Book Review: Dear America: Like the Willow Tree, The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce (Portland, Maine 1918) by Lois Lowry

willowLydia begins her first entry sounding like a rather spoiled young woman. But very soon after, she and her brother lose everything when their parents and baby sister die from the Influenza. Their aunt and uncle, who are burdened with too many children, send Lydia and her brother to live in the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake. At first, Lydia is resentful of the place that puts her to work, forces her to give up all of her belongings– all belongings are shared in that community–, and separates her from her brother, but she soon finds genuine love and compassion among her new friends and teachers. She lives a lovely, clean, and virtuous life at Sabbathday, but eventually leaves the celibate Shaker lifestyle, as she wishes for a husband and family of her own. A very sweet and clean little book, nothing too controversial, and a very positive insight into the soon-to-be extinct Shaker tradition.

Book Review: Dear America: When Christmas Comes Again, The World War I Diary of Simone Spencer (New York City to the Western Front, 1917) by Beth Seidel Levine

christmasagainSimone Spencer is DA’s oldest narrator at eighteen years old. Born to a fairly well-to-do family in New York City with an American father and French mother, Simone is bilingual in the English and French languages. After she graduates high school, Simone learns that all American men between the ages of 21 and 30 are being drafted for the Great War, which includes her married older brother, Will. Instead of waiting for the draft, Will enlists in the war and sails off to Europe. Wanting to be of use herself, for her country and her brother, Simone also enlists, utilizing her bilingual abilities to become a switchboard operator (or “hello girl”) on the Western front to help the French, English, and Americans communicate with each other.

This book gives a fascinating insight into the significantly important role these 450 switchboard girls played in the victory of World War I. If not for proper communication between the Allies, America may not have been able to win. (Sadly, it took nearly 60 years for the “hello girls,” as they were called, to gain any sort of national recognition, veteran status, or medals of honor, and at this point only 4% were still living.)

But “When Christmas Comes Again” is, at heart, a love story. While stationed in her mother’s hometown in France, Simone meets and falls in love with the strapping and dashing young soldier, Sam. As she writes: Sam “stops her world,” and it is “love at first sight”. Theirs develops into a touching and beautiful story, one of the best romances to be found so far in the series. Perhaps this book is meant for slightly older readers, as the age of the narrator suggests. But it is nonetheless a clean, educational, and endearing yet heart-wrenching read. A good addition to the series, and my only pity is that it is themed as a “Christmas” book when Christmas truly had little to do with it, and it could have been presented and promoted as so much more.

Book Review: Dear America: A Time for Courage, The Suffragette Diary of Kathleen Bowen (Washington, D.C. 1917) by Kathryn Lasky

courageKat is a fourteen-year-old girl living in Washington, D.C. in the year of the picket lines for women’s suffrage. While Kat’s father, a doctor, is more progressive and generally accepting of Kat’s mother’s picketing and women’s rights activism, Kat’s Uncle Bayard is a harsh tyrant to his own wife (also a suffragette) and family, and is quite unsympathetic to the cause. Eventually, Kat’s dear cousin and best friend Alma runs away from the hostile environment of her family and flees to England to assist as a nurse’s assistant in the Great War. To make matters worse, the peaceful picketers go from being heckled and treated unfairly to being assaulted, injured, arrested, and imprisoned, right in front of the White House, all while President Wilson turned a blind eye, as he was more occupied with the Great War instead of half of the American population– women– on the homefront. It is shocking to read this book and realize how much has changed in less than 100 years as I write this now. It is appalling the way the suffragettes were brutally and unjustly mistreated and denied their basic rights in our country, including freedom of speech and the right for peaceful demonstration.

This book was well-written in the way that, despite all of the historical events, we get a strong feel for Kat’s character, her otherwise ordinary life and schooling, her hobbies, and her– at times juvenile, yet understandable– fears and concerns. This book is also just as much a book about women’s suffrage as it is about World War I, which I quite appreciated in its historical accuracy. Very apropos for me to have read it when I did (Sept. 2011), for at this time women were just granted the right to vote in Saudi Arabia.

Book Review: Dear America: Color Me Dark, The Diary of Nellie Lee Love, The Great Migration North (Chicago, Illinois 1919) by Patricia McKissack

colormeNellie Lee Love lives with her family at their undertaking business in the Corners of Tennessee. The Loves are a close-knit family, and Nellie is especially close with her sister, who is the same age as her most of the year, Erma Jean. One interesting character aspect in this book is that Erma Jean loves words and poetry, and Nellie prefers numbers, often fittingly filling her diary with number games. All seems to be going well until the girls’ Uncle Pace dies a brutal, mysterious death. Erma Jean stops speaking, and their father decides to relocate the girls, their mother, and his undertaking business to Chicago, where it was believed African Americans would be safer from the racist crimes and killings, and from groups like the KKK, down South. However, the family arrives to Chicago only to find that there is just as much racism– murders, rioting– and a new form of classism between blacks, up North.

Many of twelve-year-old Nellie’s entries were about her parents’ activism, politics, historical crimes and riots that occurred, and references to many famous African American activists, writers, and historical figures and their works. The historical note in the back was the longest and most extensive I’ve seen yet, complete with detailed bios of the many notable African American figures throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries mentioned in the dairy. I found Nellie and her family to be lovable characters.

Book Review: Dear America: Voyage on the Great Titanic, The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady (RMS Titanic, 1912) by Ellen Emerson White

titanicAfter tragically losing their parents, Margaret Ann Brady and her brother William are orphaned and penniless on the streets of London. William is hard-pressed to find work, and decides it best for his young sister to be put in the care of the nuns at St. Abernathy’s Orphanage, while he voyages to America to find work (and eventually send for his sister’s passage to join him). A few years later, a stroke of luck presents thirteen-year-old Margaret the rare opportunity to sail for America aboard the finest and largest ocean liner yet, the RMS Titanic, as a “traveling companion” to a wealthy American woman, Mrs. Carstairs.

This book is well-written. Margaret is fairly witty, mischievous, precocious and clever; although she is sometimes a bit too sardonic. That aside, she is certainly not unlikable, and the book is a pleasure to read. The description of April 14th’s tragic events is heartbreaking and fascinating, and I feel the author did a very good job. One more thing I’d like to mention is that this book, unlike quite a few others, is told with a distinctly British voice and perspective, and there are even several jabs taken at Americans. Overall, a solid story and undoubtedly one of the more popular in this series.