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June 28, 2010 in books, children's lit, historical fiction month, reviews | Tags: Alchemy and Meggy Swann, Geraldine McCaughrean, Karen Cushman, Matt Phelan, The Death-Defying Pepper Roux, The Storm in the Barn | 1 comment
Since I’m completely behind on my little obsessive-compulsive habit of writing something about each book I finish (although I guess it’s not completely compulsive if I’m this far behind), I thought I’d catch up in batches, with not-quite-as-much said about each book. This batch: historical fiction for kids.
This is one of those books that pulls you into the past with smells, sounds, tastes, and Shakespearean curses. It gets extra points for explaining alchemy in a way that actually makes sense – as the search for perfection and immortality, rather than just to turn things into gold. Cushman makes you feel both the circumstances and mindset of early Elizabethan England, without turning it into a history lesson or losing any vitality.
As an added bonus, I got to see Cushman speak at Powell’s, where she shared some of her research process and passed around her Newbery medal.
While there are some marvelous and hilarious things going on in this story, the episodic plot-line never quite gelled for me. Pepper was meant to die by his fourteenth birthday, but feels guilty (yet relieved) by having cheated death as he goes on a series of adventures, taking on different identities and righting various wrongs. The language is fantastic, the characters colorful, and the action a little madcap, but something always kept me at a distance.
The only other McCaughrean I’ve read is her Printz-winning The White Darkness, where I would describe my enjoyment of it as an acquired taste. Like Sym, Pepper doesn’t see the world clearly, blinded by inexperience and the foolishness of the adults in his life. Neither one is completely a sympathetic character, yet you still want things to turn out well for them.
Source: my library
In my mind, I link this with Out of the Dust, although the only obvious connection is the Dust Bowl. They both, though, have a way of making the dust a key character in the story, and a way of giving the modern reader a hint of what it must have been like to live with the dust. The Storm in the Barn incorporates some fantasy elements, although you could make an argument that it was all in Jack’s dust-addled imagination. The graphic format works well here to give a sense of space and atmosphere, as well as the dust itself. Words are minimal with the loose but powerful images doing most of the work, and the conclusion is completely moving and satisfying.
Source: my library