum Creek for a time, then moving again, this time to the wilderness of the unsettled Dakota Territory. Laura’s Pa builds their homestead, works the railroad, and provides for his wife and daughters despite the hardships of pioneer life. Again, what I remember most about these stories is the way that after every hard day of work, every challenge, Pa Ingalls played the fiddle to sooth his daughters to sleep. I must have honed in on all the creature comforts as I read these novels instead of dwelling on the difficult homestead tasks that I would have found less relevant when I was a young and very spoiled little girl. I’m interested to see what pops out at me when I re-read them at age twenty-seven (although I’m still pretty spoiled and dislike manual labor intensely, so I’ll likely still enjoy all the sensory descriptions more than anything else).
The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich
My idea to re-read the Little House books actually hit me because I ran into this novel, with the opening description that reads: “Nineteenth-century American pioneer life was introduced to thousands of young readers by Laura Ingalls Wilder's beloved Little House books. With The Birchbark House, award-winning author Louise Erdrich's first novel for young readers, this same slice of history is seen through the eyes of the spirited, 7-year-old Ojibwa girl Omakayas…” I love Erdrich’s adult novels and I think it will be really awesome to read The Birchbark House (and its sequels, once I get my hands on them) in conjunction with the Little House books.
The summary of the novel on Amazon includes some of the background about Omakayas herself, but also about Erdrich’s detailed prose: “The sole survivor of a smallpox epidemic on Spirit Island, Omakayas, then only a baby girl, was rescued by a fearless woman named Tallow and welcomed into an Ojibwa family on Lake Superior's Madeline Island… Readers will be riveted by the daily life of this Native American family, in which tanning moose hides, picking berries, and scaring crows from the cornfield are as commonplace as encounters with bear cubs and fireside ghost stories… [this is a] poetic, exquisitely wrought narrative.” From this description, it sounds like The Birchbark House will include a lot of the same sensory details as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels, so I’m looking forward to a very rich reading experience when I sit down with all of these books!