Saturday, November 17, 2012

The One and Only May Amelia

As you can imagine, I have a pretty large collection of children's literature.  I tend to collect books and authors I really love and hold onto them.  But three years ago, my family began a pattern of moving once a year, and I had to start giving away books "to better homes".  But I held onto the book Our Only May Amelia.  But as time went on, the story became more hazy, and I became less sure of its value in my collection.  When the sequel, The Trouble with May Amelia, came out last year, I decided to reread the first one as well, in order to decide if it should stay or go.  After reading both books together, I am keeping the first one in my collection.  I will look at both of these books as an ongoing story and as historical fiction.

Our Only May Amelia was published in 1999, and won a Newbery Honor for that year.  The action takes place in 1899, on the Nasel River, in the state of Washington.  It is written from May Amelia Jackson's perspective, and she is a spark plug.  She introduces her brother Wilbert on the very first page, giving an indication of her personality as much as his.  He is her "favorite brother which is something indeed since I have so many brothers, more than any girl should have." (p.1). She has seven brothers.  May Amelia is the youngest, but has never been looked at as the baby of the family.  She is twelve years old, but does just as much farm work as her older brothers.  But she is also always in trouble - she doesn't always think before she acts, she is curious and wants to explore.  Her father declares "We're living in wilderness, May Amelia , and you girl have got a Nose for Trouble.". (p. 134).  May Amelia talks back when she believes she is right, and like the rest of the Jackson family, she is stubborn.

Life in 1899 rural Washington state isn't easy.  You have to be tough and creative to survive.  Each member of the family is cognizant of the need to survive financially.  The boys, all in their teens, find work when and where they can, including at the logging camp upriver.  But they are also part of a immigrant Finn community, and they are highly involved with also helping the entire community survive.  May Amelia's mother is heavily, uncomfortably pregnant, but besides caring for her own family, she delivers all the community's
 babies.  When an aunt cannot afford to take her son with the rest of her family as they move looking for work, Kaarlo is adopted into the Jackson family.  He is counted as one of the brothers.

While their life has moments of fun and hilarity, their strength is really shown through their enduring struggle to survive.  It can be unrelenting, but this family shoulders their burden and continues forward.  They value education and send the younger children to school, but if they are needed at home, there is no protest.  And Holm shows all of life on the Nasel River, the good and the truly terrible.  One of the most excruciating episodes has to do with Grandmother Patience.  Grandmother Patience has moved in with the Jackson family, and she is cruel, crotchety and outspoken.  She does not approve of May Amelia and the way she has been raised.  One terrifying episode happens with Grandmother Patience sends May Amelia back repeatedly for the correct cup of tea. 

 "She [Grandmother Patience] bangs the floor with her cane. But I've had all I can take.
There isn't any more honey you Greedy Old Witch! I shout.
She stands up to her full height and shakes her cane at me.  She is big, bigger than I thought and she is full of fury.  Her mouth is twisted in an evil snarl.
How dare you defy me, you little brat, she says.  Go and make me a Cup of Tea." (p. 104)
This woman is truly a villain.  Yet May Amelia finds ways to stay true to herself.  There is an awful consequence to the incident I quoted above, but that isn't the worst of Grandmother Patience's behavior.  And it isn't the worst of what May Amelia will face in this book.  But like the rest of her family, May Amelia knows that life must go on and move forward.  And she does as well.

There is an author's note at the end of this novel describing where Holm got the idea for this novel.  It came from the journal of her grandaunt, Alice Amelia Holm.  Jennifer Holm did a lot of research to supplement family stories, and it is written so beautifully that the research doesn't show.  The chapters are illustrated with photographs (some of which are from the author's own collection).  The sepia tones of the pages and the historical photographs add to the authenticity of this novel.

The Trouble with May Amelia was published in 2011, and it is billed as the sequel to Our Only May Amelia.  However, when I got around to reading it, I read it first, without rereading Our Only May Amelia and it does stand very well on its own.  The action in this novel takes place about six months after the last novel has concluded.  While Holm spends some time re-introducing the Jackson family and their life on the Nasel River, it doesn't feel awkward or forced.  Grandmother Patience, who caused so much strife in the first novel, has died, and in one last stroke of cruelty has left her money to one of May Amelia's uncles, even though her family cared for Grandmother Patience selflessly.  Money is still an issue, and in this book it is a real focus.  Holm also writes about the issues surrounding immigration in this era.  A man comes to meet with May Amelia's father, to talk with him about investing in making Nasel a real town with more business, a developed port and increased financial gain for those people willing to become stakeholders.  Her father only speaks Finn, and asks May Amelia to do all the translating for him, both verbally and translating the documents he must sign.  May Amelia sees this as a pivotal moment in their relationship - that her father finally sees her as truly ready to contribute to her family.  So after May Amelia translates everything, her father decides to take a risk and mortgage the family farm to invest.  Others in the community who also do not speak English fluently base their decisions to invest on the Jacksons' risk.  This is a close-knit community.  It is fairly isolated, and even the children who go to school will not speak English.  They rely on each other and go out of the community very infrequently.  And family members continue to immigrate from Finland, making this group even more prone to rely on each other.

Unfortunately the insularity of this community comes back to haunt them in the end.  It ends up that the man who has convinced the town to invest is a con man.  Families up and down the river blame their unimaginable loss on the Jackson family's decision.  And in an unforgivable turn of events, May Amelia's father blames the con on her.  He believes she should have understood better, should have translated more clearly.  The family is powerless in the face of his anger and helpless when confronted with his stubborn refusal to see reality.  He is stunningly cruel to his only daughter.

Much like the events of the first novel, these events show quite a bit about this family's resiliency, their spirit and strength.  This novel is based on events from Holm's great-grandfather's life, and sadly, these events are true.  Holm writes about this with compassion and a historian's eye for details of the family's despair.  And yet from the truly terrible springs hope and innovation.  This family creates a new venture that will bring prosperity.
I did say earlier that these novels could be read alone.  The events of the second book are affected by the events of the first, but Holm gives the broad strokes of the Jackson family history in a very natural way in the second book.  But when you read these books together, you begin to see a more complete story.  In Our Only May Amelia, Holm focuses primarily on family events.  She does introduce some neighbors and community members, the book examines each of the family members closely.  Readers get to know each one of them - their personalities, their stubbornness, and how May Amelia feels about each one of them.  In the second book, Holm is looking at this family within their community.  As I mentioned, she looks at the immigrant community and how they operate as a unit.  Readers still spend time within the family, but they get to know more of the neighbors, the hope a potential new town brings to Nasel, and the devastation left when this hope disappears.

One of the things I believe works best about this pair of novels is the way Holm crafts her historical fiction.  She creates May Amelia as a lively character, one who is easily relatable to readers and is full of spunk.  She is very much a girl of 1899, but she bucks against tradition and expectations.  There is a family secret that May Amelia isn't privy to at first, although she can sense something isn't being said.  When her brothers finally come out with the secret, the explanation is "You're a girl, May, he says.  We didn't want to scare you.
Nothing scares me, I say. " (Trouble, p. 75)  In her overalls, she is constantly being called a boy and indignantly correcting people: "I ain't no boy!" (Trouble, p. 49).  Yet Holm also fills these novels full of the information that gives readers a feeling of the time period.  Some of the events take place in and around a logging camp, a dangerous place for all of them.  But the money is good, and all of May Amelia's brothers long to work in the camp.  There are also scenes in the fish cannery in nearby Astoria that highlight both the terrible status of immigrants and the workforce in such grueling, low-paying jobs.

I could go on and talk about work in these novels, or education, but you get the idea.  These novels are rich in family and period detail, but their episodic nature and May Amelia's strong, sympathetic character will keep readers enthralled.  One of the other things that I noticed throughout both books was Holm's beautiful, original way of describing things.  She describes objects using easily digested language that brings pictures to the reader's mind.  From Our Only May Amelia, she writes "the Nasel is as calm and smooth as the inside of a clam's shell." (p. 24).  And in The Trouble with May Amelia, Holm describes May Amelia's mother's interaction with a younger cousin: "Mamma spends hours braiding and brushing Helmi's hair until it gleams like fresh milk." (p. 81).  She brings these ideas to life by using pictures that transcend the historical time period, making them appropriate both to May Amelia and the reader.

These books are compelling, whether read together or separately.  I recommend you find them and acquaint yourself with May Amelia.  She's a keeper.

Our Only May Amelia.  Jennifer L. Holm.  HarperCollins, 1999.
The Trouble with May Amelia.  Jennifer L. Holm, illustrated by Adam Gustavson, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2011.

both borrowed from Lewis and Clark Library