A novel that began as a fairy tale, another about love on the Iron Range, and a look at Queen Elizabeth’s fashion leadership are fiction and nonfiction offerings this week.
“The Ogress and the Orphans” by Kelly Barnhill (Algonquin Young Readers, $19.95)
An Ogress, a hateful dragon in disguise, kind and smart orphans, talking crows, cats and sheep, and a town that once was “lovely.”
Minnesotan Kelly Barnhill, winner of the 2017 Newbery Medal for “The Girl who Drank the Moon,” gives us another life-affirming story in “The Ogress and the Orphans,” which is sure to touch many hearts with its message of how kindness can bind a community and the meaning of “neighbor.”
In an unspecified time and place, there is a little town where neighbor used to help neighbor and everyone was happy. They strolled under the abundant trees, picked fruit, cared for one another. But then a fire started in the library (did someone catch a glimpse of a dragon tail?) and spread throughout the town, consuming the library the citizens loved, and the schoolhouse.
People grew indifferent to one another as jobs dried up and ashes blew everywhere. The beautiful trees were all gone. Then, a new mayor with a mesmerizing voice took over, telling the citizens he was the only one who could keep the peace. He urged them to keep an eye on their neighbors and to be suspicious of outsiders.
As people closed themselves off in their houses, the mayor fed their fear of outsiders, including the kind Ogress who lived in a crooked house on the edge of town. They didn’t know that the very, very old Ogress quietly left baked treats on their doorsteps in the dead of night, watched over by her friends the crows.
The Ogress is especially fond of the children at the Orphan House, who she watches through her handmade periscope. They are nice kids, very worried about old Matron and her husband, Myron. In the days when the town was “lovely,” the orphans were fed and clothed by donations from the town but, since the fires, the money stopped. And when one of the little girls runs away, the Ogress returns her. But that doesn’t stop some of the citizens, urged on by the mayor, who attack the confused Ogress, tearing up her garden and throwing rocks at her. But the crows attack the crowd and the Ogress is left in tears.
Will the town ever be “lovely” again? Can reading and shared books save them?
Barnhill says the middle grade novel was inspired by a conversation with her twin nieces about philosophy (there is a young philosopher among the orphans).
Author Kelly Barnhill (Courtesy photo)
“My niece Adeline informed me that the problem with philosophy is that there aren’t enough animals in it. And not enough people being nice,” Barnhill recalls. “I told her that I absolutely agreed, and that if I were to write a book about philosophy, it would absolutely be about kindness. And generosity too. What happens to us — at our very core — when we give to others? What happens to the soul when we turn away? What happens to a community when compassion is compounded? What happens to a community where empathy is stunted or thwarted or lost?”
Young readers of “The Ogress and the Orphans” may not realize how closely the mayor resembles a former president, but adults will.
“There was a moment during the last presidential administration when it felt like the news was uniformly terrible — cruelty had become normalized, nastiness was a new form of currency, and all our progress toward justice and equality seemed to be going backwards,” she said. “I did what I often do when I need to heal my soul and regenerate a bit — I started writing fairy tales … very quickly this story didn’t seem to behave like the others. It stood apart. It had eyes and skin and breath and soul. It was separate from me.”
In the end, it is the Ogress whose wisdom is at the heart of this book: “The more you give, the more you have.”
Barnhill will celebrate publication with an in-person launch party at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 8, at Red Balloon Bookshop, 891 Grand Ave., St. Paul. There will be party favors and a book-signing line. Tickets are $20, which includes a copy of the book. Space is limited and tickets are required. Go to: redballoonbookshop.com. She will also sign books at 5:30 p.m. March 28 at Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls., and will talk with fellow Algonquin author Brian Farrey, whose new book is “The Counterclockwise Heart,” March 31 at Moon Palace Books, 3032 Minnehaha Ave., Mpls.
“Steel” by Kathleen Novak ( Black Cat Text, $15)
On the cover of Kathleen Novak’s new novel, a young miner stands on one end of the Hull-Rust-Mahoning open pit iron mine near Hibbing. The photo was taken by St. Paul native John Vachon for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s. But his subject, who stares directly into the camera, could be Tony, the driven young man at the center of “Steel.”
Novak, granddaughter of Croatians and Italians, was born and raised in Hibbing and her sense of place and residents is palpable, from the immigrant women’s constant cooking to the pressures of the young men and women born in America, and especially the young women’s determination to break the hold of their fathers’ Old World thinking about how to behave properly. She says the novel is a fictional version of a secret about the oldest son’s destiny that her father’s family kept for nearly 100 years.
Tony is the Golden Boy of the nine kids in the Croatian Babic family living in a mining town in the 1920s. He is the hero, the smart one, adored by his little brothers, a football player and all-around nice guy.
When Tony meets Vita, magic happens. Novak, a poet whose work has appeared in literary magazines, tells the story of Tony and Vita’s summer of passion in tender prose that captures the all-consuming feelings of first love nobody ever forgets.
Tony, who wants to be considered a man, drops out of high school against Vita’s wishes and takes a job in the mines so he can save money for their wedding. But something happens. Vita graduates from high school (a big deal among immigrant families) and her love dries up when she realizes she wants more than marriage and the babies that will arrive so often.
Tony, still so much in love, doesn’t hear her protests and goes on making plans. Until he gets her letter of rejection.
The reader knows from the beginning that something happens to Tony, especially in the sections narrated in the future by his brother, Johnny, when the rest of the family is dead. Johnny muses on how little the family had when he was growing up, and the bounty of cars and boats that came after World War II.
A parallel story is about the family’s boarder, Luka, who becomes a cop in Chicago during the heyday of criminal activity headed by Al Capone and others. Luka saw that most everyone was on the take, including some of his fellow police officers.
Novak does a nice job of juxtaposing the dead-end lives of the mining families with the corruption of big Chicago. And she does it with an economy of words. In only 208 pages in a 5×7-inch format, she brings the reader into the minds and hearts of her characters.
Readers won’t soon forget the poignant love story of Tony and Vita.
Novak’s previous books are: “Do Not Find Me,” its companion, “The Autobiography of Corrine Bernard,” and “Rare Birds.”
“The Queen: 70 Years of Majestic Style” by Bethan Holt (Ryland Peters and Small ($24.99)
When Queen Elizabeth II turned 90 in 2016, Vanity Fair’s International Best-Dressed List gave her a special citation: “Politics, culture, and class structure in the empire — all of that shifts constantly, but she doesn’t. She’s a beacon.”
“The Queen” traces Her Majesty’s clothing choices from the time she was a young princess to the present. In 200 color photos, the queen is shown in off-duty riding clothes, in her state robes and wedding gown, evening dress and on tour. There are chapters on her favorite designers and who comes up with her iconic hats.
What all her designers had to keep in mind is that the queen must wear colors that allow her to stand out in a crowd, and her hats must not shade or hide her face.
Everything about her wardrobe is carefully thought out, because everything she wears is scrutinized. When she was married to Prince Philip there was controversy about whether her silk wedding dress was made by Chinese worms from “nationalist China” rather than “enemy” Japanese worms. And she created a stir when she left the hospital after surgery wearing a pants suit.
The most fascinating chapter is about Her Majesty’s jewels, including those tiaras we learned about when Megan Markle married Prince Harry. The history of many of the Queen’s jewels is revealed, including those bequeathed to her by her grandmother, Queen Mary. Among them is the Cullinan III and IV diamond brooch made up of diamonds cut from a larger one. Only a queen with a large jewelry collection could call this valuable brooch “Granny’s chips” as Her Majesty does.
From horseback riding with Ronald Reagan to greeting Pres. and Mrs. John Kennedy, this is a peek into the Queen’s careful ability to dress in perfect taste while staying in fashion according to her standards.