Book Review: Dear America: With the Might of Angels, The Diary of Dawnie Rae Johnson (Hadley, Virginia 1954) by Andrea Davis Pinkney

with-the-might-of-angels-by-andrea-davis-pinkney-on-bookdragon-800x1135Meet Dawnie Rae, “Dear America”‘s first 20th century African American heroine, a vibrant and indestructible girl. Dawnie is bright and dreams of becoming a doctor, but she lives in the midst of Jim Crow Virginia in the 1950s, where blacks are segregated from whites, given a much poorer education than in white schools, and have very few opportunities for progress and equality in the South. When Dawnie tests at the top of her class at the African American kids’ school, Bethune, she is eligible to integrate into the white school, Prettyman Coburn, given the recent rulings of Brown v. Board of Education, which deems segregation unconstitutional. As the only black girl in a white school in a town steeped in racism and segregation, she and her family are met with much hatred, prejudice, and violence, not only from white segregationists, teachers and classmates, but even from fellow African American parishioners at her church, who now consider her “uppity” and “too good for the rest of us.”

Dawnie’s narration is among the most animated and humorous of the series. She is every shade of proud, dignified, sarcastic, emotional, fearless, sharp, and kind-hearted; her three-dimensional personality tangibly leaps from the pages. Another refreshing aspect about Dawnie is that she is the first “DA” narrator who is described as having “meat on the bones” or “gristle,” and being “sturdy” and “big-boned;” I am glad the series finally chose to incorporate a bigger girl into its circle of narrators. Along with Dawnie are her loving and supportive parents, who run a laundry business, and her autistic brother who has a fondness for peanuts, causing the family to affectionately call him “Goober.” Much later in the story, we also meet Dawnie’s first white friend, an unforgettably funny, vivacious, and splendid Jewish girl named Gertie. This book is an excellent addition to the series and was a joy to read.

Book Review: Dear America: Cannons at Dawn, The Second Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania 1779) by Kristiana Gregory

cannonsCannons at Dawn is the second diary of The Winter of the Red Snow‘s Abigail Stewart, and the first sequel in the “Dear America” series. The story continues not long after Abigail’s first diary ends, still in the middle of the Revolutionary War. As we learn in the opening pages, Abigail’s father, the cobbler, has joined the Patriot army and leaves for war. However, almost immediately after his parting, the Stewarts’ house burns down, causing the family, now with no place to go, to march behind the soldiers and camp near them. It is quite a new and nomadic lifestyle for these women and children, never knowing where they will be ordered to next, their lives constantly at risk, having to be prepared to pack and leave at any moment’s notice. The winter blizzards as well as the summer’s heat are cruel and fatal for the soldiers and their families, and the severe absence of food, wages, and clothing caused not only much illness but mutiny among the Patriots.

While Abigail’s first diary takes place on the homestead in Valley Forge, witnessing to– but not necessarily participating in– the soldiers’ circumstances, the sequel is very much an ‘on-the-road’ story, and this time Abigail is suffering the conditions of the soldiers first-hand. (*SPOILER WARNING*) As this book takes her from ages twelve to fifteen, it is also a more mature story, indeed following Abigail even into her own marriage and motherhood (although no marital relations are even hinted at, other than her pregnancy itself).

An enjoyable story, very different from the first, also with likable new characters, including the runaway slaves Lulu and Mazie, and Thomas, the drummer boy, as well as Abby’s love interest, Willie, one of the young soldiers. The geographical history is also commendable; the author cross-checked the lunar calendar and gave accurate dates for the blizzards, full moons, and even New England’s Day of Darkness mentioned in the book (on top of the historical events pertaining to the War themselves). The Historical Note at the end was also one of the more unique in the series as a whole, taking many tangents and recounting some side-stories rather than the usual, plain historical names and dates (most likely due to the author having already written an historical note on the Revolutionary War for the previous book).

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: The Fences Between Us, The Diary of Piper Davis (Seattle, Washington 1941) by Kirby Larson

0-545-22418-7This is one of my favorite DA reading experiences. Piper lives with her father, a preacher, and her brother and sister. There are many Japanese Americans in her neighborhood and school, and her church is mostly Japanese. But after Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, life begins to change for Piper, as now she is considered suspicious and a traitor for associating with her Japanese friends and her father’s congregation, even though they are American citizens. And then, to her horror, her beloved Japanese American friends and neighbors are unjustly forced from their homes into internment facilities.

Meanwhile, Piper’s brother joins the military and each day she worries for him and waits for a letter from him. Her older sister, a grown woman engaged to be married and busy with pharmaceutical school, soon falls out of the picture as Piper relocates with her father to live near the place where their Japanese friends have been relocated, so that her father can continue to minister to them, bring them food and goods, and to do what he knew to be right even in the face of adversity. One memorably frightening scene includes a man in their new neighborhood who knows they are ministering to the confined Japanese, and who stalks them and threatens them for a time, believing them to be traitors.

This book contains much dramatic character development, more than in most DA books. Piper starts out as a schoolgirl with a crush on a boy, resenting being a “PK” (Preacher’s Kid), and absorbed in school dances and the like… but she eventually abandons her childishness, realizes what is really important– helping her Japanese friends and doing what is right, despite what others think–, and she learns to respect and appreciate her father’s noble actions and character, despite what it cost her socially, materially, and emotionally. Also evident in this book are other subplots, such as Piper’s love for photography. I was saddened only slightly by the epilogue, because she did not marry whom I would have preferred her to, but above all, this is a wonderful new addition to the DA series.

Book Review: Dear America: Hear My Sorrow, The Diary of Angela Denoto, a Shirtwaist Worker (New York City, 1909) by Deborah Hopkinson

hear-my-sorrow-2In this beautiful yet doleful tale, we follow Angela Denoto, a Sicilian-born teen at the turn-of-the-century in New York City. Although Angela is bright and the only member of her family who can read, as well as speak and write in English, her father’s physical condition requires her and her elder sister, Luisa, to work in his stead. As Angela begins her job at a shirtwaist factory, she experiences the awful, unfair, and even dangerous working conditions, including workers having to pay for their own needles and thread, their bosses prohibiting them from stopping and stretching or resting even after injury, seventy-two hour work weeks without overtime pay, dangerous fire and health hazards, and more.

Soon, Angela befriends fellow seamstress Sarah Goldstein, a “fiery” Jewish girl who is involved in the women’s labor union. Sarah soon coaxes Angela into various union activities and a strike, in order to fight for better working conditions for the women factory workers. Angela’s striking from work does not come without a high cost, however, as her family struggles without her pay. The author does a good job of describing both the miserable working conditions and the need for unionizing, as well as the girls’ and their families’ need to work to eat and survive, despite the terrible conditions. This book closes with the fatal events of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy, which, coupled with other significant deaths in this book, adds to its melancholy overtone.

A sad story devoid of really any cheer, and rather bare-bones at times in terms of character development, but poignant and emotional nonetheless.

Book Review: Dear America: I Walk in Dread, The Diary of Deliverance Trembly, Witness to the Salem Witch Trials (Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1691) by Lisa Rowe Fraustino

walkindreadOne of my favorites in the DA series, “I Walk In Dread” is more than just a diary, but an incredible story about the Salem Witch Trials, told from a very unique perspective that cannot, in my knowledge, be found among any other Salem Witch literature. There is nothing supernatural in this book, first of all, and it is clear to the reader that the cause of the ‘attacks’ are not actual witches. As the reader may glean from the narrative, and then especially afterward in the author’s notes, the strange events were most likely a product of the mixture of superstitious, zealous officials, paired with the fact that young girls–who in that place and time were the lowest rung on society’s totem pole, and were never listened to nor given any attention, value, or credit– were listened to and given credit and power to have executed those they disliked, when claiming to be under supernatural attack.

In this story, the main character, Deliverance (Liv), is an intelligent girl who lives alone with her sickly elder sister, Remembrance (Mem). Their uncle is supposed to be caring for them, but he has more or less abandoned them, so they must keep his absence and the fact that they are alone a secret. Because Liv keeps a diary and is skeptical about whether she believes in witches, her sister Mem worries for her and even suspects that Liv is a witch. Liv also visits with another literate and intelligent woman, with whom she reads the Bible and other Puritan literature, and because this woman is one of the few who does not believe in witches and sees through the mass hysteria of the other villagers, she is persecuted and imprisoned.
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Among the memorable scenes are when some of the girls participate in using a “venus glass,” which is when a girl breaks an egg into a glass of pure water and discerns the shape the yolk takes in the water to predict whom she will marry. This was considered a forbidden practice of divination/witchcraft to the Puritans. There is also an unforgettable scene where Liv and Mem fight tooth and nail over Liv’s diary, and when Liv finally exclaims, “No, I do not believe in witches anymore! Why would the Devil need the magic of witches to do his work when he has plenty of stupid people to do it for him?” Also memorable are the men who stop by their house and who eventually marry into their family. A great book with the series’ best protagonist.

Book Review: Dear America: Look to the Hills, The Diary of Lozette Moreau, A French Slave Girl (New York Colony, 1763) by Patricia McKissack

51mkd5qcv8l_1__1It is 1763, and Lozette, or “Zettie,” is the African servant to a French family in Province. She was bought to be a companion to Marie-Louise (“Ree”) Boyer. Companion slaves were somewhat elite, as they are well-educated, well-dressed, and taught the same as their masters, to make them fit for the company of the upper-class. When Ree’s father passes away, her cruel and reckless older brother Pierre squanders his inheritance. To pay his debt and keep out of prison, he plans to sell Zettie and betrothed Ree to an old banker. But with the help of some friends, Ree arranges an escape for her and Zettie, and they make their way from Spain to the North American Colonies to find Ree’s other brother, Jacques, who has been held captive by Indians in Delaware while fighting in the war. Thus begins Zettie and Ree’s new life in the New York Colony during the French and Indian War.

It did sometimes feel like the author was trying to write a textbook. A lot of the history and names recounted seem unlikely to be coming from a 13-year-old slave girl. However, one scene I found memorable was toward the end, when Zettie meets Lot, a former African slave, who remembers life in Africa before he was taken and sold. Lot knows the details of his African heritage and he shares his stories and reveals bits of Zettie’s own heritage to her.

Book Review: Dear America: All the Stars in the Sky, The Santa Fe Trail Diary of Florrie Mack Ryder (Santa Fe Trail, 1848) by Megan McDonald

allstarsIn this charming book, Florrie and her family set out from Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico where her step-father, Mr. Ryder, holds a successful trading business. This story is told in the true, authentic voice of a Southern thirteen-year-old girl, making Florrie a delightfully humorous and colorful protagonist. What makes this DA diary stand out among the others that are about pioneers migrating west (such as Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie or West to a Land of Plenty) is that the Ryders were not taking common families’ trails, such as the Oregon Trail, but rather the traders’ and merchants’ route. So instead of reading about Florrie’s relationships and socializing with other families in their wagon train, we get to read more about the grown men with whom they travelled– complete with their talk of business, tall tales, swearing, and tobacco-chewing, and the antics of Florrie and her little brother Jem as they are dwelling among such characters. The heart of the story is the Ryders’ stay at the Colorado trading post Bent’s Fort, where Florrie befriends the Fort’s diverse mix of visitors, including a mountain man, a Spanish boy, a cook, and a Cheyenne girl.

This book was a joy to read and is one I strongly recommend. There are some very sad parts, but it gives our Florrie and her story more depth. What’s more, I was pleased to learn that the topics of Bent’s Fort and the Santa Fe Trail are very near and dear to the author’s heart. McDonald is somewhat of an authority on the subject matter, having lived for a summer at Bent’s Old Fort National Historical Site (and kept a diary herself during this time), as well as closely studied the diary of Susan Magoffin, who was the first woman to have ever travelled the Santa Fe Trail.

Book Review: Dear America: Love Thy Neighbor, The Tory Diary of Prudence Emerson (Greenmarsh, Massachusetts 1774) by Ann Turner

lovethyIn this unique DA diary, the author tells the Revolutionary War era story from a Tory’s point of view; that is, from the point of view of a girl and her family who did not want to secede from England and were perfectly happy living under the King’s reign. These people are often viewed as traitors to the American cause, but in fact made up a fair part of the colonists, and were mostly good, average people just like anyone else. Because they did not support efforts for freedom, however, they were often attacked, vilified, and harassed by their own neighbors with whom they’d once been friends. Such is Prudence Emerson’s story.

Eventually, Prudence and her family are chased from their home and must relocate to live with their aunt, uncle, and cousins further north, where her cousin develops a romantic attachment to one of the British soldiers stationed there. Very memorable is the fact that the celebrating of Christmas was outlawed at the time, but that the family put up a decorative Christmas star to help encourage Prudence’s sickly, blind younger sister, Kate, who was the darling of this story. A very well-written book and one of my favorites in the series.