I read Our Only May Amelia, the first in a string of Newbery honor titles for Jennifer L. Holm, way back before I started blogging. Our Only May Amelia was published in 2000, so I was surprised to see The Trouble with May Amelia, a newly released title, at the library. I don’t remember anything about Our Only May Amelia, other than the fact that I liked it, so that was recommendation enough for me to check out and read this year’s installment in May Amelia’s family’s saga. Although I found May Amelia’s experiences to be a little rough-around-the-edges, I think it is probably a fairly accurate portrayal of pioneer life (and is in fact based on Holm’s Finnish ancestors’ lives) , and I enjoyed it immensely.
Poor May Amelia Jackson is the youngest living child and only living girl of the Jackson family, a farming family that lives on the Nasel River in Washington state in the year 1900. In addition to this, May Amelia is the only girl of her age in her community; she attends school in a one-room schoolhouse where she and the teacher are the only females. This schoolhouse is reached by boat, and the Jackson children only go if they aren’t needed at home. May Amelia, of course, is very high-spirited and gets into lots of scrapes. (Would we expect less, given this setting and particular group of characters?) This is not a jolly reincarnation of Caddie Woodlawn, though. In fact, there’s plenty of tragedy in this story: May Amelia’s baby sister dies sometime before the book begins, and the family’s grief over this loss is very much a part of the story; May Amelia’s father mostly thinks she’s a good-for-nothing girl who can’t get anything important (like cooking) right; family tensions and sibling rivalry run high several times during the story; one of May Amelia’s brothers loses his hand in a logging accident, and the outcome of this little vignette is quite gruesome; and on and on. Reading this reminded me a little bit of some other pioneer stories I have read–ones that don’t romanticize the experience, but paint what I assume is more-or-less realistic picture of what life was like for the settlers. (I’m thinking here specifically of Giants in the Earth, a book I read several years ago but that impressed me greatly.) Of course, given that this is a middle-grade novel, it ends happily; by the end of the novel, life is on track to turn out well for the Jackson family, despite their many setbacks.
The only thing I found really odd about this story is the fact that it is completely devoid of quotation marks, although it is full of dialogue, and the capitalization is very erratic (mostly important words are capitalized unexpectedly; proper nouns are capitalized according to conventional rules). I know Holm was probably trying to make some sort of statement by doing this, but I appreciate the use of conventional mechanics in what I read. I consider Holm one of the finest writers of historical fiction for children, and I am certainly not criticizing her writing ability, but I do think that conforming to writing conventions makes the writing easier to follow. (Maybe there’s something to this that I’m missing. Anyone care to clue me in?)
I have to say something about the book cover for this novel, too. In the story, May Amelia is twelve years old. Does anyone else find the girl on the cover a little overdone for a twelve year old? She looks like an actress one might see in a “tween” television show, but she doesn’t look like a girl growing up with a gaggle of older brothers on a perpetually muddy farm on the Nasel River in Washington at the turn of the twentieth century. I get that the publisher is trying to make this appeal to a modern audience, but give me a break. I think this might be akin to false advertising. 😉
I won’t be surprised if this one shows up in the Cybils this year or even in the Newbery arena. It’s good. If you enjoy a good adventure with a strong female protagonist (but in which the girl-power theme isn’t overdone), you’ll enjoy this one.