Review of the Day: My Near-Death Adventures by Alison DeCamp
Children’s historical fiction novels often divide up one of two ways. In the first category you have your important moments in history. In such books our heroes run about and encounter these moments by surprise. Extra points if it happens to be a Great Big Bad Moment in history as well. Then in the second category are the books that have opted to go a more difficult route. They may be well grounded in a time period of the past, but they do not require historical cameos or Great Big Bad Moments to transport their readers. Such books run a very great risk of, quite frankly, becoming dull. Read enough of them and, with the exception of a few, they all run together. Humor often helps me distinguish them from the pack. After all, would Catherine Called Birdy command quite so many hearts and minds if it weren’t also deeply amusing? Still, it’s rare to find fiction set in the past for kids that’s quite that original. It takes a certain kind of devious brain to hit on an all-new take. Enter My Near-Death Adventures by Alison DeCamp. Falling squarely into the second category rather than the first, this 1895 charmer utilizes plenty of visuals along with an unreliable narrator and classic comedic setting. I can say with certainty that your kids will never read a work of lumberjack fiction quite as fast and funny as this ever again.
Well, sir, it looks like Stan’s found himself in a heap of trouble. First off there’s the difficulty with his dead father. The problem? He’s not dead. He’s nowhere around, and now he seems to have divorced Stan’s mama, but dead he is not. Then there’s the fact that it’s the middle of winter yet Stan’s mama and his 95% evil Granny (her percentage fluctuates a lot) are packing him up and they’re all heading up to some godforsaken lumber camp in the middle of nowhere. Of course, that’s good for Stan since he’s been hoping to build up his manly skills so that he can support his mama. Unfortunately his cousin Geri, who seems to revel in torturing him, will be there as well. Can Stan fight off his mother’s multiple suitors, keep his eye on the lumberjack he’s dubbed “Stinky Pete”, and learn to be a man (if Geri doesn’t kill him first) all at once? If anyone can, it’s Stan. Probably.
Humor in historical fiction can come across as a case where the contemporary author is shoehorning his or her own beliefs onto characters from the past. Often when this happens it feels fake. I remember once reading a children’s novel set in the Civil War South where an enterprising young woman, with no outside influences, actually said, “Corsets don’t just restrict the waist. They restrict the mind,” or something equally out of left field. So to what extent are anachronisms a threat in books of this sort? For example, would someone like Stan really have called his cousin “Scary Geri”? For me, I don’t worry as much about the small details. If the language isn’t strictly of the late 19th century variety then who in the Sam Hill cares? (Forgive my language, granny.) It’s the big things (like mind restricting corsets) that catch my eye. With that in mind, I was somewhat relieved when I realized that Stan is a sexist jerk. He quite believably does not look on women’s accomplishments as something to commend (which, in turn, is an interesting way of building up sympathy for his cousin Geri). In other words, he’s of his time.
To bring the funny, DeCamp does two things I’ve not seen done in works of historical fiction before. The first involves a ton of late 19th/early 20th century advertisements. Using the conceit that this is Stan’s scrapbook, each image makes some kind of commentary on what Stan is describing. They’re also hilarious. I cannot help but imagine the countless hours DeCamp spent poring through advertisement after advertisement. One wonders if there were parts of the narrative wholly reliant on the existence of one ad or another. Hard to say.
The second clever and hitherto unknown thing DeCamp does with her storytelling is to make Stan an unreliable narrator with unreliable narration. Which is to say, you’ll be reading his private thoughts on the page when suddenly another character will comment on what clearly should have been kept inside Stan’s brain. The end result is that the reader will lapse into a continual sense of security, safe in the knowledge that what they’re reading isn’t dialogue (after all, there aren’t any quotation marks) and then, exactly like Stan, the reader will be shocked when someone comments on information they shouldn’t know anything about. It really puts you directly into Stan’s shoes and helps to make him more relatable. Which is good since he runs the risk of being considered unsympathetic as a character.
Unreliable as a narrator, potentially unsympathetic as a human being, Stan still wins our love. Why? He’s Kid Falstaff! A coward you root for and love, yet still don’t always approve of. Still, even in the depths of his own delusion, how can you not love the guy? He’s a Yooper Telemachus fending unworthy suitors off of his mama. And even when you’ve taken almost all you can take from the guy, you’ll find him saying something like, “This is the furthest I’ve ever felt from being a man. All I really want to do is cuddle up in bed and have Mama read me a book. Or play with the toy soldiers still lined up on my windowsill in the apartment house. But I can’t. Because that’s not manly, and being manly is the only way I’ll ever understand my father . . .” Poor kid.
A good author, by the way, allows their supporting characters some personal growth as well. It doesn’t all have to come from the protagonist, after all. In this particular case it’s Stan’s mama, a character that could easily have just been some passive, maternal bit of nothingness, who comes into her own. For years she’s been held down pretty effectively by her own mother. Now she has a chance at making a bit of a life for herself, choosing her own mate (or not choosing, as the case may be), and generally having a bit of fun. I know no kid reading this book is going to care, but I appreciated having someone other than Stan learn and grow.
I sit here secure in the knowledge that somewhere, at some time, an enterprising adult (be it teacher, parent, or librarian) will take it upon themselves to actually follow Mrs. Cavanaugh’s recipe for Vinegar Pie. The recipe is right there in black and white in the book, clear as crystal. If you have any goodness in your heart and you are tempted to tread this path, here is a bit of advice: don’t. It’s called Vinegar Pie, for crying out loud! What part of that sounds appetizing? You know what is appetizing? This book. Hilarious and heartbreaking and funny funny funny. You know what you hand a kid that gets the dreaded, “Read one work of historical fiction” assignment in school? You hand them this and then sit back to wait for their inevitable gratitude. They may never say thank you to your face, but you’ll be able to rest safe and secure in the knowledge that they loved this book. Or, at the very least, found it enticing and intriguing. 99-100% fantastic.
On shelves now.
Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick
- One Came Home by Amy Timberlake
- Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman
Oo! Peppy little trailer here, no?
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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