To Stay Alive
Mature YA/Adult historical fiction based on historical fact
The travel dress,
thick and crisp and green,
white buttons in a line,
a bright stiff collar, perched high.
It's a dress for adventure,
a dress ready for
whatever it will face.
Strongly stitched, unspoiled, new,
It is meant to endure."
Skila Brown's really excellent To Stay Alive is another of those
books that makes me think we should add a category to our library
classification system: Mature YA/Adult. There are a lot of sixth
graders who would not be able to handle it. There are many adults for
whom it would be just fine. Therefore, from this day on my blog will
have this new category: Mature YA/Adult. You can consider any I
simply label YA good for the middle/high school span.
In 1846 Mary Ann Graves and her large family join the westward
migration going on in America. Her father envisions prosperous
farming in a place with fertile soil and a long growing season. At
first travelling by prairie schooner (covered wagon) seems like a
"Nothing could be grander
than a big crackling fire
under a starry sky,
insects humming in the dark all around,
the sound of Jay moving the bow across his fiddle,
the smell of onions and potatoes
in the air--turned cool enough
to draw you closer to the flames,
close enough to see them dance
in the dark eyes of a new boy
who can't stop looking your way."
Of course we know things will not stay tranquil for the whole
1,900 miles--especially where the window of opportunity for crossing
the mountains into California before winter sets in is narrow and
unpredictable. When the family and those with whom they travel pass
through St. Joseph we learn that they are the "last of the stragglers"
for the year. A decision to save time by taking a relatively unused
short cut seems ill considered, especially when they join up with the
Path clearing takes longer than they'd expected. Food is
getting scarce. All including children must walk to lighten the
wagons for the sake of the animals pulling them.
water's almost gone
we continue on
walking in our sleep"
Their troubles have just begun.
To Stay Alive is at the same starkly authentic and
heartbreakingly perceptive. The characters and their relationships
are entirely believable. Mary Ann grows into psychic adulthood in
this combination coming of age/horror narrative. Pulling off this
historical realism in free verse is an achievement few writers are
The use of free verse rather than prose is brilliant. In many
of the poems the shape greatly enhances the verbal message.
"Eddy grips the gun
one chance to eat.
"The story of the Donner Party is a powerful one. It's a story
that makes us consider what choices we would make if we were on the
brink of death. This group of families and the trials they faced
became legendary and etched for them a permanent place in our history
tales...We're still captivated by this story, more than a century
later, because it's full of elements we can relate to, even today.
Hard feelings, arguments, murder, thievery, heartbreaking acts of
charity, and yes--romance."
I could not put the book down. I found it fascinating and
scary. Of course that could have something to do with my reading it
on a night Maine was getting slammed with an all out blizzard. All I
could hear was the wind driving blasts of snow--the exact weather
conditions that put the characters in dire and deadly danger.
To Stay Alive is a vivid and well written novel. I'd highly
recommend it to people who can deal with topics like cannibalism.
On a personal note, the blizzard I alluded to was an amazing two day
record breaker (amounts of snow). It started in Sunday the 12th.
That was the night I read the book. Monday I woke up snowed in.
Seriously. I could not open the door until Adam dug me out that
night. Eugene worked from Sunday night straight through Tuesday
morning--32 hours. I was in seventh heaven seeing him home safe
Valentines Day. UMaine was closed Monday and Tuesday. Only I didn't
know it was closed Tuesday until I'd walked almost all the way there,
which was more challenging than my usual walking because of the snow.
Talk about an adventure! I live for adventures!
A great big shout out goes out to all who shared the adventure with
me, especially my husband and his peers who had to plow all that white
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