Tag Archives: historical fiction

The Luck of the Buttons by Anne Ylvisaker

“You’re such a Button.”

Tugs Button has heard this more times than she can count.  Her family is known for being unlucky.  They aren’t good at sports or art.  They aren’t talented musicians or exceptional cooks.  They certainly never win anything. 

But all that changes at the 1929 Fourth of July picnic.  For the first time ever, Tugs partners with cool girl, Aggie Millhouse in the three-legged race – AND WINS!  Then her essay on “progress” wins first prize in the essay contest!  And finally, Tugs’s ticket is chosen as the winner of brand new Brownie camera in the raffle.  Tugs Button, the awkward, clunky, much-less-than-graceful tomboy, could possibly turn her luck around.

But Tugs is plagued by the new man in town, Harvey Moore.  He says he’s here to bring a newspaper back to Goodhue with the help of monetary investments by the townspeople.  Everyone in town is enamoured with this dapper gentlemen – everyone, that is, except Tugs.  What will come of Tugs’s suspicions?  Has her short streak of luck already run out?

Ylvisaker’s novel is a an utterly charming look at small-town life in Iowa in the 1920s. 

The Luck of the Buttons by Anne Ylvisaker
Juvenile fiction | 224 pages | Candlewick Press | April 2011 | 0763650668 | Library copy

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Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

“‘Master Jefferson has done a lot of great things…he was a leader in the war.  He wrote that declaration thing.  He made us a new country.  And then he went to France, and he was president…so, does all that mean he’s a great person?  White folks seem to think so.  If you’re great enough in some areas, does it make up for the rest?’

Maddy asked, ‘Would a great person sell someone else’s son?'” (p. 254-255)

How would you feel if your father was the President of the United States, but no one could know about it?  Or if your father was also your owner?

In Jefferson’s Sons, Bradley tells the story of Thomas Jefferson’s other children-those he had with his slave, Sally Hemmings.  Beverly, Harriet, Maddy & Eston get better treatment than the other slaves at Monticello, but they are still slaves.  Beverly, Harriet & Eston are light-skinned enough that at age 21, when they receive their freedom, they’ll be able to enter white society, but it’s a decision that will mean never seeing their mother or Maddy again.  Bradley explores complex issues of slavery, identity, equality, freedom, and family while maintaining a certain measure of innocence by telling the story through a child’s eyes.  The story dragged a bit towards the middle, but press on through that because the ending is incredibly powerful and brought tears to my eyes.

Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Juvenile Fiction | 368 pages | September 2011 | Dial | 0803734999 | Library copy

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The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

“I’m always on your side,” I said, and wondered if I was the only one who felt the complicated truth of that hovering over us in the dark room. (p. 244)

The Paris Wife tells of the beginning of Ernest Hemingway’s career through the eyes of his first wife, Hadley Richardson.  Shortly after marrying, the pair move to Paris and take up with “the Lost Generation”, a group of expatriate literary heavy-hitters, including Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few.  Hadley and Ernest were madly in love and Hadley relished her role as supporting wife, despite the “freethinking, free-living lovers willing to bend every convention to find something right or risky or liberating enough” (p. 282) that surrounded them.  But as the years go by, Ernest’s ego and neediness begin to outgrow Hadley and her love alone is no longer enough.  With vivid descriptions of 1920s Europe, McLain reveals a poignant story of love and betrayal and provides insight into one of the greatest writers in American history.  I couldn’t put it down.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
Adult fiction | 336 pages | February 2011 | Ballantine Books | 0345521307 | Library copy

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The Silence of God by Gale Sears

“‘Neither Marx nor Lenin knows how this transformation will happen – how man will change from a selfish lout to a caring, hardworking comrade.  They just believe that somehow it will.’

[Natasha] looked again into Mr. Lindloff’s eyes.  ‘You don’t believe that.’

“No.  You cannot change a man’s nature or behavior by outside means, Natasha Ivanova.  There must be a change of a man’s heart, and only God can do that.'” (p. 57-58)

In 1917 Russia, a current of unrest was brewing among the working class.  The age of opulence, wealth, and faith was on its way out and Socialism, as proclaimed by the Bolsheviks, was on its way in.  The Bolshevik Revolution would change the course of history forever.

Based on a true story, Sears focuses on the Lindlof family, the only Latter-Day Saints living in Russia at the time.  Their strong faith and bourgeoise position in society are in direct opposition of everything the Bolsheviks stand for.  It is not long before their family is torn apart and most of the Lindlof children are sent away to a work camp in Siberia.

Agnes Lindloff’s best friend is Natasha Ivanova, devout follower of the Soviet cause.  Natasha’s high-profile job writing propaganda for the party puts her in contact with powerful figures like Lenin and Trotsky, but also causes some tension in her friendship with Agnes.  She thinks the Lindloff’s beliefs are superstitious and meaningless, but she and Agnes manage to put their differences aside and remain quite close.  When the Lindloff’s are arrested in the middle of the night, Natasha’s entire belief system is shaken to the core.

The Revolution is not unfolding as Natasha believed it would.  Innocent people are being thrown into work camps.  Party leaders are acting in their own best interest, instead of the interest of the people.  Suspicion, skepticism, fear and distrust run rampant as the Bolsheviks struggle to make their cause heard.  Natasha surprisingly finds herself  clinging to a book Mr. Lindloff gave her called The Articles of Faith.  As she reads further, Natasha’s views begin to shift.

I really enjoyed Sear’s account of this tumultuous time in Russian history.  She has obviously meticulously researched the events surrounding the Tsar’s deposition and the Bolshevik Revolution.  I appreciated the footnotes at the end of each chapter that provided more information about some of the details mentioned in the narrative.  At times some of the situations the characters were in seemed somewhat contrived, but overall I found the prose descriptive and easy to read and the characters believable.  I’m fascinated by fiction based on scandalous events in history and Sear’s novel provided just the fix I needed.

The Silence of God by Gale Sears
Adult | 400 pages | June 2010 | Deseret Books | 1606416553 | ILL copy

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A Faraway Island by Annika Thor (2009)

In 1938, Sweden offered to take in 500 Jewish children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.  Twelve-year-old Stephie and seven-year-old Nellie Steiner were among those children.  Forced to be separated from their parents, Stephie and Nellie were sent to Sweden in hopes that they would be protected from the Nazi invasion.  But from the beginning, things don’t go as planned.  First the girls are separated from each other; Nellie goes to live with warm, loving Auntie Alma while Stephie is sent to stuffy, grumpy Aunt Marta.

Nellie seems to assimilate nicely into her new home, makes friends easily and begins to act just like any Swedish child.  For Stephie, the transition is much more difficult.  She is constantly hounded by the school bully, Sylvia, doesn’t know how to ride a bicycle like all of the other kids her age, and struggles to feel liked by her foster mother.  Stephie’s unhappiness begins to strain the relationship between her and Nellie and too often she finds herself lashing out at her sister.  On top of all of this, Stephie finds out that is unlikely her parents will be able to join them anytime soon.  The situation in Vienna is getting worse and it is nearly impossible to leave the country.  Stephie must put on a brave face in her letters to her parents, while inside she feels as though her whole world is crumbling.

But as the months go by, things start to turn around.  Stephie makes a few friends.  Her exceptional hard work at school is recognized by her teacher.  She learns things about Aunt Marta that helps their relationship move forward.  And though fear, confusion, and worry for her parents are still a part of her life, Stephie begins to appreciate her life on the faraway island that seems like it’s at the end of the world.  For that, she can be grateful.

Though a little bland at times, A Faraway Island is a thoughtful depiction of displaced children during World War II.  This is probably the type of book I would have enjoyed when I was younger, but doesn’t necessarily have the depth of emotion I appreciate as an adult.  I would recommend this book to middle graders who like historical fiction.

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Mare's War by Tanita S. Davis (2009)

Driving across the county with their cigarette-smoking, fast-driving, very unconventional grandmother, Mare is the last way Octavia and Talitha Boylen want to spend their summer vacation.  But as Mare begins to tell them about her childhood and the forces that drove her into the Women’s Army Corps during WWII, Octavia and Tali come to a deeper understanding of their grandmother and themselves. 

Alternating chapters break the story down between “now” and “then”, but Mare’s story is where this book shines.  The road trip parts were less interesting and seemed unnecessary to me, although Davis does bring the two stories together in the end.  What stood out most to me are the themes of family, loyalty, and inequality.  It was heartbreaking to see Mare struggle with her mother’s silence after she joined the WAC and uplifting to witness the fierce love and sense of duty she felt towards her sister, Feen (which paralleled the relationship between Octavia and Tali).  Davis also highlighted the disparity with which African Americans were treated during the war.  They were good enough to fight but were still segregated in barracks, at drinking fountains and at nightclubs.  Mare’s frustration is palpable: 

“It is crazy to be here fighting for freedom and democracy when we are not free.  It tears me up to wonder why we are here, why our colored men go down fighting, when things will stay the same at home.” (p. 195)

 The only thing I felt was lacking was character connection.  The plot moved quickly, but I didn’t feel for the characters. 

Pair with Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith.

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