Rave Reviews Log: Historical Fiction

September 28, 2009

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

By Jacqueline Kelly
Era: 1899 Texas
Rating: 4 1/4 stars

Calpurnia Virginia Tate is 11 years old, a girl in the middle of 6 brothers, living in the small town of Fentress, Texas. When her elder brother Harry gives her a notebook to keep track of her observations in, Callie becomes interested in what seems to be a new type of grasshopper. Since no one else is interested, she braves talking to her intimidating science-bent grandfather about it, and thus, a friendship is born. Through her grandfather's tutelage, Callie has her eyes opened to the natural world, and she eagerly evolves into a budding naturalist, even tackling reading Darwin's Origin of the Species. Punctuating Callie's scientific discoveries are amusing stories from sabotaging her brother Harry's infatuation with a young lady to trying out her grandfather's attempt at making liquor from pecans (with disastrous results) to arranging a turkey swap when her younger brother's pets are threatened at Thanksgiving. As Callie learns what it is she'd like to be in life, she comes up hard against what her mother's expectations are for the only daughter in the family. It is impossible not to love Callie and her family, impossible not to laugh at the events that occur, and impossible not to like this earnest and well-written story which ends, not completely happily, but with hope as the new year brings a new century along with it. Excellent.

September 12, 2009

Jim the Boy

By Tony Earley
Era: 1930's American South
Rating: 4 stars

One week before Jim Glass was born, his father died unexpectedly in the cotton field. His mother, Cissy, stays with her three bachelor brothers, who raise Jim as their own. Starting with Jim's tenth birthday, we follow Jim through a year of his small town life. A life that is filled with small things, but big things for a kid. Like trying to win the dollar off the greased pole at the festival, starting a new school, and making a new best friend. There is lots of humor in the stories of Jim's year, as well as a real depth of emotion as Jim struggles with feelings he isn't always proud of, like when he tells a lie or is jealous of a friend. The characters of Jim's three uncles will sometimes leave you in stitches, and their solidity is so real you feel like you can reach out and touch them. Readers will identify with Jim's up and downs and be drawn into this beautifully written, quiet story. A real winner!

When the Whistle Blows

By Fran Cannon Slayton
Era: 1940's American South
Rating: 4 stars

Jimmy lives in Rowlesburg, West Virginia, a tiny town where just about everyone who lives there works for the B & O Railroad. Jimmy can't wait until he's old enough to drop out of school and go work on those steam engines himself, like his foreman father and older brothers, although his parents are dead set against him becoming a railroad man. We hear about a snapshot of Jimmy's life every year on the same date--Halloween, which is also his father's birthday. Rowlesburg and its occupants come alive as Jimmy relates the first time he spied on the mythical Society, about a Halloween prank gone wrong, about the time the new principal decided to keep school open for the first day of hunting season, and on and on. There's a lot of funny stories in Jimmy's world but through it all the real core is about the relationships the townsfolk have with each other. It is also a story about Jimmy and his father, a man he doesn't really understand but every year, he comes to know him a little bit better. Readers may well be caught up in Jimmy's world, which small as it is, still encompasses everything. Thoughtful readers will especially like this story of a forgotten place and time.