Three Historical Novels + One Steampunk for the Middle School Child

I have taken it upon myself to try and read all the books in the school’s English Curriculum. These are divided between books the whole class reads and books that only sections of the class read for their reader’s circles. The latter are divided by student interest and/or student reading level.
Of course, I have an extra incentive as my daughter is now in Grade seven. And as I mentioned before, the family that reads together will avoid hate together. Or something like that. At least, when you run out of topics of conversation, you can always ask, “What are you reading?”
I think it will be a lifeline to my adolescent daughters.
Recently the Grade Seven class did their unit on Historical Novels:
Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
The Watsons go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis
The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis
Montmorency by Eleanor Updale
My daughter chose Fever, 1793, which was the only one I had already read (I had nothing to do with it- I swear).
As I was helping the English teacher do an iPad documentary project with it, I thought it would behoove me to actually read the books. Of course, it would have helped if I had read them before the project…
Anyway.  Here are my reviews of the three books I hadn’t already read:
The Watsons go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis
Meet the Watsons, a black family of five living in 1960s Flint, Michigan.  They are the wierd Watsons, as  Kenny, the 10-year old narrator tells us.  Kenny has a younger sister Joetta, the darling of the family and an older brother Byron, who is 13 and always in trouble. Kenny himself is a geeky, intelligent kid who would be beaten up way more if it wasn’t for his cool, bully-ish older brother.
As Byron screws up more and more, The parental Watsons decide he should go live with the mother’s mother down in Birmingham. She is very strict and they hope that Byron will use the time to straighten out. They embark on a road trip  that takes them from the relatively liberal and safe North, through to the racist, volatile South. They arrive in Birmingham just in time to witness one of the more tragic events of the Civil Rights movement, the bombing of the Sixteenth St. Baptist Church.
The title is misleading. The book takes place mainly in Flint, not in Birmingham, and recounts the daily adventures of Kenny and his siblings. Though this part is humorous and heart-warming, the title was always at the back of my mind, as well  as the knowledge that this book was supposedly about the Civil Rights movement. For most of the book there is no racial tension- in fact, it is conspicuously absent. Which in a way is wonderful- to have a book just about a normal black family growing up at the time, without all the horror of Jim Crow and the Klu Klux Klan.
Of course, the last few chapters makes up for this in spades. The tension grows the more south they go. They must plan their trip carefully, making sure they have enough fuel to get through certain patches, and assuring themselves they know of places to stop that are friendly to Blacks. They pass rest stops with segregated toilets. Restaurants that won’t serve them. But the kicker comes when they arrive in Birmingham and Joetta decides to go to church one Sunday morning.
Up to this point, The Watsons is an enjoyable, yet light, read. Then all of a sudden my heart was in my throat and tears were in my eyes. I won’t go into it too much, but suffice it to say the ending was very heart-breaking and moving. This is not a story about blacks and the civil rights movement, but about regular people, regular kids reacting to the worst humanity has to offer.
The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis
Afghanistan in the early 90s. The Taliban have taken over, and women are not allowed to go outside without permission from the males in their family. In fact, they are not allowed to show their faces in public anymore, but must wear the cumbrous burqa. People who resist their authority are summarily shot. Anyone can be imprisoned. This is the world of  11-year old Parvana. Her older sister and mother have not left the house since the Taliban took control a few months ago. Her brother is just a toddler and her father has only one leg, having lost the other when the high school where he taught was bombed. 
 In order to make money, the Father , with the help of Parvana, make their way to the market, where he sells his services as a letter writer and reader, as well as selling some of their goods from the old life. Parvana knows to keep her head down and as silent as possible in order to not grab the attention of the numerous soldiers patrolling the market. But when their father is arrested for being educated in England, the family has no way of supporting themselves. Parvana must dress as a boy and go out into the market by herself to support her family.
Though I consider myself pretty educated and knew that the status of women is deplorable under fundamentalist groups such as the Taliban, this read as a sort of absurdist dystopia. Did the Taliban not make provisions for all the women they left husbandless, fatherless? A short, but intense read, this is a very, very good introduction to the plight of women in Afghanistan for middle schoolers.
In fact, I hope this will be the crux of our third discussion group with our kids. As the need for feminism has been called into question lately, this book is a good reminder that there is still a lot of work to be done.
Montmorency: Thief, Liar, Gentleman by Eleanor Updale
Ah. Victorian London. Why is it so appealing? I blame Dickens. There is something about the veneer of propriety and the seedy underbelly that is endlessly fascinating. This book follows convict Montmorency, who would have died of his injuries from falling through the skylight of a factory while running away from a job if it were not for the zealous young surgeon who undertakes to fix him. They call him Montmorency, as that was the name on the bag of tools he had stolen when they found him.  The doctor uses him as a sort of Medical prop for his presentations to the Scientific society, taking Montmorency from jail and displaying him in front of an audience. During these trips, Montmorency picks up not only the speech patterns and attitudes of the upper class but the secret to his future success as a thief: the new London sewer system. When he is released, Montmorency commences his double life: working class Scarper lives in a small, shabby room. Montmorency lives in a fine hotel.
Although an intriguing read, I found that it was hard to feel anything for the main character. We don’t know where he came from and we hardly know how he feels about his present situation. He is a shadowy figure, in the book as well as the mind of the reader.  However, the description of the sewers is very interesting as well as the treatment in prisons and the scientific society. It is like Updale has set up a character to represent the two Londons mentioned above: the genteel, educated society and the city’s dirtier parts.
Although I enjoyed it, it didn’t grab me as much as I was expecting it to. Perhaps because Montmorency is always on his own- nobody really pierces his armour and he is never unveiled for the criminal he is. Also, and I know this is only a personal thing, but there is no woman. No foil. The women are either working classes semi-whores or grubby insipid husband seekers.  Though I know this is not part of the story, I would have liked at least one likeable woman  in the book. Still, as an introduction to Victorian London for twelve year olds, it could be worse. Though I would perhaps have gone with Pullman’s Ruby and The smoke, or one of the young Sherlock books- especially the Shane Peacock one. There is still a lot of historical details in it, but with meatier characters.
Speaking of which, I just read The Hunchback Assignments, the Governor general award winning book by Arthur Slade, targeted to the same audience. Also set in Victorian London, this book is not as historical as steampunk (there is an argument to be made about the historicity of steam punk though as the father of the genre would be Mr. Verne, in my humble opinion).
The Hunchback Assignments follow Modo, an ugly changeling taken in by the mysterious Mr. Socrates and trained in all things spy-related from a young age. That is until he turns 14 ( I think) and Mr. Socrates gives him his final test: pushing him out of the carriage, he tells him to fend for himself. But Modo’s true face is so horrifying he cannot go into society without causing panic. So he must rely on his cunning, his training, and his ability to shift into any shape he wants to make a living. He does okay, setting himself up in business as a mysterious private investigator. Everything goes well, until a lovely young lady knock on his door with a job for him.
This is a fun book, full of steam-powered wonders, mad scientists, and secret associations. There is not much more to say really. There is nothing deep or meaningful about it. It is a darn good adventure story with two likeable protagonists, a morally ambiguous, politically powerful boss and some rip-roaring villains (one is a female pirate with a steam-powered hand).
I would give this to any kid who enjoyed Westerfeld’s Leviathan or anything based in Victorian London. Oh! And the sewers also make an appearance in this book, as well as the Scientific societies, a bit of Prussian paranoia and a half built underground station.

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