Endings are the starting points of many of this fall's new young-adult novels, with the death and departure of loved ones setting the stories in motion. The youths in these books have to come to grips with the gaping holes left in their lives, on top of the usual challenges that come with growing up.
The Spanish Civil War and its aftermath have made orphans of three siblings in Ruta Sepetys’s The Fountains of Silence (Philomel, 512 pages, ages 12 and up) Their parents were known opponents of the fascist leader Francisco Franco, so the kids, two girls, one boy, as they come of age, have to contend with the taint attached to them while also working to support themselves.
One of the sisters lands a job as a maid at the Madrid Hilton, a hotel opened in the 1950s, as part of Franco’s bid to draw tourist dollars and foreign investors, and is assigned to look after a visiting Texan family. The oilman father hopes to enter a joint venture with the regime to drill for oil, the mother born in Spain to reconnect with her mother country and the son, an aspiring photographer who wants to capture the country on film. After getting to know the maid some, the Texan boy asks her if she’d be willing, for a fee, to show him about her native city, not realizing that his request compromises her. (The police state wanted foreign capital, but required that locals speak little to outsiders, keeping the silence referenced in the title.)
The author of several bestselling works of historical fiction, Sepetys deftly weaves scrupulous research into Spain’s troubled past into the narrative, giving a vivid sense of the darkness looming over Spain at the time, of the rigid gender roles the siblings are expected to observe, of the near-absolute power wielded by soldier-police and the church.
The latest from the National Book Award-winning writer Thanhha Lai, Butterfly Yellow (Harper, 304 pages, 13 and up) also takes place in the wake of a war, the conflict between American and Communist forces in Vietnam. At the outset of the book, 12-year-old Hang’s father dies in the conflict. When the girl hears that Westerners are adopting children orphaned in the conflict, she takes her baby brother Linh to an airport in the hopes that both of them will be lifted out. Only the boy gets taken, wrested from her arms in the chaos that was the so-called Operation Babylift.
The book follows Hang’s quest, six years later, to find her brother, in rural Texas, with the help of a hapless, funny Texan youth who reluctantly puts off his dream of becoming a rodeo star to help her. Although there are high jinks on the road, Lai has a serious destination in mind. The book deals with the harrowing trauma visited on Hang in her attempt to escape her home country, to claim refugee status in the United States. The reunion between brother and sister is haunted by the deaths of their parents and grandmother, by the times they shared and those they didn’t. What, if anything, does the boy, now renamed David, remember? Should her genetic and cultural ties to him outweigh those of the Americans who adopted and raised him?
The beginning of Jo Treggiari’s thriller The Grey Sisters (Penguin Teen, 288 pages, 12 and up) is also the stuff of nightmares. In the riveting opening scene, we watch the excitement of kids on a class trip turn to horror as their plane goes down. The Grey Sisters in question are the mountains where the plane crashes, not far from a cult’s compound. Its leader, Big Daddy, has established a community right out of The Handmaid’s Tale, with some women, the Cows, assigned the role of breeding and child-rearing, and others, the Warriors, trained to defend the insular place from outsiders. Three of these outsiders, two sisters of classmates who went down with the plane and a friend, make a pilgrimage to the crash site, and, without meaning to, get mixed up in the cult’s business.
Now the owner of an independent bookstore in Lunenberg, N.S., Treggiari once worked as a music journalist covering the punk scene, and there’s a punk sensibility on offer here, a raw look at our society’s underside. She keeps the pace of the Governor-General’s Award-nominated book brisk, with raging bears and shootouts, but she has also given the human sisters who go on this pilgrimage distinct – and nuanced – approaches to the grief they’re trying to weather. While lively, the book doesn’t cohere, its sudden tone shifts from quiet to loud, from gentle to hardcore jar, as do its riffs on various myths and legends.
Kate DiCamillo is a known quantity in YA literature, a winner of two Newbery medals (both for books with animals as heroes) and, most famously, a novel about a dog, Because of Winn-Dixie, that became a 2005 movie. The action in her latest book Beverly, Right Here (Candlewick Press, 256 pages, 10 and up) starts with the 14-year-old girl named in the title burying her dog, but it’s person-focused. She can find no comfort in her home – her mother has problems of her own. So she runs away, taking a job at a diner, befriending an acne-prone variety-store clerk (who’s going places) and a bingo-loving retiree (who takes Beverly into her trailer). Even by DiCamillo’s high standards, this is an extraordinary book, showing the stress and exhilaration that can come from leaving it all behind.
The protagonist of Christina Kilbourne’s Safe Harbour (Dundurn, 264 pages, 12-15) is also a runaway, living with her dog in a tent in a Toronto ravine. In the wake of her mother’s murder, her father has sent her here, while he sails the family’s boat from the Florida Keys toward Toronto, intending to meet her here. Raised and schooled on that boat, the girl slowly adapts to the land, making friends with other homeless youth, realizing both the shortcomings of her unusual upbringing and the gifts. But will her father arrive before the winter makes camping outdoors untenable? The book’s setup is unlikely, but ultimately, plausible, and Kilbourne draws a careful and convincing picture of the shelters and squats occupied by the city’s homeless youth
These books, together, are preoccupied with the failure of adults to protect the young from an often hostile world – a timely concern.