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justice_turtle ([personal profile] justice_turtle) wrote in [community profile] readallthenewberys2013-06-24 12:16 pm

Review: The Jumping-Off Place (Marian Hurd McNeely)

Summary: Four siblings, seventeen years old and younger, move to South Dakota to live on a homestead there for fourteen months, beginning in summer 1910. They encounter not only blizzards and hard work but evil claim-jumping neighbors. Eventually they triumph over all odds.

Reaction: I wanted to like this book. I really, really did. The first few pages were so well-written in a spare, casual, well-pruned style. And it's set in South Dakota! Land of my heart. :-)

But. :P The characterization of everyone but the four mains was just sooo cringe-inducingly simplistic. There were a lot of classist implications that made me wince and write long digressions about, for instance, why gold teeth might be used to indicate a con-man. Everybody's surname indicated their character - not in the usual way, nobody was named Goode or anything like that, but our heroes were named Linville (sounds like their ancestors were upperclass French, Le Sieur de Linville or somebody) while a family of lazy hicks were the "Wubbers". People with "funny" names like Welp were bad, while people with "strong" names like Cleaver were good.

In the very first chapter, a snippy aunt whom our heroes hated was used to bring up all the - perfectly rational - objections to the idea of four underage kids trying to survive a Dakota winter alone, and to dismiss the objections by mixing them in with a lot of straw-man stuff, implying that nothing this aunt said could actually be a valid objection. The entire book was predicated on the plans of this recently-deceased uncle who had originally claimed the land, whom the children idolized, and who functioned as the author's deus ex machina to provide every bit of necessary information right down to "you will take this train, change here, and trust THIS shopkeeper implicitly in all matters". Uncle Jim knew everything, could do no wrong, and was a fount of homespun wisdom quoted to us in less-than-impressive bits by the other characters, with the children's loving memories of him being exposited rather than shown.

I got very sick of Uncle Jim and the classism before quitting, but I finally stopped after a really horrible chauvinist line where the seventeen-year-old girl in charge of the family backed down and let her fifteen-year-old hothead brother walk alone into a dangerous situation because (the author told us) she needed to go submissive and "be willing to be protected" in order to keep him feeling Responsible and not slacking off. o_O *fistshake* GENDER POLITICS!

Much less important but relevant, I was deeply nervous about Trustworthy Mr Cleaver's Very Nice Gift of... castor bean plants. Which are both tropical and deeply poisonous if chewed by animals or humans -- none of which was mentioned, and by the time it came up, I was quite certain it wouldn't be used to bring up any such interesting topic as how Uncle Jim mightn't be a perfect judge of character or how even the nicest and most likable people don't always know everything. :P

The castor bean plants also exemplify another thing that was bothering me: this story is not about South Dakota. It's about some fictional prairie somewhere that's classically Beautiful and Gorgeous and has streams and hillocks and wonderful sunsets and glowing flowers and bright colors, and which - this is important - everybody loves. People kept assuring the children that they'd love the prairie, with an implied "if you're any sort of worthwhile people". Whereas... I know several perfectly lovely people who find the South Dakota prairie DEEPLY CREEPTASTIC. It's not for everyone! It's the ultimate nightmare if you're even a tiny bit agoraphobic, and it's wide and almost featureless except where it isn't, and not classically pretty at all. It's this big, silent, watching entity. ([personal profile] clocketpatch has described the feeling best, from the POV of someone who doesn't love it: "The sky is too big here.... in my heart I know that this is where the world ends.")

And while it made perfect sense for ex-sailor Uncle Jim to fall in love with the real South Dakota because it's so very much like the open sea, in its size and its moods and its sometimes-terrifyingness -- it is not the friendly little wildflower-filled prairie that was being described. So I didn't feel that that part of the story was... emotionally honest; it seemed like the writer was describing an idealized prairie setting she thought her readers would like, in order to make them sympathize with the chidren as they fall in love with it, and just calling it Dakota because I Have No Idea Why.

And then there was the bit where I flipped to the end and found the author agreeing with seriously nasty victim-blaming, and just ugh. I'm going to link the online edition for completeness, but I really don't recommend it.

Conclusion: No stars. Which is a shame. It had potential. :P

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