Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Miner’s Daughter Gretchen Moran Laskas (3 1/2 out of 4 stars)--
Gandhi said, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.” Those who are close to this issue know that Gandhi was right; many of the negative attitudes and assumptions students, parents, and community members frequently hear and ultimately adopt stem from socioeconomic sources. However, when YA authors attempt to deal with this issue, the discussion too often devolves to drugs, bling, and demeaning female stereotypes. Wisely, Gretchen Moran Laskas deals with the issue of poverty and how to climb out of it through a Depression-era West Virginia mining town and its bleak surroundings and desperately struggling residents. Ms. Moran Laskas’s poignant new novel The Miner’s Daughter follows the journey of one young woman’s family and its descent into, and redemption from, a life of misery and poverty.
Willa Lowell is sixteen and miserable. She lives with her parents and four other brothers and sisters in a small shack in a West Virginia mining town run by (and now practically abandoned by) a company called Riley Mines. It is 1932 and the Depression is in full force; the mines do not offer much work, and any work that is available is difficult and dangerous. Not only is the situation bleak, the actual town is as well: “She was used to a world of ashy grays; the brightness bleached from the town as thoroughly as the colors faded from the clothing on their backs” (17). Willa attempts to brighten her days by reading at Miss Grace’s Mission, a new library set up for the miners and their families, and by learning about literature and life from Miss Grace. When Willa’s father Waitman and brother Ves must go away to find work, Willa dresses like a boy so she can work on the truck that transports workers to the fields at harvest time to pick fruits and vegetables (the job pays food alone but the Lowells need to can food for the winter or starve). During her work Willa befriends Johnny Settle, a friend of her brother, and they explore first love together: “When they lay side by side in the grass, their hands clasped, looking up at the stars, it was easy to imagine that they were somewhere else, even other people. Willa had come to feel this way whenever Johnny was about—as though she had stepped out of her faded, worn-out self and into a shiny new one” (152). Despite his charms, Willa will not allow herself to be defined by a young miner’s puppy love, and when the family gets an opportunity to move to a New Deal planned community called Arthurdale, she must choose between a bleak past and an uncertain future.
With The Miner’s Daughter, Gretchen Moran Laskas has recreated the experience that many of us reveled in during our childhoods: the discovery of the power of words. From Willa’s declaration early in the novel, “‘Words matter. People act like they don’t . . . But they do. At least they matter to me’” (20), to her realization later that “Words are powerful” (99), and during her desperate plea to the Muse that “Surely . . . if I could just memorize enough words, if I could put them in the right order, I would figure out just what I’m supposed to do” (170), she gradually empowers herself through words and inner strength in order to rise above the socioeconomic forces that threaten her. Ms. Laskis’s backdrop for this journey of linguistic discovery serves to increase the tension of the characters as well as highlight Willa’s achievement of mind over matter, and sometimes even over food, clothing and shelter. The Miner’s Daughter is a fine addition to Depression-era YA literature and joins such fine works as Out of the Dust, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and Bud, Not Buddy as a testament to the harshness of the human struggle against a hostile world as well as the triumph of the human will over any circumstances.


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