December 06, 2012


Pie in the Sky. By Jane Smiley. Illustrations by Elaine Clayton. Knopf. $16.99.

The Great Unexpected. By Sharon Creech. Harper. $16.99.

One Year in Coal Harbor. By Polly Horvath. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

      Here are three preteen and early-teen novels in which women authors find different ways to connect with the increasingly complicated emotional lives of 21st-century girls.  Jane Smiley does this through horses and a visit to the past: 1960s California.  The characters here will be familiar to readers of earlier Smiley books, including The Georges and the Jewels, A Good Horse and True Blue. The last of those titles is the name of a horse – Abby Lovitt’s horse – and in Pie in the Sky, Abby takes True Blue to a clinic run by a famous equestrian. Complications result, not the least of which involves an expensive, proud and irritable horse called Pie in the Sky. Through a series of unexpected turns, Abby gets to ride him, and the uncertainties and emotions associated with that are played against other challenges that Abby faces in high school, where she starts to meet new people and make new friends but also questions herself and her way of viewing the world.  In other words, Pie in the Sky is a coming-of-age-with-horses novel, which young girls interested in equine matters will find appealing. Elaine Clayton’s fine illustrations, which have graced other Smiley books, are again a highlight here, elegantly and accurately displaying such riding and horse-care gear as a hard hat, brush and scraper, Pariani and English saddles, lunge line, in and out jump, and much more. A love of horses – not the actual ability to ride one, much less jump one – is all that is needed to enjoy this latest adventure of Abby, her family and her human and animal friends and companions.

      The emotional interactions are entirely among humans in Sharon Creech’s The Great Unexpected, which intermingles the story of orphan girls Naomi and Lizzie in Blackbird Tree in the United States with “Across the Ocean” chapters about estranged sisters names Sybil and Nula, who grew up in a place called Rook’s Orchard in Ireland.  Even the chapter titles here are intended to be emotionally evocative: “Witch Wiggins,” “The Unfortunate Souls,” “The Dangle Doodle Man,” “Don’t Get Too Friendly,” “A Patch of Dirt,” “The Bridge and the Orchard.”  What Creech does is tell the stories of the two pairs of girls independently, then gradually pull them together to show unexpected connections, unexpected moments of understanding, and unexpected similarities between apparently dissimilar circumstances.  This is a relentlessly optimistic book, even when it details the sundering of relationships and the ways in which misunderstandings can tear friends apart and cause decades-long rifts.  Neighbors here are kind, strangers are helpful, the old help the young while the young help the old, and the protagonists find out that “maybe sudden change of any kind – even unexpected good fortune – jolts your world.”  The whole book is heartwarming, maybe a little too much so for some tastes, maybe a little too determined to show the good in just about everyone and in just about every situation – it is relentlessly old-fashioned in many ways, and will please readers who believe in and long for a simpler, kinder time.

      In some ways, One Year in Coal Harbor is not all that different in sensibility. Polly Horvath here offers a companion book to Everything on a Waffle, which was certainly heartwarming enough. That book’s central character, the delightfully named Primose Squarp, returns here, and while it is not absolutely necessary to have read the earlier book to enjoy this one, it certainly helps a lot.  Primrose, who is 12 and lives in the small British Columbia fishing village named in the title, has her parents back now (they had been believed lost at sea, but weren’t), so her focus can turn to other people, and does. She is determined to be a matchmaker between her Uncle Jack and Miss Bowzer, for example, but the two adults resolutely refuse to cooperate.  There is a new foster child in town: Ked, who has moved from home to home for his entire life and who, Primrose is convinced, needs to stay in Coal Harbor forever – even though Bert and Evie, with whom Ked is now living, know this is not possible.  There is also an ecological issue, with logging taking place on Mendolay Mountain and threatening the wooded environment that Primrose loves and has always known.  This is a small-scale book of character rather than grand events, with a pleasantly homey feeling and a sense that, even when there is heartache and heartbreak, better times will surely lie ahead.  It is also a book with one particularly interesting special feature: Primrose and Ked publish a cookbook to raise money for Fisherman’s Aid, and the recipes appear at chapter ends as a counterpoint of sorts to the story within which they are created. These are not merely recipes but are actual plot points. At the end of the recipe for “Tater Tot Casserole,” for instance, appears the sentence, “On a cold rainy night when people are not participating in the better plan you have for them, this can be a comfort.”  That makes perfect sense in context.  So does this, from the recipe for “Welsh rabbit” (really Welsh rarebit, a melted-cheese-over-toasted-bread dish): “It is especially good with waffles, and if you call it Welsh rabbit you may get to eat the whole thing yourself.”  Primrose remains a delightful character, quirky enough to make even the fairly straightforward plot elements of the book seem almost unusual.  If One Year in Coal Harbor is at times a bit thin and at others a bit melodramatic, that will not matter to readers who enjoyed meeting Primrose in Everything on a Waffle and have been hoping to find out more about her life and her interactions with the people and world around her.

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