The phenomenal Patricia Reilly Giff has done it again. As in so many of her blockbusters, the author turns the clock back to an earlier time, and takes readers on a journey they won’t soon forget.
The year is 1936, and the country is in the throes of the Great Depression. Twelve-year-old Rachel feels the hopelessness and fear that grip everyone around her. “My book is up in front of my nose, hiding my face so no one will see the tears in my eyes. I’m almost at the end of the story and I’m sure Lad, the collie, is going to die. No matter that he’s old, he’s such a good dog. But Lad isn’t the only reason I’m trying not to cry. It’s because of Pop…Pop home, instead of working, on a winter afternoon! Pop without his job at the bank, and all because of the Depression.”
However, there are many brights spots in Rachel’s world. There’s Miss Mitzi, owner of a flower shop in their New York City neighborhood. And Charlie, the butcher who gives Rachel free slices of bologna–and a little something to leave for Clarence, a beat-up stray cat. And, of course, there are books–and Miss Mitzi and her beloved teacher with whom to share them and the bright girl’s love of words. Last but not least, there is Mr. Appleby who sells apples from a cart and dispenses words of wisdom when Rachel needs them most. But most important of all, there is Pop–who has been raising Rachel and her younger sister and brother since their mother died ten years ago.
But then Pop has earth-shaking news. There is a bank job available upstate, in the farming community of North Lake. So Rachel, 11-year-old Cassie (who is as different from her older sister as can be), and 10-year-old, level-headed (when not involved in some calculated risk or another) Joey load their belongings, and an indignant Clarence, into their family’s old truck and leave almost everyone and everything they know and love.
When, after a long trip, the foursome arrives at the farm they are renting, Rachel is devastated. It’s certainly not what she envisioned: a place with a red barn housing a cow. There certainly is no animal in the dingy structure–and the house has no electricity or running water! Even though the sisters do not see eye to eye on much, their reaction is the same. Only optimistic Joey and their father seem able to see the bright side of things.
However, things are about to get worse. A heavy snowfall prevents Pop arriving at the bank until late in the day–and someone else has gotten the job. Finding work at a grocery store is less than ideal: the owner cannot afford to pay much, and the family receives food (not all of it appetizing) as partial wages. Even the grocer’s gift of a dozen eggs that are expected to hatch in three weeks does not completely compensate. Then, suddenly, Pop is again without work. And again there is only one option: a job building a road over a mountain, provided by the Roosevelt administration with the goal of putting as many people to work as possible. However, there is a downside: Pop will have to leave his children alone on the farm with nothing more than their resourcefulness and enough money to pay for rent, food, and little else. Can three youngsters manage life on the farm, uncertain when they will see their father again, and unsure if their family unit will weather the storms–physical and emotional–that face them? However, with no choice, the siblings determine to make a success of their farming venture during their father’s absence–and receive assistance from at least one unexpected source.
Author Giff, with such tour de forces to her credit as Wild Girl, Pictures of Hollis Woods, and the delightful Fiercely and Friends and Zigzag Kids series for beginning chapter-book readers, demonstrates once again that she is a master. The Great Depression comes alive under her capable pen. One can almost smell the flowers in Miss Mitzi’s shop and see the snow piled up outside the family’s dilapidated farmhouse. Rachel is a young, and very human, heroine–who makes (and has the courage to admit to) mistakes. The family dynamics ring true; the sisters’ clashing personalities lead to conflicts and disagreements but, at the end of the day, it is the sense of family and shared purpose that keep the youngsters focused on their goals. Not unlike the situation in many sibling relationships, to be sure. Patricia Reilly Giff has done everything right. Readers (who are certain to be as reluctant to put this book down as Rachel is her beloved novels) will agree.
Published by Wendy Lamb Books in 2011
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