Wednesday, January 23, 2008

January Reads

I enjoyed and recommend The Misadventures of Maude March, by Audrey Couloumbis. Told by younger sister, Sallie, Maude's adventures are the result of misfortune and mistake. Sallie and Maude are orphans, raised by Aunt Ruth, who loses her life to a stray bullet in the first chapter. Their home is taken by the bank and they are forced to live with the preacher and his family. The never-ending chores and the loss of all their family possessions to their caretakers, does not deter the girls from making the best of a bad situation. When the preacher arranges a marriage for Maude to an elderly man and the girls are threatened with separation, they run away. They take the two broken-down horses, leaving their new dairy cow in exchange. Soon, they discover that the media can't be trusted. They find a newspaper article with Maude's name and description, claiming that she has lost her mind with grief and stolen the horses. Sallie is never mentioned.

The girls are headed for Independence, Missouri, hoping to find their long-lost uncle. Along the way, they meet Aunt Ruth's shooter, and star of "dimer" novellas, Joe Harden. Joe teaches the girls how to survive in the wilderness but Maude can't forgive Joe's unlucky shot and they part ways. Maude realizes her mistake and the girls set out to find Joe. They see his horse in front of a bank, and remembering his admonition, "Take your gun everywhere," they enter the bank with rifles. Of course they are mistaken for robbers, and the adventures continue to an eventual happy ending for all.

One scene in which Maude, who has been disguised as a boy for most of the book, decides to recover her feminine identity, visits a house of ill repute, is handled in a delicate and sensitive matter. The heavily made-up ladies of the house donate clothes and fix Maude's hair for no charge. The author does a masterful job of presenting the action without any information about the real occupations of the characters. Highly Recommended.

Robin McKinley's Dragonhaven is a young adult novel, written in a stream-of-consciousness style, over the span of about ten years. Fourteen year old Jake lives at a national wildlife preserve called Smokehill, one hundred miles from anywhere. Somewhere on the 500 million acre property, real, endangered, fire- breathing dragons live, but are rarely seen. Jake gets to go on his first overnight into the wilderness, and comes across the unthinkable. First, there is the dead body of a dragon poacher, next to a dying dragon. Lastly, Jake notices five dead baby dragonlets, and one still living. Jake takes the surviving dragonlet and puts it down his shirt. Dragons are like marsupials, in that their young spend at least one year in their mother's pouch. This single action changes Jake, the fate of Smokehill, and the world's treatment of dragons forever.

There are a few troubling points in the book. Jake's widowed father has a relationship with another researcher and the two decide to wed when it is discovered that they are expecting a baby. As a young adult, Jake falls in love with his childhood playmate, Martha, and they decide to get married. Before the wedding, Jake gives Martha's sister, Eleanor some thankful acknowledgment for letting he and Martha use their shared bedroom for a few hours here and there. Finally, there is the tacit acceptance of a character's homosexual identity, and the theme that this character is a kinder, better person because he has a gay lover.
Young adult novels are all too often merely juvenile fiction with adult themes thrown in. Dragonhaven is a fascinating story, and if the author would stick to Jake and the dragons, I could recommend it. As it stands, there are too many issues to overlook. Not Recommended.

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