Book Review: Not on Fifth Street

not on fifth street cover

Wiechman, Kathy Cannon. Not on Fifth Street. Calkins Creek, an imprint of Highlights, 2017.

There’s something about natural disasters that have always terrified and intrigued me. Perhaps it’s the unpredictable fury of Mother Nature or the reminder of how small and vulnerable we truly are. Whatever the cause, my heart is always uplifted and warmed by stories of human beings persevering despite their extreme and dire circumstances.

That’s what drew me to Kathy Cannon Wiechman’s book Not on Fifth Street. Wiechman’s novel covers the flood of 1937, an event that devastated many areas of Ohio and Kentucky. As I’d never heard of the flood, I was intrigued.

Gus and Pete Brinkmeyer are brothers living in Ironton, Ohio. Despite their relation, the boys are extremely different. Older brother Gus is a romantic and a bookworm. He excels in school, reads Shakespeare, writes poems and short stories, and moons over his newest love interest, a girl named Venus. Pete, on the other hand, is practical and handy and enjoys repairing items around the house. After a squabble, a rift forms between the two brothers. Gus gives Pete the cold shoulder despite his many attempts to apologize.

The Brinkmeyer family is no stranger to flooding. Living near the Ohio River, they experience some degree of standing water every year. Houses closer to the river—such as their friend Richie’s on Second Street—usually incur damage, but Gus and Pete live on Fifth Street, where they believe the flooding will not touch them. But the year 1937 begins with torrential, unrelenting rain, then a melting, slushy snowfall. The boys watch in horror as the Ohio River creeps closer and closer. Gus goes to help his father fill sandbags in an attempt to slow the water’s approach. Will they be successful? Will he be able to help Venus and her family across the river in Kentucky? Pete is left in charge of the rest of the Brinkmeyers—his mother and two younger siblings. How will he keep them safe as the water rises? Will his knack with repairs matter without the aid of electricity or running water?

This novel is obviously well-researched. Small details, like the newly invented rotary phone, make the setting feel authentic. And Weichman makes the flood water predatory and ever-present. Readers will feel as though their own clothing is soaked, their hands and feet numb with cold.

The dialogue can feel stilted and unrealistic, though I have little knowledge of slang or speech patterns from the 1930’s. Because of the language, simplicity of writing, and short chapters, Not on Fifth Street would likely be of little interest to high school or teenage readers. It is more suited for late elementary or middle school students.

Excerpts from this novel would be a smart inclusion in a history class, especially within classrooms near the Ohio River area. Young Pete’s task of caring for his family make this a perfect example of a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel. Excerpts from Wiechman’s book would be a great way to drive this concept home.

Book Review: The Love that Split the World

love that split the world cover

Henry, Emily. The Love That Split the World. Razorbill, 2016.

Kentucky isn’t a glamorous state. The weather changes frequently–you can go to work sporting a cardigan on a frigid morning and find yourself sweating as the temperature rises at day’s end. While there are certainly beautiful natural landmarks and caves and hiking trails, there are none of the big tourist attractions you might find in other states.

I’ve lived in Kentucky my entire life. While I love to travel and experience the bustle and chaos of larger, notable locations, I have a profound love for and loyalty to the Bluegrass State. That’s why I felt both proud and giddy as I began Emily Henry’s The Love That Split the World. Set in Union, Kentucky, the novel highlights many Kentucky and Appalachian attributes–rich cultural history, oral storytelling, and strong familial ties–without falling into overused tropes and stereotypes. And the Kentucky native in me squealed at the sprinkling of Kentucky-specific details: mentions of the University of Kentucky, Northern Kentucky University, and Ale-8 One (a soft drink sold only in Kentucky and a small number of surrounding areas).

Natalie Cleary is closing the book on her high school career. While she participates in the traditional parades and Senior Nights that the end of the school year entails, she is also looking to what lies ahead. She has been admitted to Brown University where she hopes to study history and learn more about her heritage. Adopted at birth by doting parents, Natalie is Native American and feels out of place beside her blonde, blue-eyed siblings. She is also feeling a lack of connection toward the activities and people she once loved–her ex-boyfriend, Matt, friend Rachel, and her high school dance team.

Natalie’s race isn’t the only thing that makes her feel different. Since childhood, she’s had nightly visits from a phantom–an elderly woman she has come to call Grandmother. Grandmother imparts wisdom in the form of fables and tall tales, and Natalie is comforted by her presence. After a visit with a psychologist, Natalie fears Grandmother has finally disappeared; however, as high school ends, Grandmother reappears with a chilling message: Natalie has just three months to save him. She doesn’t specify who him is, and Natalie is on-edge. Shortly after the visit, Natalie’s world begins to change. Sporadic flashes reveal a second, strikingly different Union than the one that Natalie has known her entire life. While her friends and family exist in the new Union, she does not. While in this new world, Natalie encounters Beau, a boy who does not exist in her world. As she and Beau try to sort out their unique predicament, Natalie is frantic to decipher Grandmother’s cryptic warning. Will she be able to save the mysterious him?

The transition from high school to adulthood is a complex time, and Henry does a fantastic job capturing all of Natalie’s angst and confusion. Natalie wants to maintain relationships with the people and traditions she has come to love while, at the same time, she knows she must assert her own independence and find her place in the world. All the characters are round and multi-faceted. I especially enjoyed NKU professor Alice Chan, Natalie’s twin siblings Jack and Coco, even Natalie’s Saint Bernard, Gus.

While the characterization, imagery, and plot in The Love that Split the World were all fantastic, I often found the rules and nuances of Natalie’s time-bending abilities confusing and difficult to follow. Perhaps this will be clearer for readers who are more familiar with time travel fiction or media. In my case, I simply had to accept Natalie’s abilities as the story unfolded.

I would love to introduce this book to my students–positive portrayals of Kentucky are increasingly difficult to find. That aside, this book would be relatable to graduating seniors, adopted students, or anyone who is facing a big transition. The Love that Split the World discusses what it means to love deeply and unconditionally, a topic worth thinking about and discussing.


Book Review: The Upworld

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Frantz, Lindsey S. The Upworld. Line by Lion Publications, 2017. Print.

Appalachia is my home, but depictions of the area in movies and books haven’t always been kind.

In recent years, I’ve been happy to see a surge of writing that celebrates Appalachia by acknowledging its flaws but also highlighting its beauty, knack for storytelling, and strong community ties. That’s why I was excited to begin reading Lindsey Frantz’s debut YA novel The Upworld, set entirely in Kentucky.

In a dystopian future, Appalachia has been divided into three distinct factions: those who dwell above ground in communities, those who dwell in caves below ground, and the Wylden, dangerous savages who travel in packs. Erilyn spent her early life below ground until a shameful accident wrought by her telekinetic abilities forced her to move “up world”. There, she met and befriended a woman named Rosemarie who taught her to forage and live off the land. After Rosemarie’s death, Erilyn lives alone in a pine tree with only her large feral cat, Luna, for company. Everything changes when a boy from one of the communities, Finn, runs into the forest, pursued by Wylden.

After assisting Finn via her supernatural abilities, Erilyn nurses him back to health. The two develop feelings for one another, but as Winter looms closer, Erilyn knows that she cannot forage enough food to sustain two people. She convinces Finn to return to his community of Sunnybrook, but Finn refuses unless she accompanies him. It’s been so long since Erilyn was around others—will she adjust? Will the citizens of Sunnybrook discover her abilities? Does Finn’s ex, Morrigan, have it out for Erilyn? Is the mayor of Sunnybrook, Cillian, as innocent and friendly as he seems? And will Erilyn ever face the damage she caused below ground?

Frantz masterfully builds tension and suspense in The Upworld. Whether Erilyn, Finn, Luna, and company are running from Wylden, fighting their way out of Sunnybrook, or crawling through underground caverns, a sense of urgency is continuously present. Erilyn’s abilities are plainly stated and readers can easily put themselves in her shoes. The characters are multi-faceted—like Erilyn, we aren’t entirely sure who to trust. And the cover is beautiful—this is certainly a book you’ll want to display on your bookshelf and photograph for Instagram.

I desired more spark between Finn and Erilyn, perhaps more scenes of them growing together during their time alone in the forest. I also didn’t care for the nickname “Eri”—but I’m never a fan of shortening a main character’s name.

This novel would be a perfect addition to a dystopian unit. I’m using the prologue of this story (found in this anthology) with my classes this school year. Students who are fans of The Hunger Games and other books featuring powerful female protagonists will certainly be enthralled with both Erilyn and The Upworld.