In this unforgettable DA tale, Mary, her family, and others from her English hometown and church, led by her father– their pastor–, are duped into purchasing land and settling on the plains of Minnesota. They are promised rich soil, fertile ground, beautiful weather, and the tools for prosperity and a good life, but instead are met by deadly snowstorms, disease, pestilence, and a severe lack of resources to build their town. Their ordeals were eerie and haunting, particularly one disturbing scene involving the infamous grasshopper plague.
On the personal level, Mary struggles with being her father’s child from his previous marriage. After her mother passed away, he remarried and had more children with his new wife, Mary’s step-mom, who is more or less a bland or cold figure towards Mary in the beginning (but for whom, by the end, Mary develops a genuine, albeit rather subtle, respect and admiration). Also memorable in this book is Mary’s little half-sister, Laura, a cruel and vindictive little child always jealous of her older sister, and who is interestingly based off of the author’s actual grandmother. As well, Mary has a friend in this story who develops a romance with a Native American man. I have also read about some controversy regarding the damage Mary’s father, the preacher, and his poor leadership, did to his people, most of whom gave up everything they had in England to come there to die, or worse. Yet Mary is still faithful to her father and feels sorry for him throughout the book. This is one of the better books in the series and I learned a lot from it.
This DA diary is a very readable book. Set in Indianapolis, Indiana during the Great Depression, Minnie (short for Minerva) is the youngest of four sisters, with a younger brother. Her father is out of work and her mother has already had to close off half of the rooms in the house to save on coal/heating fees when yet another mouth to feed is added to the family. Minnie’s second cousin, tiny Willie Faye, arrives from Heart’s Bend, Texas – which has suffered greatly from the Dust Bowl – after she is orphaned. Minnie’s faith is most challenged when her father mysteriously disappears, but Willie Faye helps her through.
The rest of this character-driven diary – which takes place only over the course of several weeks (as opposed to other DA diaries which usually span a year or more) – is a recounting of many stories of Willie Faye and the Swift sisters and their beaus; their younger brother Ozzie, who is nearly a boy genius with his knowledge of physics and his laboratory inventions; as well as innumerable references to famous radio shows, films, actors and actresses, comedians, and other entertainment of the era. These references are presented under the motif that, during the Great Depression, people desired fantasy and entertainment to escape the harsh realities; people longed for “Christmas magic.”
There was one scene that stood out that I did not like, when Minnie shows no sympathy for a friend whose father has just committed suicide. Instead of empathizing with her friend’s grief, she makes fun of how chubby her friend’s widowed mother was, and struggles not to burst out laughing at the word “bosoms” both while visiting the family in mourning and during a religious play. There is also an offensive reference to “fat” and “portly” women who try to tuck and hide all their fat into corsets, while Minnie boasts that her mother has such a nice, slender figure and does not even wear a corset.
There were, however, some beautiful stories from Willie Faye’s character, including one memorably poignant tale about a heifer giving birth on a snowy night.
Nellie 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.