I read and reviewed Susan Patron‘s Lucky for Good back last month, and shortly after my review was published, I received an email from Ms. Patron thanking me for my kind words. She was happy that I had received the book well, given my hesitation over its treatment of religion. She stated in the email that she worked hard “to make every character human,” which is something I definitely give her credit for. We chatted back and forth via email for a bit, and when she mentioned that she had a new book coming out this month, I jumped on the chance to request an ARC to review. (I never let an opportunity to get a sneak-peek at a new book by an author I like fall to the ground!) When I received Behind the Masks, I was a little bit surprised that it is a part of the Dear America series by Scholastic; I don’t usually associate award-winning writing with a series like this. Clearly, I had forgotten that such bright lights as Kirby Larson, Karen Hesse, Lois Lowry, and Patricia McKissack have already contributed to the series. Shortly after that, though, I grew excited because I realized this was my opportunity to finally do a little pre-reading for Lulu’s next stage of reading development. She has read and re-read several titles in Scholastic’s younger My America series over and over again, and I know it’s only a matter of time (and not much time, probably) before she wants to read the Dear America books.
Behind the Masks is the story of Angeline Reddy, the only daughter of Pat Reddy, a criminal lawyer in the gold mining town of Bodie, California, in 1880. Pat takes on the cases that no one thinks can be won, and he always wins them, or at the least gets the accused acquitted. The story opens with Angeline and her mother learning that Pat has been murdered. From the outset, though, they steadfastly refuse to believe it–he has had numerous run-ins with those who wish to do him harm, and he always comes through unscathed. However, something is up, and as the story progresses it becomes more and more clear to Angeline that it’s up to her to figure out what. The story involves a group of vigilantes who too often take matters into their own hands; a Chinese girl named Ling Loi whose past is a mystery but who obviously has a stake in what’s going on in the name of justice in Bodie; a upper-crust schoolmate of Angeline’s whose family history might provide a few answers to some troubling situations; a group of anonymous play actors who have their own ideas about justice and equality; and a handsome Wells Fargo agent who may or may not play a part in several of the mysterious situations in Bodie. Angeline’s voice, captured in first person since the book is her diary, is very strong and compelling. At first I expected this book to be similar in tone to some of Richard Peck’s historical novels; Angeline’s voice is just that intelligent and smooth. However, I came to realize quickly that the element of humor found in Peck’s stories isn’t present in this one. Then again, there isn’t much funny that happens in this story, set in a boom town that has its share of very serious problems. Instead, it’s a realistic look at what life might’ve been like in the lawless West, where brothels, saloons, and sheriffs who look the other way abound, and men and women alike have deeply ingrained prejudices. I enjoyed this book immensely.
Now, would I hand this book over to my book-hungry second grader? In a word, no. This book is marketed to 8-14 year olds, but I would recommend it to the upper end of that age range. There are many references to the seedy underlife of a town like Bodie, from the aforementioned brothels to various and sundry acts of violence. None of it seems gratuitous; in fact, most of it isn’t elaborated upon. The other thing about this story that gives me slight pause is that there is a slight element of the supernatural in it in the form of a ghost story. Since I was expecting this book to be more along the lines of straightforward historical fiction, it sort of took me by surprise, but it fits with the mysterious aspects of the story. However, some children might find it a little scary. The bottom line: this is an entertaining and suspenseful look at life in an Old West town, but it’s better for upper elementary to junior high school students.
This book also contains additional material in the back giving in both words and pictures an overview of life in the 1880s. For the right children, Behind the Masks would make a fun addition to a study of this time period in American history. (Scholastic, 2011)
Reading Behind the Masks makes me curious about the other Dear America titles. Have you read any of them?
Reviews elsewhere and other links:
Susan Patron’s website (this link has a video of Susan Patron reading from Behind the Masks)
**This ARC was provided for me at no cost by the publisher. All the opinions here are my own.