Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Trouble With May Amelia

I have not read OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA by Jennifer Holm. My first foray into the world of Ms. Holm came in reading TURTLE IN PARADISE this past year. Historical fiction is not always my cup of tea and perhaps that is why TURTLE IN PARADISE impressed me so. A genre of book I don't normally read for pleasure, yet I couldn't get Turtle and her Diaper Gang of cousins out of my mind. Anytime a book catches a reader off guard in a good way, it tends to linger on and leave a lasting impression.

Written in the same spunky, first person narrative style as TURTLE IN PARADISE, THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA grabbed me with it's opening sentence:

My brother Wilbert tells me that I'm like the grain of sand in an oyster. Someday I will be a Pearl, but I will nag and irritate the poor oyster and everyone else up until then.

May Amelia is far from irritating to me as a reader, but to her father and family full of boys, she's nothing but trouble. She's witty, she's strong-willed, she's not near as proper as she's expected to be, and she never lets anyone get the best of her. She's learned how to survive as the lone girl in her small pioneer farming community of boys in 1900, Washington State and she refuses to take guff from any of them. That is, until a business man comes to Pappa with a proposition and he needs May Amelia to translate to Finn for him. Suddenly, May Amelia begins to wonder herself if she's good for nothing.

As with TURTLE IN PARADISE, the strengths of this book come in May Amelia's voice, Holm's impeccable characterizations, and her strong sense of setting. Details specific to the time period and setting (such as the Dunking Box at school) make the dark, damp, and chill of Washington State in 1900 come alive off the page. And through May Amelia's eyes, each character grows and develops in realistic fashion through the course of the book. Her siblings are almost as memorable as the Diaper Gang!

Life in 1900 was a lot of work and Holm sugar coats nothing. The manual labor of maintaining a farm was not easy and each child shares the load. Pappa's job at the lumber mill is dangerous and when some of May Amelia's brothers are forced to work there as well, the danger is intensified. Balancing this gloom with May Amelia's witty humor, is done exceptionally well.

The thing that impressed me so while reading TURTLE IN PARADISE was how Jennifer Holm's figurative language was so fitting to the narrator's voice. The same is true with THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA. Every word from May Amelia was a word I fully believed she'd say. Look at some of these writing samples:
  • My brother Wendell wants to be a doctor, so he doesn't hold to things he can't squeeze between his fingers.
  • Sunday is a day of rest but nobody bothered to tell the big bear who knocked down the fence in our field where our sheeps graze.
  • It's spelling time and I'm starting to see Berle's point of view. Not much use in knowing how to spell words on a farm. The cows don't care if we can spell "hay.' All they want to do is eat it.
  • Sorry about stealing your teacher away, Mr. Clayton says to me. A good wife is hard to find. A good teacher is even harder to find, I reply.
In terms of plot, THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA may be even better than TURTLE IN PARADISE. It's a little tighter and not so far-fetched (as TURTLE became near it's conclusion). I do realize it's a little unfair to compare the two, as Holm has authored a book about May Amelia previously and Turtle is not even in this same universe, but TURTLE IN PARADISE is the only other Holm book I've read and the similarities were so striking, it was hard not to be reminded of it.

I debated about whether to read OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA first but decided against it. Often times when discussing the Newbery Medal and "sequels" the debate of whether or not the title can "stand alone" is brought up. When Newbery discussions heat up this winter, I fully expect THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA to be brought up. Not having read this book's predecessor, I can now attest to its ability to "stand alone".

Jennifer Holm is no stranger to the Newbery (Honoring in 2011, 2007, and 2000) and here's hoping THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA only follows suit!

Final Grade: A

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