Simply knowing that Geraldine McCaughrean wrote The Glorious Adventures of the Sunshine Queen was enough to predispose me to love it. I mean, I think she’s pretty near genius. However, it took me several weeks and a trip through two or three other novels (about bullying, no less) for this one to finally take hold and suck me in. When it did, it did–and I have the dog-eared pages and the tear-stained pillow to prove just how much I like this adventure novel.
Reducing this novel to a summary of its plot is almost impossible because it is so full of delightful (and funny! and surprising!) twists and turns. The exposition goes something like this: Cissy Cissney and her classmates, Habakkuk “Kookie” Warboys and Tibbie Boden, are sent away from their home in boring Olive Town, Oklahoma, after a diphtheria outbreak, under the care of their prudish schoolteacher, Miss May March. (Do you love the names yet? Wait! There’s more!) As far as Miss May March is concerned, they might as well be jumping from the proverbial frying pan into the proverbial fire, since she is entrusted with leaving the children in the care of the Bright Lights Theater Company and their beloved-but-grammatically challenged former teacher, Mrs. Loucien Shades Crew. The Bright Lights Theater Company is currently living aboard a shipwrecked paddle wheeler on the flooded Missouri River. What’s a theater troupe to do but take advantage of the situation and hire more acts? Among those they take on board are a quartet of Negro men, singing in perfect four-part harmony; a Polish clown named Max the Plank; a woman with three performing dogs; a barber/surgeon/phrenologist; a “hellfire preacher”; and various and sundry others who, for different reasons, either leave of their own accord or are forced off the boat. Most surprising is the wizened old man who comes with the boat–the “boiler scraper,” one Elijah Bouverie, who has a story all his own. Along the way they encounter gamblers and rafters and even have a run-in with someone who (maybe?) looks like Queen Victoria.
If it sounds complicated, don’t worry–it is. However, although the story is somewhat convoluted and maybe even confusing at times, what makes it stand out is the delightful writing:
Outside, lapping tongues of water were turning the mud to slurry, the undergrowth into streaming tendrils. Skidding and sliding down toward terra firma, the Bright Lights found only terra slimy, terra awash. (54)
Can’t you see it? What’s more, can’t you hear it?
So Miss Loucien sang. And though she protested that she could sing properly only when she was wearing a corset, her loose underwear did not seem a serious handicap. Her big, chocolaty voice streamed across the water in a heartfelt rendering of “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton,” and even the river seemed to slow a little, like sauce thickening on the boil. (63)
And this, regarding the skill of Elijah Bouverie, who also pilots the boat:
The furniture grew calm and still, like horses after a storm. The crockery in the cupboards stopped jittering. The Dixie Quartet stopped throwing up over the rail; the colza oil stopped slopping out of the wall lamps, and the Queen became almost sedate, as Elijah steered a clear line down the center of the river. Now and then a crosswind would shove at her like a playground bully and send her skidding across the surface, but Elijah would simply side-pedal her back on the straight and narrow, letting only the mildest swear words trickle like tobacco dust out of the corner of his mouth. (91)
Every page holds just such word pictures; every chapter opens new adventures, twists, and turns on the Bright Lights’ journeys.
The Glorious Adventures of the Sunshine Queen is a Cybils nominee in the middle grade fiction category. As I’ve already noted, it is a complicated story (and historical fiction, to boot), so I wonder if it would have wide appeal for a middle grade audience. However, this middle aged reader loves it and gives it a Highly Recommended. Fans of Richard Peck’s humorous historical fiction will find much to enjoy in this funny and heartwarming adventure. (Harper, 2010)
Review of The Glorious Adventures of the Sunshine Queen at Shelf-Employed (she nominated it for the Cybils)