Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: Greener Grass

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.

This summer, we grew potatoes in our garden. It was more of an experiment than a serious planting. We had some potatoes in the pantry growing “eyes,” and my daughter was curious if they would grow. They did! From our original three potatoes, we harvested 25 small new fall potatoes. We discovered many things along the way — that you must mound up potatoes as they grow, pinching the flowers off yields larger potatoes, and that potatoes are part of the nightshade family, which means other plants don’t like companion planting. We lost a whole mess of zucchini squash in the process. Still, we were thrilled with our little potato harvest and cooked up a fabulous, albeit small, batch of lovely, white mashed potatoes.

I recalled our experiment recently when I read Greener Grass by Caroline Pignat (Red Deer Press; March 13, 2009; $11.01). The book is set in 1847 during the height of the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1850. Fifteen-year-old Kathleen (Kit) Byrne must struggle to hold her family together and fight off starvation when their potato crop fails.

The beginning of the book is somewhat predictable, but it gets edgier and more interesting as it progresses. The book incorporates a lot of elements of the famine, such as the belief that it was caused by the “Grey Man” (a kind of spirit), the government initiated public works road projects where the men were worked to death for unpredictable or non-existent pay, and how many landowners abandoned the country to their agents, who were often ruthless in the eviction of tenants in an effort to clear the land for more-profitable sheep grazing. Also, I like that the book uses proper vernacular like “Gale Day” (the day the rent was due).

Greener Grass would be a good book for middle school or early high school girls who are studying the Irish Potato Famine or who like underdog stories. I say it would be good for girls because the protagonist is a young woman, and she spends a good part of the book daydreaming about the landowner’s agent’s son, Tom. While many girls will enjoy the crush, most boys, I think, would tire of this unrequited love affair.

Primarily, the reader is spared from detailed descriptions of the harshest realities of the famine. For instance, some characters go off to the workhouse and are never seen again; the reader just hears they die of fever. The book does not give a brutal play-by-play of dying and death. (Spoiler Alert) However, there are a few scenes that are inappropriate for elementary-school students, such as when Kit plots to murder the landlord’s agent.

The book reminded me of Nory Ryan’s Song by Patricia Riley Giff, except the target audience for Greener Grass (12+ years old) is older than for Nory Ryan’s Song (8+ years old). Greener Grass is more complex, grittier, and longer. Another difference is that Nory’s Ryan’s Song focuses a lot on the promise of emigrating to America (which the protagonist does at the end of the book, described in the sequel Maggie’s Door), whereas in Greener Grass, Kit does not dwell on the promise of emigrating. She focuses on her struggles to survive in Ireland. The book is more depressing and less hopeful. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. (Spoiler Alert) Eventually, Kit is forced to leave Ireland for Canada at the end of the book.

Canadian readers may like this, as not all of the Irish immigrants ended up as Yankees. The book is the winner of several Canadian awards, including the Governor General’s Literary Award from the Canadian Council for the Arts. Moreover, the author is an Irish-born Canadian. (For more information on the Famine, readers may want to check out Black Potatoes by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, recommended to me by a friend, but which I haven’t finished reading yet. Still, it has interesting illustrations, mainly pen and ink drawings from the time period.) Overall, I give Greener Grass four out of five stars.

Although I love potatoes in every versatile form they come, I can’t imagine living on the potatoes we grew. The idea of my family’s survival depending on one crop frightens me. I suppose that is one of the messages of the Irish Potato Famine: Diversify. Do not depend entirely on any one thing...except God.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this review is to guide parents into selecting appropriate, significant, high-quality literature for their teens and tweens. I have no connection with the author or publisher of this book. I am a home educator of two children, 11 and 14, with a keen interest in historical fiction for young adults.

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