Writing: 5 Characters: 5 Plot: 4
Children’s fiction — middle grade
New (to me) word: hibernaculum — a place in which a creature seeks refuge, such as a bear using a cave to overwinter.
I loved this book — a perfect middle school read!
Gusta Newbronner “loses” her father on the bus ride from NYC to Northern Maine. She will be staying with the grandmother she has never met and living in Grandma Hoopes’ orphan home. The time is 1941 and there is general tension around foreigners. The tension is even higher around Gusta’s father who is not only a foreigner, but a union organizer as well. While Gusta sees her father as brave, courageous, principled, and fighting injustice, others see him simply as a foreign fugitive.
The story is full of real and (to me) lovable characters — her grandmother and aunt, the various children staying in the orphan home, new found cousins, and even the two children who represent opposing sides in “the Dairy Wars” in her classroom. Originally shy and unassuming, Gusta comes into her own as she learns to stand up for what she believes in and to fight injustice in whatever way she can. In the meantime she is making friends, getting to know her family and joining the Honorary Orphan Band (playing the French Horn — she appears to be a bit of a prodigy).
The writing is excellent. In addition to delightful language (see examples below), we are treated to intriguing descriptions of the process of egg cleaning (far more unpleasant than I would have ever guessed), the thrill of playing the French Horn, oculism in the 40s, pigeon photography (as in they are trained to take the photos), and magical stories from Gusta’s great-grandfather, the sea captain. I absolutely loved the description of what it was like for Gusta to see clearly for the first time when she was able to get glasses. Masterfully done.
The novel has that genuine feel of a true story — unsurprising as it is a fictionalized account of the author’s mother’s life, supported with extensive research using the local paper archives. I would add this to any middle grade reading list.
Some of my favorite lines…
“The winter must have been picking at the scabs of that road for months.”
“Gusta’s mother was omnivorous when it came to words”
“For a moment, Gusta stood there, just saving the feeling of having someone in the world who was already glad today about seeing her tomorrow.”
“And the heaviness inside Gusta, where all the secrets festered, thickened and increased.”
“She knew from stories that wishes wriggle and cheat — if they even exist at all.”
“It was like she coated all her meanness with a hard-sugar layer of wholehearted sincerity.”
“Georges made the happy sound of someone who has just become a part of the great unfolding history of pigeon photography.”