First up: An Unlikely Friendship by Ann Rinaldi
It's not a surprise that I love Ann Rinaldi. I've loved her writing since I first read Wolf by the Ears and My Father's House many years ago. So even now I get excited when I pick up a book of hers that I haven't read. Below are my thoughts on this one, which turned out to be pretty good overall.
An Unlikely Friendship by Ann Rinaldi is rather unique in that it begins with President Lincoln's assassination, focusing on his wife Mary's loss and the attempts of her friend Lizzy to get to her during the hours following. From there, the narrative splits into two very distinct tales, both of lonely young girls who grew up feeling as outsiders within their own families; finally the story rejoins the women as they meet later in life and form an odd yet strong bond. It's this particular stance to the storytelling that makes An Unlikely Friendship so personal and it's Ann Rinaldi's depth of research and gift of writing that makes it so compelling.
The first person narratives of first Mary Todd and then Lizzy Hobbs Keckley show how very differently the two young women grew up, yet both were eerily similar in their immediate family circumstances. Both struggled to find her place within the confines of the family she'd been born into, and both had difficulty learning to keep to themselves. Both share stories of how they found love with members of their families yet still felt distant. Both were headstrong young women who suffered losses yet somehow remained strong; when they meet later in Washington after Lincoln becomes President, they each discover that there is a kindred spirit in the other, despite the fact that one was raised in relative luxury while the other was a house slave. Rinaldi does a splendid job of bringing both ladies to light and showing them as real people, just as she always done in her fine historical fiction. Recommended for all ages.
Secondly, I read How I Found the Strong by Margaret McMullan in one afternoon. Excellently written! Below is the review for this gem.
Sometimes a book doesn't need to be very long to get its message across, and How I Found the Strong is a powerful reminder of this. I read it in one afternoon but I'm pretty sure its impact will stay with me a very long time.
Beginning at the start of the Civil War, we meet young Frank "Shanks" Russell as he wistfully watches his elder brother and father march off to fight for the Union. Left at home with his mother, his grandparents, and Buck, the slave not much older than he is, Shanks longs for his neighbor Irene as he begins to watch his world disintegrate into hunger and blood. First he loses his grandparents and then he has to struggle to help his pregnant mother; all of the things Shanks suffers through start to make him question whether or not slavery is worth everything it is costing him and the U.S. It is to Buck that he turns, and it is Buck who helps Shanks learn to stand up for what is right.
Powerful, yes, but also revealing; as Shanks grows up, he must come to terms with the idea that the world as he's known it is not what he'd hoped but he's got to find out what means the most to him. Excellently written and illuminating, this is one I can recommend without reservation.