Historical fiction is somewhat of a mixed bag. Successful historicals allow you to inhabit an alternate reality, just as you would in a fantasy novel, so that the reader comes away with knowledge that you would get if you had lived it. Less inviting are novels that are little more than recitations of fact, or those who overlay modern values and feelings into historical settings. Much better are books where it's apparent that a novelist has done his or her homework, and the details of daily life are woven seamlessly into the narrative.
In The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had, author Kristin Levine builds on the life of her grandfather to create a compelling and engrossing novel for middle graders. It's 1917 and life in Moundville, Alabama has a predictable rhythm for twelve-year-old Dit Sims. When a new family moves into town, Dit's hoping for a boy his own age, and he's too busy being mad that the postmaster has a daughter to care about the fact that the Walkers are Black. Emma seems just like nobody Dit could ever possibly be friends with, and he's only nice to her because his mama says he has to be. Spending time with Emma starts Dit thinking, though, and he realizes that not everything in Moundville is exactly the same for everyone. Before long Dit and Emma are pulled into events that are way beyond their control, where life and death literally hang in the balance.
The other thing that impresses me about Levine's debut is the way she deftly threads historical detail into the plot. Kids aren't immediately hit with the idea that this is a historical -- though you know it, by virtue of elements like the excitement of an arriving train, or Dit's mama boiling wash in the front yard -- you're never hammered over the head by the foreignness of these elements. This is the type of book that works well for kids who think they don't like history. Because Levine's story is so character-driven and emotionally charged, readers are pulled along with the plot without stopping to think about time and place.
The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had raises thought-provoking questions about acceptance and equality, about those who are part of the inner circle and those who are forever kept on the outside. This is a finely nuanced novel that raises the level of tension almost imperceptibly; I blazed through this compelling novel in one sitting, as captivated by the story as I was by the characters who set events in motion. Can't wait to see what Levine writes next!
The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had by Kristin Levine, published by G. P. Putnam's Sons
Sample quote: "Didn't see much of Emma for a while after that. She'd been okay on the fishing trip, and maybe we'd even had a little fun, but I still didn't want to be her friend. What'd we have in common? I loved the outdoors; she liked to sit on the porch all day. But my mama had a rule -- we didn't have to like anyone, but we had to be nice to everyone. That's exactly the kind of rule grown-ups make up, ain't it?"