In the seventh or eighth grade, I stumbled across The Last Silk Dress at the Oregon State University bookstore. It was clearly my kind of book. A little long, actually, compared to what I was reading then, but the cover was gorgeous. The heroine was a southern belle during the Civil War. Besides, there were only about two rows of young adult books in the whole store.
Little did I know I had just discovered one of my favorite books.
And more importantly, one of my favorite authors. To date, Ann Rinaldi has written about fifty novels. I’ve read at least forty. She specializes in historical fiction with strong female voices. Many of her newer novels are mid-grade—and I enjoy them—but I especially love her YA.
Before I plunge into Ever-After Bird, my newest Rinaldi read, it’s high time I paid homage to the author. And directed you to some of my favorites. The following summaries are either from the book jackets or from Goodreads, with a few of my personal notes in the parenthesis below.
1. The Last Silk Dress
High-spirited, beautiful Susan Chilmark, fourteen, vows to do something meaningful to support the Confederacy during the Civil War. Despite the wishes of her mother, Susan and her best friend, Connie, collect silk dresses from all the ladies of Richmond to make a balloon that will be used to spy on the Yankees.
But the issues behind the war aren’t as obvious as Susan thinks. When she meets her dashing, scandalous older brother and discovers why he was banished from the family, Susan unlocks a Pandora’s box of secrets that forces her to rethink and challenge the very system she was born into. Does she have the courage to do what is right even though it may hurt the ones she loves?
(Susan isn’t your typical Southern belle. Her father is dead. Her mother is abusive. And when Susan believes in something, she doesn’t hold back).
2. Time Enough for Drums
Fifteen-year-old Jemima Emerson can’t believe her Rebel father is allowing John Reid to tutor her! Not only is John a noted Tory, he’s a bully as well. And he rules her studies with a strict hand, then steps in and rules her life the same way.
Jem rebels until she discovers a shocking and dangerous secret about John that drastically changes her feelings for him.
(A traditional revolutionary war romance, and a pure pleasure to read).
3. Wolf By the Ears
Harriet Hemings has always been happy in the comfortable, protected world that is Monticello. She's been well treated there; no one has ever called her a slave. But that is what she is, a slave of a man who wrote the Declaration of Independence. And there are rumors that she might be more than Thomas Jefferson's slave - she might be his daughter.
Now Harriet has to make a choice - to run to freedom or to stay. If she stays, she'll remain a slave. But how can she choose freedom, if it means leaving behind her family, her race, and the only home she's ever known?
(Probably Rinaldi’s most famous book—or at least most professionally honored. The awards are well-deserved. The main character is a wonderful heroine, and Rinaldi doesn’t stint on the real dangers and dilemmas Harriet must face.)
4. Term Paper
One of Ann Rinaldi’s four early contemporary novels (all of which are terrific). I can’t find a great summary online, and it’s been a long time since I read this, but it’s definitely worth the read—the story of Nikki, a traumatized teenager whose older brother happens to be her English teacher, and who forces her to write out events she would rather forget.
5.The Color of Fire
Someone is setting fires in New York City. It is 1741 and, as a colony of Britain, America is at war with Spain. The people in New York City are on a heightened state of alert. Phoebe, an enslaved girl, watches as the town erupts into mass hysteria when the whites in the city convince themselves that the black slaves are planning an uprising. Her best friend, Cuffee, is implicated in the plot, and the king's men promise to let him go if he names names.
(This one is dark and violent and an amazing read).
6. Or Give Me Death
What do you do when your father is Patrick Henry, hero of the American Revolution, and your mother going insane?
(Need I say more?)
7. Taking Liberty
"When I was four and my daddy left, I cried, but I understood. He had become part of the Gone."
Oney Judge is a slave. But on the plantation of Mount Vernon, the beautiful home of George and Martha Washington, she is not called a slave. She is referred to as a servant, and a house servant at that — a position of influence and respect. When she rises to the position of personal servant to Martha Washington, her status among the household staff — black or white — is second to none. She is Lady Washington's closest confidante and for all intents and purposes, a member of the family — or so she thinks.
(Like many of Rinaldi’s heroines, I loved Oney. Her voice carried this story far beyond what I originally expected).
Ann Rinaldi’s books are always about the character. She may specialize in historical fiction, especially set in the south, but her stories are never just about historical events. She has a real gift for crossing barriers: time, cultures, and social status. Her heroines have family. And family issues. And the great historical dramas that play out around them are always secondary to the characters’ own personal dramas.
On that note—I intend to go plunge into one.