January 24, 2013

(+++) RETURNS TO THE PAST


One Came Home. By Amy Timberlake. Knopf. $16.99.

Gingersnap. By Patricia Reilly Giff. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.

      Books for modern young readers that are set in the past frequently offer drama on two separate levels: the story itself and its context. Readers not only need to relate to and understand the characters but also have to absorb the historical period in which those characters live and the story occurs. The protagonists of these books often have more-modern sensibilities than young people of times past would actually have had, but the authors make some attempt to recapture the sense of long-ago days through scene-setting if not necessarily through dialogue.  Amy Timberlake’s One Came Home, for example, dates back to 1871. Set in Wisconsin, it is the story of 13-year-old Georgia (Georgie) Burkhardt and her search for her sister, Agatha – who is presumed dead. Agatha had left town along with “pigeoners,” followers of the huge flocks of now-extinct passenger pigeons that actually darkened the sky in the 19th century. Shortly afterwards, remains – partial remains – had been returned to town, wearing Agatha’s dress, and the family is sure she is gone; but Georgie’s heart tells her otherwise. Armed with self-confidence, a strong belief in her sister, and a not-inconsiderable talent with a rifle, Georgie sets out to learn what really happened.  Of course, had Agatha actually been dead, the story would collapse of its own weight, but it turns out that Georgie’s instincts have served her well, and after a series of adventures involving travel and counterfeiters, she eventually learns that Agatha is indeed alive – and finds out who had been wearing Agatha’s dress and had been buried. Georgie is an attractive character, although her transformation from frontier-hearty young lady to someone who eventually decides no longer to shoot (which was virtually a necessity back then) is a touch too modern in sensibility. The other characters are primarily foils for Georgie, never really coming into their own as individuals. And the historic events – involving not only passenger pigeons but also the great fires of October 1871, which not only hit Chicago but also affected parts of Wisconsin – are used as plot movers but not really integrated into events. However, there is a certain level of exotic interest associated with the setting and the time, and Georgie is an interesting enough character so that preteen and young teenage girls are likely to find her worries, concerns and determination enough to carry the book.

      Gingersnap is set much later, during World War II – but that is as remote a time for today’s young readers as the 19th century. And this is an urban rather than rural tale, whose protagonist, Jayna, decides to go to Brooklyn from her small home town in upstate New York after her brother, Rob, goes missing in action and is presumed dead. Before he reported for duty, Rob had told Jayna about a small blue recipe book containing a name and address in Brooklyn – and Jayna, whose nickname is Gingersnap, thinks the book may have something to do with a grandmother about whom they know nothing. Jayna takes the book along on her journey, and also takes her turtle, Theresa – and is accompanied by a ghostly voice that guides her and helps her when she runs into trouble, as she does several times (including, at one point, losing Theresa). The inclusion of the ghost strikes a somewhat jarring note in what is essentially a realistic story of a young girl trying to cope with wartime and family losses, but it is no less unrealistic than the use of various soup recipes that help propel the plot (Jayna makes great soup). From “Don’t-Think-About-It Soup” with its piles of onions, to “Hope Soup” (chicken soup with noodles), to “Good Luck Soup” (lots of potatoes), to “Family Soup” (for the happy ending, made with franks and beans and bacon and other hearty ingredients), the soups pace Jayna’s adventures and carry readers along with her and with events. And Jayna’s nickname turns out to be an important clue to what she eventually learns about her family. As for the ghost – and Rob – what happens to them is neatly tied into the book by Patricia Reilly Giff, a highly adept writer who knows how to pull plot strands together skillfully even when those strands are, like the ones here, a touch too far-fetched.  Jayna/Gingersnap is so likable and plucky a character that the less-than-believable elements and coincidences of the book do not matter much, actually giving it a kind of old-fashioned charm that goes well with its old-fashioned setting.

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