Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Review: The Wonder of Charlie Anne by Kimberly Newton Fusco

Found via: The Fourth Musketeer

First, I'd just like to give a shout out to the Fourth Musketeer blog. I've been getting tons of historical fiction recommendations from there for the past few months, books that I don't always see reviewed elsewhere, so a big thanks to Margo for highlighting these great books!

The Wonder of Charlie AnneIt's the 1930s, and with the US in the grip of a devastating Depression, Charlie Anne finds herself in the midst of her own depression, following a series of personal tragedies. Her mother died in childbirth (which the baby didn't survive, either), her cousin Mirabel showed up shortly after the funeral to serve as the "new mama" to Charlie Anne and her four siblings, and now her father has gone north with her oldest brother to build roads.

On the home front, Mirabel runs the household with an iron fist, and never seems satisfied with Charlie Anne. Charlie Anne is forced to do all of the menial, domestic chores when she'd much prefer to be outside working with the animals, and Mirabel is constantly reminding her to act like a little lady, with advice from a book on manners she constantly keeps in her pocket. Just when life can't seem to get any drearier, a spark of excitement comes to town in the form of Rosalyn, the new wife of Charlie Anne's neighbor, and Phoebe, the African-American girl about Charlie Anne's age she brings with her. In Charlie Anne's small town, no one has ever seen anyone like this pair - witty, educated, and confident enough to wear trousers in colors like "red pepper red." But difficult times and a fear of change bring out the worst in people, forcing Charlie Anne to confront the ugly racism that can hide even in seemingly-reasonable people.

While this is definitely a novel about the terrible things racism can do to a community, I enjoyed immensely the undercurrent of feminism in Charlie Anne, Rosalyn and Phoebe. While Charlie Anne may not have the words to express quite why it's wrong, she complains about being forced to do chores like cleaning clothes and cooking while her brother milks the cows, when everyone knows Charlie Anne is better with the cows. Rosalyn and Phoebe show up in their daring fashion choices that wouldn't become commonplace for American women for decades, declaring they're the most sensible clothes for anyone who works and plays hard, but Charlie Anne is forbidden from wearing a pair of her own because it's not how proper young ladies are "supposed" to dress, according to Mirabel.

Charlie Anne has a wonderfully earnest voice. She's young enough to still believe in magic in the world, but the rapid succession of her mother's death, her father leaving to build roads, and the ugly face of racism in her family and community, are forcing her to grow up. Hopefully she won't ever lose the sense of wonder she carries through the novel.

Charlie Anne's voice also allows Fusco to overcome one of the hurdles of writing historical fiction - how to explain things that are a matter of fact to the characters but are strange and unfamiliar to a modern audience? Well, Charlie Anne is the sort of person that I think would explain how to make a vinegar pie over and over again to her neighbors, even though they've been doing it themselves for years. She's so eager and thorough that all of the historical descriptions seem totally natural in Charlie Anne's words.
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