Julie A. Swanson

Purer and Purer Streams…

Month: January, 2013

The Rock Walls of St. John

I wish I’d taken a picture of one of the beautiful and distinctive-style rock walls or buildings they have there, but  I didn’t, so I’ll tell you to go here and see what one type of them is like:

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-m-AapCaD-4Y/TxGrV6Fw0II/AAAAAAAADLc/YzDf0vk7DSI/s1600/Annaburg+fire+holes+for+boiling.JPG.  This link shows a picture of historic sugar mill ruins in Annaburg and isn’t quite what I’d show you as the perfect example of what I mean.  But I think it’s where these walls originated so I thought it worth seeing.

To see the modern and more-perfected art of it that I really like, look at these pictures of the Mongoose Junction in Cruz Bay, a nice shopping center/galleria they have there: http://www.pbase.com/image/66493731 and http://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g147409-d148847-i22535047-Mongoose_Junction-St_John_U_S_Virgin_Islands.html

These rock buildings and walls have big flat-faced rocks of assorted colors with chunks of white coral and seashells ( both small clam-shaped white shells and larger white-and-pink conch shells) and bits of red brick or clay stuck in the mortar between the larger rocks and corals. So you have gray, black, slate blue-green, white, pink, and brick-red all in one wall. Mosaic-like, almost lacy.

At first I found them funky, like walls of recycled stuff, but then they grew and grew on me until I decided my dream house might be a stone house like that one day, similar to the wonderful Mongoose Junction building in Cruz Bay, which combines rich and hefty woodwork with it.

These walls are obviously a trademark of St. John from way back, as the old sugar mill ruins all over the island have the same mix of stone and coral with broken bits of brick and shells in between big chunks of coral and rock. Beautiful and a great use of the materials at hand. I’m curious as to whether they originally meant to be artistic and create the mosaic effect or if they were just using every scrap, re-using the brick from structures that had crumbled or been torn down. Where they built as haphazardly and hurriedly as it appears so that their beauty was almost accidental or unintended, something only appreciated in retrospect when people had time to come in from somewhere else and enjoy their uniqueness? Regardless, it works and many must’ve liked it and continue to like it, because I saw many structures that had copied or were being built in the same style–only they’re neater and seem to more purposefully artful than some of the old historic walls.


The Art of Drunk Bay

First of all, let me say this art is really hidden. Drunk Bay is off the beaten path, probably not a hot destination since it’s a really rocky beach where the surf pounds continuously and harder than anywhere else we saw in St. John, so you can’t swim there and it’s hard to crawl around the outcroppings at the Ram’s Head end of Drunk Bay and it’s not on the way to anywhere else. Which is a shame because a lot of people probably miss this very informal and impromptu display of art that absolutely anyone is welcome to contribute to. Very creative…

At first I was like, What is this–some sort of burial ground? Are those babies’ bones or old dolls scattered on those outcropping of rock? Is this the Island of Misfits?

Everywhere we looked, we saw little white or light-colored bodies against the dark rocks.




But then I saw that these were whimsical creations made out of coral, rock, and driftwood, with hair and mustaches made out of pieces of coconut shell…

Steve's favorite, smoking a coral cigarette and all.

Steve’s favorite, smoking a coral cigarette and all.


Louis and Slowpoke’s family, and other critters and creatures we saw on St. John


When our oldest, A, was a preschooler, she wanted a pet desperately but we had a very small house, so one Christmas Santa got her two hermit crabs. She named them Louis and Slowpoke. I LOVE those names. Every time I even think about them I smile. I mean how cute, Louis (Louis? Where did she get that? We knew no one named Louis, she’d never even been read a book with a character named Louis in it). And Slowpoke, such a kid name, obviously a second thought, a comparison name, because he or she was not as fast as good ol’ Louis. Not Slowpoke and Speedy as you might expect, but Slowpoke and Louis. If only I could come up with as good a pair of names for the stories I write. Anyway, each time we saw a hermit crab hiking on St. John, we thought of A and smiled and wished she were with us to see them all. It was very tempting to try to bring a couple home and ship them to her, but Louis and Slowpoke II wouldn’t have liked that. *(correction: A just read this and told me she did not name both hermit crabs, that her younger sister K named Slowpoke. Which makes the fact that these names don’t seemingly go together–but are actually very cute together because of that–make much more sense. Sorry, K, want to be sure to give credit where credit is due!)

There are hermit crabs all over St. John, some very large. You’ll be walking down a path and a ‘rock’ will spontaneously and gently roll down an incline and you’ll think, that’s weird, I didn’t just kick that rock or anything–why did it move? Then when it comes to rest, you see that it’s not a rock, but a shell, a hermit crab that pulled its claws in (out of fear maybe, they hear or see you coming and play dead/rock?).

Look at the purples and pinks and reds of those claws.

A close-up of these shy creatures’ undersides. Look at the purples and reds of those claws.

We also spied this caterpillar on a hike, never saw one like this before.

We also spied this bright caterpillar on a hike, never saw one like this before.


A close up.

As I mentioned, but probably got buried in an earlier post on St. John, there are also some much bigger creatures that wander the island; donkeys and goats and chickens, even cows that graze unfenced alongside the road. We read somewhere that they refer to the donkeys as ‘feral,’  which I find a curious label. They seemed very tame to me. Steve and I stumbled upon a group of 7 donkeys on our way back from a hike our first day. There they were sharing the same skinny path we needed to go on to get back to our eco-tent, only coming in the opposite direction. No one had told us to expect to run into a pack of donkeys so we didn’t know if they’d escaped their pen or what. Were they friendly, we wondered as we stepped into the woods to give them the right of way. Yes, that time they were. They just ambled on past us with barely a glance our way, but we were later told that they are not always so indifferent, that they will come up to you and if you put a hand out to pet them, they may bite it because they are mad you don’t have anything in your hand to feed them, as people evidently do. They are on the sides of the main road, too, even on the road, refusing to budge and making cars stop or go around them. Goats, too, whole herds of them, dozens. Chickens and roosters, too. I read of ‘wild’ boars that do the same on the island, but we didn’t see any. Also heard of gigantic caterpillars, but didn’t spot those either.

Bugs? We’d been warned that bugs can be a problem and that some people get bitten all over by misquitoes and no-see-ums (one person leaving the day we came said his wife even had bites all over, even on her palms; he admitted she was one of those people who seemed to attract bugs to her), but we had no problem whatsoever. We came prepared with bug spray and a net to put over our bed and sleep under, but neither were needed. I got one bug bite on my leg, that’s it. We did see some bugs, but they were not the biting type, nothing big or scary either.

On St. Thomas, the USVI we flew into before ferrying over to St. John, we saw huge iguanas, almost stumbled over them. They were scary but we eventually got up the courage to go past them (they would not get out of our way going up a stairway) and saw they were not at all aggressive and very used to people. On St. John, we only saw smaller gecko-like things.

As for underwater creatures, we saw plenty of those. We snorkeled a lot. Everyday. We asked around and followed tips and snorkeled all but a few bays. Saw all kinds of things and really enjoyed the snorkeling. The water was nice and warm, the colors as beautiful underwater as above. Very relaxing and good exercise if you want it to be and go for a while. We swam out and snorkeled around small islands. I won’t bother saying all the places we went and which we’d recommend unless you’re interested and ask in a comment. Having grown up in a tourist area myself, I know that sometimes you don’t give away the best spots so easily or they become too quickly spoiled. It was sad to hear a park ranger tell of how much of the coral is dead, covered with algae, broken off and dingy in color whereas healthy it would be vivid bright colors like the fish, all because snorkelers’ fins and feet and boat motors hit it and knock pieces off or just kill it.

The Brilliant Caribbean Blues of St. John’s Bays and Beaches

Overlook on St. Francis and Maho Bays

Overlook above Francis and Maho Bays

St. John is a small bumpy-edged island with tons of little bays and beaches and smaller islands or cays not far from its shores. We explored many of these beaches. The island also has incredibly winding roads snaking up and down and around steep inclines (with hairpin turns and no shoulders, ‘feral’ donkeys and goats and chickens sharing the road with you; it doesn’t help that while dealing with all that, you’re also driving on the left side of the road in a jeep with the steering wheel on the same side as we’re used to). When they can be squeezed into the tight vertical landscape, there are scenic turnoffs so you can catch the panoramic overlook views. Here is some of what we saw in the beach-and-water category, although you really need a panoramic camera to capture the true feel of being there (from the highest point of the Concordia Eco-resort where you park your car to go to your eco-ten, you have about a 300-degree view of the Caribbean!)…

This little boy on Trunk Bay beach really caught my eye, the red-and-yellow of him contrasting with the complimentary colors of the water.

This little boy on Trunk Bay beach really caught my eye, the red-and-yellow of him contrasting with the complimentary colors of the water. And look at that sand. It wasn’t like this everywhere, but it was at several other beaches we visited, including Solomon Bay and Honeymoon Bay.

St. Francis Bay and Maho Bay again.

Francis Bay and Maho Bay again, this time showing Maho Bay beach as well.

How about those blues! Before, when I'd seen them on websites or promotional brochures, I thought they'd been photoshopped perhaps to make the colors pop. But, no, it's real.How about those blues! Before, when I’d seen pictures of the Caribbean islands and their beaches on websites or promotional brochures or on TV, I thought it they’d been enhanced by Hollywood or photoshopped perhaps to make the colors pop. But, no, it’s real.

Everywhere you go on the island, there it is when you look out at the water, those blues, turquoise and sapphire.

Everywhere we went on the island, there it was when we looked out, those blue-greens, shades of turquoise and sapphire.


The dark spots and patches are coral reef, where you can find amazing things snorkeling, which we did everyday and really enjoyed–saw sea turtles and sting rays and lobsters, many bright-colored fish, including my favorite, the parrotfish. Steve even saw a 5-6 ft. nurse shark one day).

Cannel Bay, one of the more 'civilized' beaches, but still beautiful. And not just 'still' beautiful, but really beautiful.

Cannel Bay, one of the more ‘civilized’ beaches (Caneel Bay resort  is here, where you can stay in units right on the water; though pricey, not glitzy or overdeveloped), but still beautiful. And not just ‘still’ beautiful, but really beautiful. Over half of St. John is National Park, so except for the homes of  the local people who live there (someone who lives there told us there are only 5,000 fulltime residents on the island. The kids who attend public schools have to take the ferry to St. Thomas everyday to go to school. There are only two public schools on the island for kids younger than that.) and the villas of those fortunate to be able to second homes there, there only significant civilization you see are the small towns of Cruz Bay and Coral Bay, the Westin hotel complex, and  Caneel Bay Resort. Concordia Eco-Resort doesn’t even seem to count since it blends into the landscape and is so hidden on the south side of the island, a good half hour or more drive from where most come onto the island by ferry at Cruz Bay.

Looking down from atop Ram's Head. You can't appreciate how far down from this picture--scary, dizzy down.

Looking down (and west) from atop Ram’s Head. You can’t appreciate how far down from this picture–scary, dizzy down. Ram’s head is a hike you can easily take in an hour or so from Concordia, less than that if you start from Salt Pond Bay.

Steve, and my thumb, on Solomon Bay beach.

Steve, and my thumb, on Solomon Bay beach.

I could show you many more, but these are my favorites.

Les Miserables, the movie

I don’t usually like musicals–the only ones I’ve ever really enjoyed are The Sound of Music and Mama Mia–but I’d heard Les Miserables was good so I was willing to give it a chance. Yesterday I finally found someone willing to go with me and I was excited about it (Steve’s been dragging his feet on this one for some reason: I think because he’d heard it was sad, and because he doesn’t seem to be big on musicals either). But then we got in the theatre and the movie started and there was that first scene with the men down in the water tugging on the thick ropes–singing!–and I thought, Oh, no, I don’t think I’m going to be able to get through this. 

I didn’t even want to look over at my 15-year-old son S who I’d somehow gotten to go along with me, because I was sure he was thinking the same thing and didn’t want to meet his glare of, What did you get me into? So I just stared straight ahead and tried to pretend I was into it.

And, you know what? Pretty soon I was. At some point it was like I forgot they were singing, or maybe it was more that I knew I had to pay attention to the singing–that it wasn’t something superfluous but that the words of the songs were critical to my understanding of what was going on. And before I knew it, I wasn’t just listening intently to the singing, I was enjoying it, marveling at how well the characters could sing, admiring the very real emotion they were able to put into it. Who knew Russell Crowe could sing?

So many actors/characters were good, Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, the comical couple, the little boy, little Cosette and big Cosette, and the young man who falls in love with Cosette, Ebony…

My son was quite sick this week  (perhaps this was why he was willing to go with his mother to a movie like Les Miserables; anything to get out the house after 6 days) and is getting over a bad cough, so we sat in a top corner, where his occasional hacking wouldn’t bother people as much. I needn’t have worried; instead of coughing, I cried. I didn’t look over to see if S was crying because I didn’t want to embarrass him, but I did hear him sniffle a few times. It was, as I discussed in a previous blog post about why people enjoy movies or books that make them cry, not so much that it was always sad in a bad/negative way. Just as often I felt sad in the good way of having been touched, when your tears are about  your heart strings getting plucked or your heart swelling with a great feeling of love, inspired by un-selfish and altruistic love shown in the movie.

As we sat there in the dark with the credits rolling, I asked S how he liked the movie. I expected him to shrug, which I’d interpret as, “I liked it but I don’t want to admit how much.” But instead he simply said he liked it, that it was good, which to me meant he really liked it, possibly even as much as I had.

I give it a 5 out of 5.

Some Amazing ‘Sky’ Shots from St. John USVI …

I caught my first ever rainbow in a photo from the deck of our eco-tent.

I caught my first ever rainbow in a photo from the deck of our eco-tent. It’s a skinny, faint little thing, but still beautiful.

A sunrise over Drunk Bay

A sunrise over Drunk Bay–I thought it was cool how the right side of the picture still looks like nighttime, while the left shows the light creeping in and sparkling on the water.

Morning rain--and rays of sun--slanting down out over the Caribbean somewhere.

Morning rain–and rays of sun–slanting down out over the Caribbean somewhere.

Another amazing sunrise

Another amazing sunrise

Although this may look like it was taken on the same day and at the same place as the previous picture, it wasn't. It was taken on a hike to the tip of Ram's Head. There were many dramatic skies like this to enjoy during our week there.  The sky changes fast there,  rain clouds--and rain--come and go quickly. Very unpredictable but never seemed to be overcast or rain for long and then the sun was out again.

A bright circle of light beaming down on the dark Caribbean. Love the rays coming down, always makes me think of God, the radiance of God. Although this may look like it was taken on the same day and at the same place as the previous picture, it wasn’t. It was taken on a hike to the tip of Ram’s Head, from quite a high elevation. There were many dramatic skies like this to enjoy during our week there. The sky changes fast there; rain clouds–and rain–come and go quickly. Very unpredictable but never seemed to be overcast or rain for long and then the sun was out again.

Doesn't this look like some angry god glaring down from the sky--the eyes, dark nose, mouth on the water? Not my God! This was taken shortly after the previous picture, as the clouds were blowing away and changing shape.

Doesn’t this look like some angry god glaring down from the sky–the eyes, dark nose and heavy eyebrows, the indent of the mouth, the chin cloud? This was taken shortly after the previous picture, as the clouds were blowing away and changing shape.

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The sun bursting forth and the darkness moving east after a short rain shower.

Here's a sunset shot.

Here’s a sunset shot.


Here’s proof that it was bright and sunny while we were there (more beach-and-blue-sky shots to come in a few days). The southern part of the island is dry and rocky and has cactus like this, while the northern side is more lush and jungle-like with palm trees.

More pictures another day, next time of the brilliant blues of the water of the many beaches we explored…

What is an Eco-Tent like?

view-from-boardwalk-1Simply amazing! It was like playing Tarzan and Jane for a week, only a bit more civilized. Steve and I just got back from a wonderful vacation on St. John USVI where we celebrated our 25th Anniversary at the Concordia Eco-Resort (http://www.concordiaeco-resort.com/). We stayed in a eco-tent which is like a treehouse of sorts, a deluxe tent on stilts that puts you up off the ground so you can see over the treetops to the amazing panoramic view of the Caribbean and assorted islands and the Ram’s Head peninsula.

It’s a post and beam type structure with heavy duty canvas stretched over it for the roof and walls, windows you can zip open/closed, and deck board flooring. Simple and ‘green’ (a solar-heated shower, solar-powered electricity), it was airy, clean, and comfortable, with all the basic necessities: a small refrigerator, two-burner propane stove top, sink, dishes, utensils, pots, linens, beds with mattresses, toilet, table-and-chairs on the deck… Below is a pictorial tour of our P14 unit in Concordia:


The premium eco-tents look like this (this is not the unit we stayed in; ours was one of the four lowest on the slope, looking down not on the roofs of other eco-tents but on nothing but nature). You can see the solar panel hanging at a slant from the porch/deck.

You parked high above and walked down steps to get to our eco-tent, unit P14, one of the two lowest units, which were still very high (hundreds of feet about the water below).

We parked high above and walked down steps to get to our eco-tent, unit P14, which was still hundreds of feet about the water and land below. Straight in front of us, the view was of the southern-most tip of St. John, Ram’s Head. To the left of Ram’s Head we looked down on the pounding surf of Drunk Bay, and to the right Salt Pond Bay, where there’a a tranquil sand beach and good snorkeling. The small brown body of water in Ram’s Head peninsula is Salt Pond.

A better look at our view to the left side of Ram’s Head, Drunk Bay (Steve going down the steps to our eco-tent).

You walked down the steps and into the entryway of the eco-tent. To the right is the bathroom area, to the left is the main tent living quarters.

You walked down the steps and into the entryway of the eco-tent. To the left, a door to the main living quarters, to the right, the door to the bathroom area.

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Every room with a view!


The main room/floor, with 3 twin beds and a kitchen (not visible, to the left); the ladder up to the loft with two more twin mattresses in it that can be pushed together to make a king; and a door out to the deck.

Steve hanging beach towels on the deck clothesline to dry in the sun and wind.

Steve hanging beach towels on the deck clothesline to dry in the sun and wind.

Our messy and very basic little kitchen. Notice the grey box of the fridge, basically a solar-powered electric cooler.

Our messy and very basic little kitchen. Not visible just to the left, the small fridge, the same shape and size as a large cooler with a lid that lifts up.

Looking up at the Concordia Eco-Resort from Drunk Bay; our eco-tent is the second one from the right on the bottom.

Looking up at the Concordia Eco-Resort from Drunk Bay; our eco-tent (premium eco-tent P14 in case you are looking to reserve a good unit there) is the second one from the right on the bottom.


Steve taking a picture of Concordia from Salt Pond Bay.

Oh, and by the way, the Concordia Eco-Resort has what they call an outdoor "cafe" right on its grounds, but I wouldn't call the Concordia Cafe a cafe. It's a very good sit-down restaurant where you are served and can choose appetizers, entrees, desserts and drinks/cocktails from a menu with a delicious daily special. We ate there three nights and had great meals each time. Great sunset views as you're eating, too.

Oh, and by the way, the Concordia Eco-Resort has what they call an outdoor “cafe” right on its grounds, but I wouldn’t call Cafe Concordia a cafe. It’s a very good sit-down restaurant where you’re served and can choose appetizers, entrees, desserts, and drinks/cocktails from a menu with a delicious daily special. We ate there three nights and had great meals each time. Great breezes and sunset views, and the staff people at Concordia are really friendly and helpful, too.


Cover Art that’s Less than Honest?

Recently I reviewed several books with tomboy or athletic girl main characters, the Dairy Queen series by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, and Our Only May Amelia and its sequel, The Trouble with May Amelia, by Jennifer Holm. I love those stories, but I have a bone to pick with the cover art of the Dairy Queen series and The Trouble with May Amelia (not with Our Only May Amelia; that one is fine and true to the story, I feel). And it’s not just these books, but many others as well, books whose cover art, in an attempt to appeal to the masses, betrays the truth of what you read in the stories.

Now don’t get me wrong, their covers are visually appealing. They’re brightly colored, and the photos or artwork of the characters show healthy, wholesome, good-looking kids. But the cover art does not match what you learn about the characters in the story.

I understand that these books are about tomboys or female athletes, and that there are certain negative stereotypes out there about tomboys and girls who are really into sports. I get that publishers don’t want to turn anybody off, that they want to try to entice kids to read books, even girls who might not be tomboys or athletes. Totally reasonable, especially since extreme tomboys and elite athletes such as the characters of May Amelia Jackson and D.J. Schwenk represent a minority of the female population. But when you, the reader, are, or were, yourself an extreme tomboy or athlete, and you’re looking for a book or are finally reading one where you can actually relate to the character, and you see a girl on the cover who’s been ‘prettied up’ so as to be presentable to the masses, it makes you mad!

All of the Dairy Queen covers in some way suggest much more girly-ness than you find in the actual stories. Why did they have to lie and make D.J. have long hair when it clearly states in the book, a couple times, that she has short hair, that she’s even gone to get her hair cut short again? And D.J. wouldn’t be caught dead wearing the cow-print clothes–a miniskirt and rainboots at that–shown on the paperback versions of her stories (unless it were her Halloween costume maybe!). The cow on the cover of the Dairy Queen hardback version is wearing a tiara!

Why did they have to take 12-year-old May Amelia–who’s mistaken for a boy several times in the story and actually has to insist, even argue, that she’s a girl and not one of her brothers (and she’s not believed); she’s dirty, she stinks, she wears overalls and her brothers’ hand-me-down shoes; she only wore a dress once in the whole story, she works out in the cow pasture, ankle deep in manure!–and make her look like a clean and well-groomed 16-year-old girl who might even be wearing lipstick? I held up the book to Steve to show him the cover and asked him, “How old would you say this girl is?” He said, “I don’t know, she could be twenty?” Yes, kids like to read up, but come on. Talk about girls wanting to grow up too fast. I wonder why? They’re 12 (or younger) and reading about a 12-year-old and they look at the cover of the book and think, Wow, I look like a baby compared to her and we’re supposed to be the same age?

For me, the effect of doing this is to say that there’s something wrong or unappealing about being a tomboy (or looking your age). I’m not sure what the answer is because I understand publishers want a kid to pick up a book and realize that it’s a story about a girl and not a boy, but there has to be some way to indicate ‘tomboy’ without the cover art betraying the character in the story. I think about my stories, and how even though I might’ve written one about a tomboy who has short hair and is often mistaken for a boy herself, if I want this book to be for tomboys who are like I was as a kid–starved for books about characters they can relate to, not able to find many, if any–then, yes, I too would want a kid/parent picking the book up to realize that this is about a tomboy, a girl, not a boy. It’s tricky. I think the hardback cover of Our Only May Amelia does a pretty good job of it. May Amelia has long hair and is cute in a plain sort of way. She looks like she could be anywhere from 10 to 12 and she’s wearing overalls and is barefoot. She looks like a tomboy but is undeniably a girl. If you’re going to show a tomboy wearing something she would hate, at least you’ve got to show her looking unhappy in it, no?

I’m not trying to pick on these books I love, or these particular publishers. This same problem happens with other books published by other publishers as well. It just smacks of false advertising. And it makes tomboys, and non-foofy girl athletes, and girls who aren’t necessarily anxious to grow up feel like they must be embarrassing or something if a publisher can’t even put a girl who looks like them on the front cover of book that’s about a girl who looks like them!

If these are stories celebrating tomboys and serious girl athletes (and the ARE!), what’s wrong with featuring a girl who’s sweaty or has short hair or is wearing clothes that show their functionality or evidence of how hard she plays?

Kids want to see kids who look like them on book covers; it makes them feel like they belong and are accepted in their world.

Does THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA live up to its predecessor?

My third and final review of recently-discovered sequels to books I love:


In checking on something before writing a post recommending Our Only May Amelia, by Jennifer L. Holm (I always misspell her name as Holms or Holmes!), I saw that a sequel to it had come out that I’d not known about–The Trouble with May Amelia. So I eagerly ordered it and just finished it.

It’s been over ten years since I read the first story, Our Only May Amelia, but it felt like I slipped right back into the state of Washington, along the Nasel River in 1900, right back into May Amelia’s family, right back on their farm and into their one-room school house. The story seemed to be written in a different style than what I remembered (no quotation marks around dialogue, very sparsely written) and yet it was the same May Amelia I remembered loving. I don’t like giving away story-lines–jacket flap already does that more than needed–so I’ll just say this story doesn’t shy away from the reality that sometimes the people we love can be mean and never really change to become who we hope they will, …and I really liked it and think any tomboy more nearly the age of May Amelia in the story (12) will love it. I give it a 4.8 out of five stars. So, yes, The Trouble with May Amelia lives up to the story it continues. It did not disappoint.

***(having said that, what’s up with the cover art? Does that girl look like she’s 12? Does that girl look like a character in a story who is often mistaken for a boy? I get that you want a book to appeal to the masses, but…)

5 stars1

Does CHICKADEE Live Up to its BIRCHBARK HOUSE Predecessors?

My second review of recently discovered sequels to series I love:

imgres-8Chickadee is the fourth book in Louise Erdrich’s The Birchbark House series, a series which would fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series will probably love. It’s been said The Birchbark House series is the Native American version of those beloved pioneer-times stories. Books in this series include, in order, The Birchbark House, The Game of Silence, The Year of the Porcupine, and now Chickadee.

4 out of 5

Whereas I’d give the first three books in the series 5 out of 5 stars, I rate Chickadee 4 out of 5. Why? Well, for one thing, I felt more closely connected to the main character in the previous stories. In the first three books the main character is a girl named Omakayas, while this latest in the series features Omakayas’s son Chickadee as the protagonist. I don’t think my preference for Omakayas has anything to do with her being a girl; I’ve always enjoyed boy characters as much a girls. I just liked Omakayas, her brother Pinch, and a younger brother her family came to adopt (can’t remember his name), and the dynamics between them all better. Those who are, have, or know twins may enjoy Chickadee, however, because he has a twin brother.

The second thing I preferred about the earlier books is the island/lake setting of those stories. Again, this isn’t necessarily a criticism of anything the author did or didn’t do, but may be more a reflection of my tastes, and the fact that it’s a part of the storyline that Chickadee’s family had to up and leave their island home before they might be forced out.

The third thing that made this a 4 rather than a 5 for me is that I really missed the character of the stoic and hardened-yet-loving old woman named Old Tallow, an important figure in the first three stories. Two Strike (Chickadee’s aunt, who was a wild-child tomboy in the first books) is a strong character who seems ready-made to fill Old Tallow’s shoes, but she doesn’t play as key a role and we don’t see her as up-close or as being as dear a person in the main character’s life. …The same is true of the parents and grandparents, now that I think of it. The only person besides Chickadee I really felt I was allowed to get close to was his Uncle Quill, and even then, he still wasn’t painted quite as warmly as characters in the other books. We just don’t get to know and love people as we did in even just the first story alone. Characters feel a little more distant in this last story. It feels shorter, too, briefer.

Having explained all that, a 4 out of 5 is not at all bad, and I still really enjoyed Chickadee. It’s a warm, sweet story of an extended family’s love, hope, and perseverance.