Worth the Candle

Our Only May Amelia By Jennifer L. Holm Cover Image
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ISBN: 9780064408561
Published: HarperCollins - April 24th, 2001

Old-fashioned is an adjective equally used for praise and disdain, so we have to make it very clear that when we say Our Only May Amelia is an old-fashioned book we mean that it offers the kind of breath-taking middle-reader adventure that never goes out of style. The distinction is also important because it might, at first, appear to be the other kind of old-fashioned: the fusty, eat-your-mutton kind.

The subject is frontier life, in particular the frontier life of Finns who settled the Nasel (now Naselle) River Valley in Washington at the turn of the 19th century. The heroine of the title, the only daughter born after seven sons, is turning 12 on the book's first page and in trouble for "going up to Ben Armstrong's logging camp by myself" - something her brothers do without any consequence.

So, yes, we've got a familiar set-up here. A girl of the frontier is facing the time to become a Young Lady. But the particulars of this set-up are, in fact, particular, not generic. The frontier is not the prairie, but the Pacific Northwest, where the main occupation is logging and the main transportation is a river that claims lives almost as relentlessly as it flows. The large Jackson family has rifts far more significant and compelling than May Amelia's gender-defying desire to grow up and be a sailor. And May Amelia's birthday wish - that her Mamma's next baby will be a sister, not another brother - will come true, but not with the outcome all would expect. Holm based this book on a diary she inherited and did additional research that intelligently informs every page. May Amelia the book is as singular as May Amelia the daughter. Readers who have been seduced before by old-fashioned books will love it, and readers who like only new-fangled stories should still give it a try.