Dear America: Like The Willow Tree: The Diary Of Lydia Amelia Pierce: Portland, Maine, 1918, by Lois Lowry, read by Sara Barnett
I had never read any of the Dear America series before, and this delightful and short book, spread out over 4 cds that not only includes the diary of a fictional orphan of the Flu epidemic of 1918 but an interview with the author herself as well as some tracks of Shaker choirs singing some of the music included in this volume makes me want to read more of the series. This is so even though the series is clearly directed at young readers, particularly preteen girls, although in my defense as a reader the books are written with a great deal of history. The interview with the author, for example, showed that Lowry chose a topic to write about that combined the tragic events of the flu epidemic of 1918 with an area she knew very well, a Shaker village near her summer home in Maine, where the three remaining Shakers allowed her to conduct research to add a high degree of verisimilitude to the fictional narrative of young Lydia and her older brother Daniel.
The story itself is rather confined in its narrative. Opening with Lydia receiving a diary as part of her birthday present when her 11th birthday is spoiled by the fact that the spread of the flu led to efforts at banning public performance in a vain attempt to stop its spread, the story quickly progresses through Lydia and her brother being left orphans, losing their parents and their little sister Lucy, a pleasant infant, leaving them first in the care of their uncle and shrewish aunt and then to the care of the Shakers. The novel, which consists of diary posts (as might be expected from its title), takes many of its incidents from the actual history of the Shakers during this period, including the names of the people in the Shaker village and the events like the ice melting in the lake. The novel shows special concern for Lydia, a beautiful and intelligent girl who is independent-minded but also generally decent, as an outsider speaking about the odd habits of the Shakers, such as their strict gender segregation as well as their focus on moral perfection through effort creating a heaven on earth, but totally rejecting the divine call for marriage and family. The book shows a great deal of attention to the odd and eccentric beliefs of the Shakers.
The book succeeds for several reasons. For one, the author has chosen in Lydia an immensely appealing protagonist, observant and questioning, independent-minded but decent, someone who one could see easily as a friend, someone with a lot of emotional empathy and strong emotional sensitivity as well as a passion for writing that is easy for some of us to relate to . In addition to the inspired choice of place and time that were new to the Dear America series and also well within the expertise of the author, as well as the excellent choice of a sympathetic orphan heroine, the mundane details of life in the Shaker Village, the one room schoolhouse, the farmwork, the sewing and candymaking, the sleigh rides, the visits from the dentists, and so on, help to ground the events of the novel in real life. It is not too difficult to imagine oneself as a person not unlike the narrator, with concern for family and friends, a moral sensitivity to one’s imperfections, a strong desire to remember the past as well as live as best as one can in the present, and a desire to learn and grow. The book contains strong moral character demonstrated without being heavy-handed about it, which is made easier by the fact that its conscientious heroine is an outsider, a survivor of immense trauma and difficulty, and a girl who is easy to root for. The epilogue gives her a very fitting and lovely fate as well, one which she richly deserves, and that ought to be very pleasing to the book’s core audience as well. I won’t spoil it except to say that it is the sort of happy ending I would want for my own life as well, which makes me not so different, I suppose, from the people who read this sort of novel, despite all of the differences.
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