On February 13th 2009, a documentary aired on ABC called “Hidden America: Children of the Mountains”. It was a feature that was at once harrowing and fascinating. In it Diane Sawyer shines a light on the existence of a people seemingly left behind by the rest of America- the impoverished communities of Central Appalachia. I was introduced to this documentary in January of 2015, after a long day of showing one of my American friends around London. After an exhausting day of sight-seeing, she decided to show it to me, remarking that she had been shown this documentary in high school and it had always stuck with her. After watching it we got to talking about poverty, life on the American frontier, and the truths and untruths of the “hillbilly” culture. And that’s how I ended up getting recommended Jennifer Holm’s novel Our Only May Amelia.
Now it’s August 2017 and I’ve finally gotten around to reading it. Those of you who’ve read the book might laugh at how she and I made the connection to Children of the Mountains. Our Only May Amelia is a children’s novel and takes a lot after Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods…if reimagined by a suicidal depressive. This book is actually quite dark considering it was written for 9-year olds. We see everything from dead babies to sexually-repressed lumberjacks slitting up lonely maids so vehemently as to render their corpses unrecognizable. The book gives an uncompromising look at the harsh realities of life on the frontier. We see families ravaged by disease, boats capsizing into icy waters, and lonely men hanging themselves in the woods. And all of this is narrated in the sassy voice of the protagonist, May Amelia Jackson. This is what really makes the book, its punchy and upbeat narration. Holm really has a talent for putting herself in the mind of a child, thinking as they do, and talking as they do. Which is just as well, because without May’s narration this would definitely not be a children’s book. The narration is the most important aspect of the novel- it’s what stays with you after you put it down. The narrative voice of May is memorable and well-written, and the book is not so much about the events as it is May’s interpretation of them- that is to say, her character development.
The premise of the novel is as follows: May is the only girl in the valley in which her family is homesteading. Her family is of Finnish ancestry as is the rest of the valley, and so everyone is counting on her to grow up “a proper young lady”. But May is more interested in rugged adventures. She’s a lot like Tom Sawyer in many ways. For the first 100 pages I struggled to get into the book, as most of the chapters seemed like self-contained vignettes, and I’d just come off of reading a real page-turner. But like I said, the novel is about May rather than some intricate, overarching narrative. Once I got to the second half of the book however, my reading speed increased and I was really getting into it. The book is funny and poignant, and it’s got a lot of heart. I really appreciated the vivid accounts of frontier life in Washington State at the turn of the century, as well as all the interesting details about Finnish cuisine. This is the part of the book that reminds me of Little House in the Big Woods. It also brings to mind a class I took at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire in 2012 called “History of the American Family”. One of the things I learned in that class was how the family unit went from being an arrangement of pragmatic necessity to the emotional institutions we recognize today. Before the creation of the welfare state, families operated as microcosms of the public institutions that were to come. The family was a school, a church, a hospital, a business all at once. As soon as kids were old enough they got to work, which is why so many of these rural families had so many children. That, and the inevitability that some would succumb to disease. These themes are explored in Our Only May Amelia, as the children are delegated many responsibilities by their parents. May herself has to cook for the whole family, and the children regularly work on their neighbors’ farms. All of this knowledge- and I suspect, May’s narrative voice too- was gleaned from the diary of Jennifer Holm’s grandaunt Alice Amelia Holm, who lived in the valley of the Nasel River at the close of the 19th century. Aside from being an enjoyable work of fiction, the book stands up as a great educational resource for young readers. A lot of what happens in the book is taken from real life events; the strength and quality of Holm’s writing is in its authenticity.
This turned out to be an awesome read for me! I’m committed to reading from a range of authors and genres as part of my new schedule. I already have some more children’s and teenage fiction lined up and I look forward to sharing them with you here.
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