It’s been some time since I’ve posted a Master Writer blog entry. (See previous entries.) I’m pretty picky about my list of kidlit book authors who’ve mastered some aspect of their writing in a particularly stupendous way.
A literary Young Adult novel in the finest and most engrossing sense, Crossing the Tracks is the story of Iris Baldwin, a 15-year-old-girl who lost her mother at a young age, and her father’s attention as well. When Iris’ father hires her out–without consulting Iris–to a rural doctor and his invalid mother, she has to use her grit and heart to find her way home.
BARBARA STUBER’S SUPER POWER
She recreates her novel’s historic period with immediacy, as now time, not the past.
Crossing the Tracks is set in the mid-1920s, but you’re not going to find tired references to mobsters, flappers and bathtub gin. Barbara Stuber has done incredible research and uses multiple techniques to put us smack-dab in Iris’ life.
1. Barbara PLACES PERIOD PRODUCT NAMES throughout her novel:
“After a sprinkle of Pompeian Beauty Powder, I step into my favorite cotton dress that’s white with yellow flowers and lacy sleeves.”
Pompeian Beauty Powder was a real toiletry that ladies used during the time period Crossing the Tracks takes place. Barb shows us the lack of deodorants and antiperspirants at the time, but also finds a powder name that complements the art deco goddess wallpaper in Iris’ room. Every choice the author makes builds atmosphere.
2. Barbara’s WORD CHOICES ARE CONSISTENT WITH THE PERIOD OF TIME SHE IS WRITING ABOUT.
“…my hat and pocketbook thump on the floor.”
“…she fusses, giving her cane a snappy hurry up tap.”
“…Poorly isn’t all she’s going to feel when Cecil finds out…”
While the highlighted words are still in the dictionary today, they are contemporary to the 1920s. (There’s a reason your Grandma uses them.) The trick is to insert just the right amount of dated and/or unfamiliar words. Too much, and you risk producing a parody. Too little, and your characters might as well be living next door to you today.
3. Iris Baldwin grows into a brave young lady–yet she is a creature of THE SENSIBILITIES OF THE TIME. It’s reasonable for her to find the strength to–get to the place where she ends up. (I will not spoil this book for you. It’s too good!) But women were not as open about their bodily functions then as they are now:
“Outside our shoe store window I used to watch ladies, some of them mothers of girls in my class, go into Lowen’s Pharmacy and come out with a bulky sack–their ‘silent purchase’. The store had a system–you put money in a box and took a package of Kotex pads off the counter without saying anything to anybody.”
Nothing screams “fraud” louder than putting millennial ideology in your main character’s head. It’s a disservice to people of the past, who were hamstrung by the mores of the day.
Barbara Stuber’s Crossing the Tracks is on the Kirkus 2010 Best for Teens List and the short list for the ALA’s William Morris Award. It’s an emotionally true story, packed with stunning detail that puts us inside every scene.
And so I declare Barbara Stuber Master of Recreating Her Novel’s Historic Period With Immediacy: As Now Time, Not The Past.
It wasn’t Iris Baldwin’s idea to leave her home in Atchison. Just like it wasn’t her mother’s idea to die and leave Iris alone with her father.
This particular summer, Iris’ father decides to hire her out as a companion to a doctor’s elderly mother.
Without consulting Iris.
Seems like a reasonable solution to him–after all, he’s got his hands full with a fiancée and a new store he’s opening in Kansas City.
So Iris leaves her hunkalicious friend, Leroy, and obediently boards a train to live with strangers in the middle of nowhere.
I’m not going to tell you any more about the plot, because it’s too delicious to spoil for you. I want to assure you that plenty of stuff happens. PLENTY. Also, DO NOT COUNT LEROY OUT.
Usually, a book stays with you for one striking characteristic, but Crossing the Tracks is one of those rare books that dazzled me for multiple reasons.
First, the beauty of the language. There will be passages you stop and reread just to savor the words. But I’m not the kind of gal who loves words just for their own sake. There’s gotta be story.
And there is story. Man alive, there is story. Barb Stuber has gleaned vignettes and narrative from family and acquaintances who lived during the era. And of course, from her magnificent brain box.
Last of all, the historical detail. Crossing the Tracks contains the kind of information you can only get from reading stacks of magazines, listening to old radio programs or from people who experienced the times.
This book was especially interesting to Freckles McYoungest, as her grandmother was a teen in the ’20s in Kansas City. But it should appeal to any reader with a grandmother or great-grandmother who lived during this time.
Read Crossing the Tracks, even if you think you don’t like historical fiction. You’ll like this.