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justice_turtle ([personal profile] justice_turtle) wrote in [community profile] readallthenewberys2012-07-15 10:33 am

Review: The Windy Hill (Cornelia Meigs)

Summary: The Windy Hill by Cornelia Meigs (Newbery Honor 1922; available on Project Gutenberg) is about a teenage boy and girl whose guardian is menaced by a greedy, jealous relative attempting to claim disputed property against the wishes of the rest of the family. The children encounter a mysterious adult stranger who tells them interspersed short stories, usually related to the history of their own family or of the area, while obviously knowing a lot more about the whole situation than he explicitly lets on.

In the dénouement, it is revealed that the mysterious storyteller is also a relative and has been telling the kids the backstory for the antagonist's motivation. The antagonist repents and abruptly flees the area, and all is well.

Review: I should mention up front that until the ending, this book's plot is very similar to Ms Meigs's later Rain on the Roof, so I was (consciously or unconsciously) comparing them throughout. Therefore, while this book does have good sections and excellent prose, I was most struck by its relative fail compared to the other book, especially by the fact that all the main characters belong to extremely prosperous old families, with one tenant farmer in a minor role, and by the repeated gender essentialism no one contradicts.

The villain's lower social status and described "dark face" are also capable of unfortunate interpretation, though he is not actually a person of color. Furthermore, most of the ethical assertions are based on an a priori assumption of "white hats, black hats" with a hinted genetic inheritance of morality or greed. (This last clause is explained further, with spoilers, in the liveblogging post for this book.) A feudal model of land ownership with tenant farmers is strongly urged, even though the events of the book itself provide a strong argument - never addressed - against it. And while Native American characters are featured in a flashback story, and acknowledged to have the original claim on the land, the issue is quickly dismissed with a remark that the protagonists' ancestors "paid what [the land] was worth" rather than "a handful of beads and some bad firewater". In fact, none of the ethical issues introduced are actually explored, that I can recall.

Finally, while the short stories in a Cornelia Meigs book are usually polished jewels set into the frame story, these particular ones are well below her usual quality. I'd go so far as to call chapter four, "The Ghost Ship", a blatantly shoddy paste gem; seriously, it's terrible.

Conclusion: One star out of five, where a three-star rating is "meh". I'd strongly recommend reading other books by the same author instead, because she has done a lot of much better ones. Three suggestions:

* The Covered Bridge is arguably her best, certainly her most excerpted; it's set in post-Revolutionary War Vermont, and guest-stars Ethan Allen. Also, a little girl and an old lady are the central characters, and as I recall (it's been a while), the flashback stories are much better integrated than in most of her other books: not gems in a setting, but well-crafted parts that fit with the whole.

* Wind in the Chimney, also set in post-Revolutionary War times, is another excellent story, with a much more nuanced portrayal of the antagonist's motivation for her actions; it also features a good balance of male and female characters, with the female ones a bit more memorable imo, and the pacing of the various subplots is extremely well-handled.

* The Kingdom of the Winding Road, set in medieval-esque European-fairytale times, is a set of short stories with no frame, tied together by featuring the same mysterious wandering minstrel in bit roles. It's one of my very favorites - slightly reminiscent of Agatha Christie's Mysterious Mr Quin in tone (with fantasy replacing the murder-mystery elements), and absolutely beautifully written. Worth a look.

Overall, I'd say Ms Meigs's historical fiction is much better than her contemporary work. The Windy Hill is possibly the least good of her books I've read, partly because some things that wouldn't be as discordantly faily in a historical setting (feudal-style landownership, attitudes toward characters of color) stand out badly against the "latest improvements" modernity. It's a shame this is one of the ones that made it onto the Newbery list.
bookblather: A picture of Yomiko Readman looking at books with the text "bookgasm." (Default)

[personal profile] bookblather 2012-07-16 06:14 am (UTC)(link)
Ethan Allen! I am there. When you get to the Perilous Gard, see if you can fit in space for The Sherwood Ring, which is by the same author but involves Revolutionary War ghosts, the best marriage proposal ever, and Peaceable Drummond Sherwood.


Anyway, it's kind of interesting that one of her objectively worse books got the award and none of the others did. Any hypotheses as to why?