Book Review: The Revelation of Louisa May by Michaela MacColl

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 11 and up (murder and strife but not much gore or sex.)

The Alcott home is weathering some rough times. There’s not enough money to support a family of four girls, so their “Marmee” must go away to work while her husband fiddles with his philosophical writing. Teenaged Louisa has to take charge of things in her mother’s absence, but she would rather be running full-pelt amongst the trees in Concord, talking with Henry David Thoreau, or writing her own stories. A fugitive slave arrives at the house of the passionate abolitionist family, so suddenly Louisa has another mouth to feed and too many secrets to keep. Secrets get mighty dangerous when a ruthless slave-catcher comes to town, looking to make life difficult for those involved in the underground railroad. Keeping her household together while protecting their hidden friend is difficult enough, so how can Louisa spare the energy to wrestle with her feelings for a visiting young man who has changed a lot since his absence? And how on earth will she have time to solve a murder in the midst of so many exhausting demands?

The Revelation of Louisa May is a “novel of intrigue and romance” starring Louisa May Alcott. Good old Louisa May, who wrote Little Women, lived in the town where I sell books, and put so many of my own feelings and failings into words.

“A quick temper, sharp tongue, and restless spirit were always getting her into scrapes, and her life was a series of ups and downs, which were both comic and pathetic.” (from Little Women. I feel ya’, Jo March, like so many angry girls who write.)

But I also adore Louisa’s status as Kick-Ass Single Lady.

“I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.”

Not only did Louisa never marry –though Jo eventually does in Good Wives she wrote encouraging other women to find contentment in single life. So I was puzzled to see the word “romance” on the cover of a book starring Louisa May Alcott. That word, I thought, would better apply to one of the “blood and thunder” stories she used to publish herself.

Fear not! Though there is a charming (and surprising) romantic entanglement in The Revelation Of Louisa May, nothing enormous happens that would change Ms. Alcott’s future as a self-supporting and entirely majestic lady of her own free will. So just put those worries straight out of your mind, ye acolytes of Alcott. Blood, thunder, and emotional moonlit chats make this story entertaining, but MacColl is enough of a historian to keep all the important details in line with what life was really like for the literary folks of Concord in the 1840s. Just with a little more murder, and some writerly speculation, thrown in.

In fact, the elements of intrigue and romance in this book felt more like sidelines to the rich portrayal of Concord Massachusetts in the age of the Transcendentalist philosophers. The plot sticks to the theme of MacColl’s previous novels about young women writers of the past, one about Emily Dickinson and one about the Bronte sisters, which places the literary heroines amidst SHOCKING MURDER and POSSIBLE HEARTBREAK and NECESSARY EAVESDROPPING. What fun! But historical fiction is tricky; an author needs to fit a solid fictional plot into the timeline of real peoples’ lives. When a novel is so focused on a single biographical subject, as this one is, things get even harder.

By making all the events surrounding this fictional mystery set up and resolve themselves in a fairly short period of time, Michaela MacColl is able to fit so many excellent details about her characters’ lives into the framework of an old fashioned who-the-actual-hell-has-done-it mystery. It’s not every story that has Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, and even Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wife as suspects, though. The careful interweaving of rumors and facts about these people into the story made me feel like I had fallen right into the past to see and hear them with my own eyes. (It may have helped that I was sitting on a bench on Walden Street as I read, but the descriptions and dialogue were vivid enough that I think they’d bring those famous fellows to life even if you’re not surrounded by their likenesses at all times.)

I wondered: how will Michaela MacColl give Louisa a mystery to solve and a romance to navigate when we already know so much about the Alcotts’ daily lives? (I know we might be a little overly obsessed with their every word and friendship in Concord, but lots of readers elsewhere admire the author just as much as her work.) Happily, there was a one document summer in which Marmee had to go away to work in New Hampshire, leaving teenaged Louisa to run the household basically on her own. I got to hear MacColl read from and talk about the book over this weekend, and she aptly pointed out that the first thing to do in a mystery for young readers is to “get rid of the parents,” so that unsupervised adventures might be possible. Abba (“Marmee”) would have been all too aware of any snooping and dashing about on her daughter’s part, but in her absence Louisa’s character is free to discover dead bodies and break into hotel rooms.

“What about Bronson Alcott??” I hear you philosophers cry. Well, he wasn’t exactly the most aware of parents. In fact, he was a pretty dreadful husband and father all around. Hugely influential in educational reforms, no doubt, and reportedly captivating when speaking to a room, but not a top notch dad. I think that Michaela MacColl did a respectable job of balancing Louisa’s admiration of her father’s ideals against her frustration at his inability to put the family’s security at a higher priority than his impractical notions. We can see that he’s not a lazy man; he chops wood and repairs their home and gardens for their vegetarian food. He just refuses to work for money, which might sound high-minded and impressive but actually made the Alcotts’ lives awfully difficult.

Much of the story’s tension actually builds around Louisa and Marmee’s anxiety about how to keep the family afloat. Most of Louisa May Alcott’s writing, including Little Women, was written with the rather mercenary goal to get paid ASAP. And I salute her for it, because she was so generous with her funds and made sure her family never suffered once she could afford to take care of them all. The moral bent of Little Women is absent in The Revelation of Louisa May, and we get to hang out with a heroine who knows what must be done and spends a good amount of introspective thought on the difference between ideals and necessity. I love Jo March intensely, but it’s nice to see Louisa as her own person sometimes, too.

Though there’s death and deception in this mystery story, it’s not wildly frightening or inappropriate. Even the romantic stuff is unusually clean for YA literature. I’d recommend The Revelation of Louisa May to readers 11 and up. If you’ve read and enjoyed Little Women, and understand about the underground railroad, there’s nothing here you can’t handle. Some background knowledge on what Emerson and Thoreau were thinking about will make their characters all the more interesting, but it’s not entirely necessary. The author’s note at the back of the book is incredibly helpful, and really rather fascinating. It was nice to see how an author of historical fiction chooses what to keep, what to change, and where truth is truly more compelling than fiction.

Each chapter begins with a little quote from Little Women that will have some connection to the events that follow. I liked this addition, and shall close my review with one of my favorites. I think it sums up the attitude of the book quite nicely:

” ‘I don’t think secrets agree with me, I feel rumpled up in my mind since you told me that,’ sad Jo rather ungratefully.”

Go pick up The Revelation of Louisa May if you’re into the Alcotts, like historical mysteries that aren’t too gory, or if you’ve ever wondered what those wacky Transcendentalists were like when they weren’t expounding on the glories of the woods. I liked this book and will probably read more of MacColl’s work, especially since she keeps choosing such complex and admirable young writers to feature as characters.

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Book Review: Fiendish by Brenna Yovanoff

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Age recommendation: 13 and up (scary stuff, some language)

The South has swamps; and mosquitoes; and yards full of decaying cars, rotting pieces of other houses. The South has church groups and superstitions and streets that are no place for respectable people. There is a unique fear that Southern parents instill in their children. At least, these are some things I’ve inferred from the gothic, dramatic, claustrophobic YA novels set down yonder. Dark stories about teenagers fighting against violent inner turmoil and sweltering old-time-y moralities of small-town pride. I tend to like the creepy atmospheres and am intrigued by the cultural idiosyncrasies that I don’t understand.

Much in the way that Natalie C Parker’s debut, Beware The Wild, evoked the tense relationship between close-knit communities and encroaching, untamable swampland, Fiendish pits townsfolk against natural forces too big and vicious to comprehend. In Yovanoff’s typical style – which I think of as Shirley Jackson drunk on teenaged angst – her main characters have to grapple with more than mere monsters rising from riverbeds or specters walking in tangled shadows. Brenna Yovanoff concentrates on the dangerous natures within her teen characters as carefully as she imagines disturbing corners of our own world for them to inhabit.

Recall, if you will the emotionally derelict town (almost monochromatic to my memory) in which her twisted changeling story, The Replacement, was set. There’s the surface level of small town politics, of trying to hold it all together in front of an unsympathetic crowd. But then there’s this underground world of darkness and horror that seeps up into her plots like an acrid, poisonous, echanting mist. In The Replacement, this place of horror was literally hiding just below Mackie’s town, full of cruel faery-things who looked like children and demanded the impossible.

Fiendish has its fair share of subterranean nightmare places. Clementine was locked in a cellar closet when she was just a little girl, and has nearly become part of the house’s decaying foundation after all her years there, drifting in some half-dreaming stasis. Reading about the roots and creatures that grew around her, the dust that collected on her forgotten form, made me want to leap and jump; shake my limbs out; maybe even do the hokey-pokey to get rid of the creeping feeling that shuddered through my nerves in sympathy. Clementine’s life changes when she comes back above ground again, now as a teenaged girl whose memories don’t go past early childhood. Thrust back into the blinding sunlight amongst a town full of people who can’t remember who she is, our sweet and determined protagonist has only her cousin and a few old friends to support her.

Clementine, Shiny, and Rae are all part of a local subset: folks who have “craft” – strange old magic – running through their veins. It’s not a glamorous sort of power, and their talents don’t necessarily make life any easier. Shiny’s flare for manipulating fire only gets her into worse scrapes when the local boys act like creeps. Rae’s affinity for associative charms and abstract magic only lets her skate by as an accepted member of society so long as she continues to hide her more elemental nature. Obviously, Clementine shouldn’t run around announcing that someone dug her out of the ground below her ruined house; the good old boys of New South Bend burned the homes on Weeping Road for a reason. They call it “the reckoning,” and all Clementine knows is that something horrible happened right before she was put in the ground. The families that live down there, with their generations of weird lore, are thought to be descendents from fiends. Fiends that haunt the nearby hollow, a sinister patch of wilderness where even the cockiest boys don’t venture.

There might be a measure of evil in what kept Clementine alive for all those years, so it should come as no surprise when Fisher, the boy who found and rescued her, isn’t wild about being seen in public with the strange girl who lives with a fiendish family and has missed out on so much of life. Clementine is innocent but she’s not helpless, and her attempts to catch up with her peers make the strange biases of “normal” people stand out all the more cruelly. Fisher was kind and brave when he dug her out of the cellar, not freaking out like his friends at the trickbag hung around her neck. He’s level-headed and caring, at least when he’s with Clementine. Check out this rather chilling moment, which nonetheless illustrates Fisher’s unflappably steady nature:

“‘Why don’t they like me?’ I whispered, getting my arms up, feeling around for his shoulder. ‘What’s wrong with me? I never did anything to anyone.’

Fisher was quiet for a second and when he answered, he sounded strange.

‘It’s not your fault,’ he said. ‘They’re just nervous about how your eyes are sewed shut.'” (p.15 in the hardcover)

But one of the major themes in Fiendish is the difficulty of being loyal and fair when the pressures of a judgmental society are closing in. Fisher and Clementine don’t exactly band together, two teens in love against the world. His friends are jerks in trucks – the sons of those men who burned down Clementine’s house in the first place – and his grandmother is, quite frankly, terrifying. Though Clementine feels attached to him because he saved her, their occasional sweet moments alone are scattered between harsh encounters in town where he behaves like a very different, much more normal, sneering guy with old family in New South Bend. The romance in Fiendish is more a slow discovery of secret depths and histories, while a shared compassion keeps Fisher and Clementine determined to do what’s right in the end.

What’s right is never obvious in Yovanoff’s writing, though, and in this case it might not even be possible. The big magical showdown – towards which the frightening natural oddities and mounting social tensions build – gets a little out of hand by the end of the novel, but it sure is scary and weird. The monsters and spirits that haunt Wixby Hollow are even worse than the rumors that circulate town (heck, do I love it when Southern superstitions turn out to be right) and something’s been stirring them up to a restless nightmare. Superstitions abound in Hoax County, sometimes right under the smiling and ever-so-normal veneer of clean cut town traditions. Take the symbolic paintings of crazy fiends that go up with all the other patriotic decorations at the annual town fair, or even Fisher’s grandmother, who is meant to be the most uptight and upright citizen around. The little old lady knows more than most, and I loved reading about the insufferably awkward dinners shared by Clementine, Fisher, and this sharp matriarch. She might be mean and snappy (and a damn good cook), but Clementine needs to know what’s behind the dangerous events they’ve witnessed.

“Just that there’s five of you creatures up there in town now. Knocking around with craft in your blood and your bones. Five kinds of wrong, and that’s one wrong thing for every point on the reckoning star.” (p 151 in the hardcover.)

Local legends combine with universal concepts of five magical elements to set the stage for a dramatic clash of monstrous nature gone crazy versus normal people hopped up on fear. With Clementine, Fisher, Shiny, and Rae caught in the middle of two blindly ruinous forces, there’s no easy way to force this growing power back where it belongs. Personally, I preferred the first three quarters of Fiendish; following Clementine as she seeks the motives behind her awful imprisonment and sussing out the unnatural powers that thrive in the periphery of New South Bend. The prophecies and stand-offs were impressive and fraught, but not quite so evocative as an odd word heard on a street corner, or an eerie silence in the Hollow.

My own fondness for subtle Southern Gothic touches aside, Fiendish was an exciting novel that felt like a breath of summer while I read it in the freezing early spring. Not a pleasant, balmy summer, though. I felt the sticky, buzzing, fear-tinged air of frayed nerves and suspicious neighbors. Fiendish has a satisfying enough ending (yay standalone YA novels!) and is good fun for teen readers who like their towns creepy and their characters disturbed.