Monday, September 17, 2012

Child of the Mountains - Marilyn Sue Shank

Title: Child of the Mountains
Author: Marilyn Sue Shank
Publisher: Delacorte Press, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 249 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: September 13, 2012
Finished: September 16, 2012

From the inside cover:

Growing up poor in 1953 in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia doesn't bother Lydia Hawkins. She treasures her tight-knit family. There's her loving Mama, now widowed; her whip-smart brother, BJ, who has cystic fibrosis; and wise old Gran. But everything falls apart after Gran and BJ die and Mama is jailed unjustly. Suddenly Lydia has lost all those dearest to her.

Moving to a coal camp to live with her uncle William and aunt Ethel Mae only makes Lydia feel more alone. She is ridiculed at her new school for her outgrown homemade clothes and the way she talks, and for what the kids believe her mama did. To make matters worse, she discovers that her uncle has been keeping a family secret - about her.

If only Lydia, with her resilient spirit and determination, could find a way to clear her mother's name...

I'm a big fan of historical fiction, especially about topics not often explored in mainstream literature. This caught my eye because it reminded me of a book I read as a child with a similar title. When I saw that it was about a girl growing up poor in Appalachia in the 1950s, I was hooked. I find it's important for my students to read about lifestyles (historical or modern) different from their comfortable middle-class ones in order to realize how good they have it. Thankfully this book has more to its credit than just its subject matter.

The book is narrated by Lydia (aged 11 or 12) writing in her diary recounting the events leading up to her mother being imprisoned. Her father, an unemployed alcoholic, died when she was three and her mother was pregnant with her little brother. BJ is born with cystic fibrosis and the family allows him to be part of a study at a children's hospital in Ohio in order for him to receive medical care that they cannot otherwise afford. Mama, Gran, Lydia, and BJ live in poverty but make ends meet, and even donate homemade presents to their worse-off neighbours at Christmastime. When BJ gets sicker and it's obvious he will not live for much longer, the hospital refuses to release him to spend his last days with his family. After Lydia and Mama break BJ out of the hospital and he passes away, Mama is accused of causing BJ's death and she is put in jail. When Lydia goes to live with her uncle and aunt a few towns over, she feels guilty over her inability to set things right regarding her mother, and to top it off she's encouraged not to speak of the issue due to the shame felt by the family. When she finally tells her understanding teacher what is bothering her, she learns there might just be a way to free her mother.

First off, I'm not usually a fan of dialect (and with the plot taking place in the mountains of West Virginia there's a ton of it), but I either simply didn't mind it here or it was part of what made the book unique and charming. Lydia not only speaks in dialect, she talks about her love of the mountains where she's grown up, and displays her determination and perseverance in all that she does. Not only are the characters endearing and the plot intriguing, it also addresses a lot of issues still pertinent today, such as quality of health care (both physical and mental), alcoholism, poverty and unemployment, education, and affordable legal access and representation.

One of the better children's books I've read this year, mainly due to Lydia's unique voice and strong character, definitely something readers will enjoy.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the mountain scene with Lydia off to the side. Her body posed as if she's running looks a little awkward, but that might be just me.

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