Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Can you unlock the secrets of the manor: Beth's Story, 1914 by Adele Whitby

I read this book immediately after reading an orgy of old-fashioned British girls' school stories and having some long discussions about diversity with a number of colleagues. This is germane to the issue, as you will see when reading my review.

It's 1914 and Lady Beth is about to celebrate her birthday. It's a very special time, since she will be receiving the heirloom Elizabeth necklace. She's even more thrilled when her maid abruptly resigns, allowing her to choose Shannon, a housemaid she's been friendly with, as her lady's maid. But her happiness is quickly dashed when her relatives arrive and her cousin isn't at all the kindly older girl she remembers. Now she's spoilt, patronizing, greedy and cruel. To make matters worse, the necklace is stolen and Shannon is accused of being the thief. Beth is determined to solve the mystery not only of the stolen necklace but also of the family secrets behind it and to keep Shannon as her maid and friend. The story ends with a promise of future adventures with Beth as she travels to America to find the secret of the necklace once and for all.

This is a perfectly good story for the younger middle grade crowd. It's a nice length, 150 pages, and has an interesting story and a nice little mystery. The language is a little overly flowery and dramatic, and the historical context dumped on top of the story, but it's difficult to create a really good historical context without fact dumps in a book this short.

However, frankly, I find this book completely superfluous. Do we really need another series about wealthy and privileged white girls in historical fiction? Personally, I don't think so. I also think Shannon's story would have been much more interesting but we see her life only through Beth's eyes. Beth is thrilled that Shannon will be her maid and absolutely sure that she will be just as thrilled, not only to be her maid but to be her friend. She's simply shocked when she finds out how the other servants have been bullying Shannon and when Shannon is being sent away under suspicion of theft she promises to help and is touched that Shannon is desperately worried...that Beth doesn't spoil her party. Really? I mean REALLY?? The whole story just kept annoying me. Every time a little note pops up that intimates to Beth that maybe not everyone lives an equally privileged life, or perhaps doesn't enjoy waiting on her, it's quickly forgotten in the next segment of the mystery or her own personal drama.

I'm not saying that it's unrealistic - I'm sure Beth was quite typical, even possibly more socially aware, of the girls of her time and in her class. I'm sure a lot of kids will enjoy reading it - it's dramatic and mysterious and lots of kids like to imagine themselves into a life of wealth and privilege. I don't think kids at this age need a really brutally honest picture of life for the lower classes in 1914 - but I don't think they need a sanitized and unrealistic fairy tale either. Finally, I question whether or not this story really needed to be written. I feel like the little moments where Beth realizes that life isn't equally wonderful for everyone were put in to salve modern consciences and not to give a really honest picture of life at that time. If the series is really trying to give a glimpse into life in 1914, why not write the story of the masses, not the privileged few?

I don't want to diss the author - this is her debut book and it's really quite well written. She probably has lots of great stories waiting to be written. But falling back on the tried and true cliches of historical fiction isn't good enough anymore. Change a few names, add in some more accessories, and this could easily be an American Girl doll book. I expect more and I think Adele Whitby could write a really awesome series that is just what I'm looking for.

Verdict: Future books have Beth meeting her (equally wealthy and privileged) cousin Kate in America, and going back to the original twins in the 1848. There's mention of Seneca Falls and the Irish Potato Famine, but again it's all seen through the eyes of these wealthy girls. Judging by American Girl books and all the princess culture titles this would probably circulate quite well, but I can't bring myself to purchase such a skewed version of history. Write me a series that shows the points of view of everyone without letting the privileged and wealthy few speak for all and that will be bought and on the shelf faster than you can say "we need diversity".

ISBN: 9781481406345; Published June 2014 by Simon Spotlight/Simon & Schuster; ARC provided by publisher


Samantha said...

I came across your blog while searching for information about the Secrets of the Manor series. I'm most intrigued by your "orgy of old-fashioned British girls' school stories." Might I ask if you are able to provide a list of titles or authors for these books? Thank you!

Jennifer said...

Really just Elinor Brent-Dyer's Chalet School books. You can also check out Enid Blyton. Girls Gone By publishes these and other authors.