The Trouble with May Amelia
What is the trouble? Holm’s latest has gotten some play here in various posts already…early in the year, and at Girl’s Club, and I alluded to it at Setting the Table, as indicative of one of The Proclamations advertised in the Horn Book: “It is right that anything a child sees, feels, or thinks be our grist.”
When I re-read this recently, I was struck by how well Holm’s develops May Amelia’s character, her feelings, while rarely telling the reader how she feels. Most of the character development is achieved through conversation, gesture, and action, paced in such a way that the feeling just blooms from it. Here’s an example in which May Amelia’s jealously of Helmi reaches a clear intensity (p.84-5 in the ARC):
“Did you bring us something, Pappa? I ask.
He stares down at me but before he can answer little Helmi runs up to him shouting, Faari! Faari!
He kneels down in front of her and she tugs on his beard and squeals with laughter.
Gotcha something, Kukka, he says and opens the package and holds out the prettiest little straw hat I ever did see. It is trimmed with a black velvet ribbon.”
We almost don’t even need the next few lines, in which Pappa produces lemon drops for May (“You like these ones, right?”) and they “taste sour”… we already know that Pappa has never displayed such affection for May, and that she craves it. How is it that when Holm’s writes something like “It is trimmed with a black velvet ribbon” the reader’s heart clenches? When she does explicitly express May’s feelings, she does so with metaphor or simile based in images that May and the reader will surely recongnize: p.184-5 “Anger races through me quicker than fire in a barn.” p.194 “He looks so old to me, like a shoe that’s been worn out and has a falling-off sole.”
May Amelia’s voice is so strong in this work, that the whole read tastes of her…as if all we were doing in the story was listening to her, playing with her, being with her as a friend. But it’s her voice that makes the setting and storylines so effective: here is episode after episode of just what a historical-fiction-fan craves, from the cougar to the logging camps, the the schoolhouse antics to Amelia’s ill-fitting but firmly held place in her family and community as a tomboy only girl. The undercurrent of her relationship with her father is staggering and gripping, especially for pre-adolescent readers, who may be finding their parents loving them…differently.
Holm’s prose feels utterly genuine to me, and I believe in the character and setting here more than in THE PENDERWICKS. The emotional arc is comparable to that in WONDERSTRUCK or I BROKE MY TRUNK. The voice, in delivering everything else, to that in OKAY FOR NOW.
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About Nina Lindsay
Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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