February 07, 2008


Gemma Doyle Trilogy #3: The Sweet Far Thing. By Libba Bray. Delacorte Press. $17.99.

Hattie Big Sky. By Kirby Larson. Delacorte Press. $8.99.

      Books can be predictable award winners, predictable candidates for best-seller lists, and can nevertheless be, at bottom, predictable – as these two are. This is not to take away from their emotional impact or their finely wrought descriptions of time and place – Libba Bray’s of an alternative Victorian England, Kirby Larson’s of Montana during World War I. Readers looking for emotions pushed hither and thither, perhaps even a good cry, will find that both these books deliver on that promise. But readers seeking something more out-of-the-ordinary than the umpteenth coming-of-age story about a strong young woman confronting hardships aplenty may find themselves somewhat disappointed by both books, their sales and awards notwithstanding.

      The Sweet Far Thing is a long, long read, at 75 chapters and more than 800 pages, as Bray interweaves all the tales she has told in A Great and Terrible Beauty and Rebel Angels into this finale of her trilogy. The first book began in 1895, with 16-year-old Gemma Dole shipped away from the life she has known in India to Spence Academy, a very proper and very old-fashioned boarding school in England where secrets seem to lie within every room. Gemma, already distressed by the recurring visions she has – which keep coming true – is further disconcerted to find she has been followed by a mysterious young Indian man whose motives are unknown. In the second book, more is learned about Kartik, and Gemma is fast friends with Ann and Felicity, and the beauties and dangers of the magical place known as the realms begin to become clearer. And now, in the trilogy’s lengthy and often meandering conclusion, everything points toward the girls’ debut season in London, and change is coming to the realms as well. Gemma has bound powerful magic to herself, and become enmeshed in an intense struggle between the Order (the group to which her mother once belonged) and the Rakshana. While Gemma’s friends focus on more mundane matters – Felicity must behave herself or lose her inheritance, while Ann may have to give up her dream of a life on the stage – Gemma herself must unravel darker mysteries. Many involve Pippa, the three girls’ friend, whom they meet again in the realms but who may face great danger – or be a great danger. But even more mysteries involve Gemma herself, who (in true coming-of-age style) must figure out where she stands, who she is, and what sort of person (mundane and magical) she will become. The wrapup of the trilogy is wholly satisfactory, both in magic and in the everyday world, and fans of the first two novels will surely be just as enraptured by the third…for all that tales of this type have been so frequently told and retold.

      Hattie Big Sky wears its Newbery Honor medal proudly on the cover of the new paperback edition, and tells its real-world story briskly, in under 300 pages. Based largely on Larson’s own family history, it is an affecting tale of hardship and a 16-year-old girl’s attempt to build a solid homesteading life in Montana – partly with the help of German immigrants who are increasingly reviled as the “War to End War” drags on. The book is partly an epistolary novel, with Hattie exchanging letters with her friend Charlie, who is on the front lines in France. Indeed, Hattie is quite a writer, although she never finished high school: she creates a newspaper column about the homesteading life as she struggles to “prove up” her late uncle’s claim so she will finally have a place she can really call home. Hattie’s trials and tribulations are mostly predictable and worryingly familiar – rich rancher trying to push her out, disadvantages because of her age and gender, all sorts of weather trouble, and the deadly flu epidemic of 1918 are all in the book, presented in spare and forthright prose that never quite conceals the feeling of having read of just these perils (or ones very like them) many times before. Hattie’s pluck and optimism are not enough to overcome all her problems, but she – of course – comes of age, realizes what she has won despite a number of losses, and heads at the end toward what seems sure to be a better tomorrow. Sensitive and caring, Hattie Big Sky is the sort of book that is sure-fire for school reading lists (with classroom discussion easily started by the questions and author interview at the end of the paperback). Yet the more books readers age 12 and up have already read, the more likely it is that they will have encountered heroines very like Hattie – and Gemma – quite a few times already.

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