Monday, November 8, 2010

A Gathering of Days, by Joan Blos

This is the journal of Catherine Hall, age 13, between October 17, 1830 and March 8, 1832. She lives in a small New England village, attends school, and is in charge of the womens' work at home because her mother died several years before. Events during the book include her aiding a fugitive slave, her father's remarriage, and the death of her good friend.

The book is critically praised for being from the point of view of a real 1830s character, not a time traveler with 1970s sensibilities. I think this is largely true, although to me it did have the distinct feel of the school assignment "Write a journal from the point of view of a character during X time period". But at the same time, it dealt well with some subjects that a school curriculum might not include in depth (a real-life traveling mural and portrait artist, the industrial revolution and its effect on rural New Englanders, the issue of slavery pre-Civil War) and things that were very real parts of the lives of young people in the 19th century, which most children today are sheilded from. The last third of the book deals heavily with Catherine's grief at the death of her closest friend - a relatively common experience at the time, but one (blessedly) unfamiliar to many children today. At the same time, her discomfort with her father's new wife, even though both she and her step-mother are doing their best to get along, is an experience that transcends time. The author also included some documented historic events - the harsh schoolmaster being bodily removed from the school by some of the boys, as one example!

I must also mention the cover art. This is the kind of cover that I HATED as a kid, and it still bothers me now. The artist could easily have been told something along the following lines: "girl, aged 13, 1830s clothing. dark stranger." The resulting shadowy figure in the trenchcoat and fedora is very annoying when you realize that the dark stranger was really the fugitive slave hiding in the woods who she managed to glimpse once or twice on her way to school. The artist should read the book, or at least have the scene described decently. If I'd loved this book as a kid (or probably, even now) I'd have promptly covered my own copy in brown paper. A quick google image search does show that there are a few much more reasonable covers out there. If you read it, look around for a better one so  you're not annoyed every time you pick it up!

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