No one wants to be last in a wagon train. You eat the dust of everyone in front of you, every hoof of every horse and ox and mule. You literally eat it, even when you wear a bandana up over your mouth and nose the way Jacob and I did. Last place in the train is for the lowliest of the lowly.– One Bad Apple by Rachel Kovaciny
This is another book that I’m sorry it’s taken so long for me to get around to reviewing here on my blog. When it first came out, I’d hoped to read it by late summer 2020, but as it turned out, it wasn’t until early March this year that I did read it. And now, it’s May and there’s finally space in my blog schedule to post this review!
I like to think that if we met in person, Ms Kovaciny and I would get along pretty well. She’s provided several inspiring ideas that I’ve used in my own writing, and we share a similar interest in older (and newer) films. (And a similar taste in film stars.) She knows more than I do about the historic west, (and films) and is generous enough to share her knowledge as she can. She manages to maintain several friendly and lively blogs and columns, while raising a family and writing this series of books. I am somewhat in awe of her productivity.
Ms Kovaciny is writing this series of western fairy tale retellings – the next book shall be a retelling of Beauty and the Beast – targeting the audience found in that part of the market segment known as “Christian YA.”
This is not a market segment I generally find myself reading within.
In fact, to give you an idea of how lacking my knowledge of Christian theology is, there is a segment of this book where I was reading along, and along came a prayer I had always thought was a Hollywood creation for western movie funeral scenes, but as I read, I started to have a suspicion, and I looked it up, and I discovered it’s actually a real prayer service quoting more or less from the actual Bible, and is not just a couple of lines read in movies by John Wayne. So, I learned something. A little embarrassing though it might be to learn this at my age.
One Bad Apple is a retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. At the back of the book, there are a couple of ‘discussion questions’ – the last says that there are also elements consciously pulled from Hamlet. I did not notice Hamlet-ness, but the last time I read Hamlet I was in high school.
This book is dedicated, amongst others, to Sidney Poitier, and most of the characters are Black, part of the Exoduster Movement. Ms Kovaciny has made it part of her writing mission to include diverse characters within her western retellings, and she makes note in her introduction to this book that she takes care to consider both historic reality and sensitivities of modern readers as she does so.
One of my minor quibbles with this book is that she was perhaps a bit too careful not to cause offence, as there is a remarkable lack of negative bias displayed by the narrator and his family, particularly when they first encounter the Exodusters. (There is some bias on the Exoduster’s ‘side’, and later on one of the ‘bad guys’ is clearly making racial assumptions.) I found it a bit weird that Levi’s older cousin Jacob, in particular, has apparently somehow managed to reach the age of almost 16 in this time period without being influenced by racial prejudice. But, this is at heart a fairy tale for young people, and as such it is perhaps best if it just proceeds as it does, even it feels a bit too easy in some ways to me. And, I did appreciate how honest it felt when Levi encounters his “first Black people” with an appealingly simple curiosity.
While I appreciated Levi’s character, I did also wonder a bit at his lack-of-worldliness-at-14. For instance, he apparently does not know anything about laudanum. I’m sorry, but I had a pretty sheltered upbringing but by 14 I also had a vague and non-personal knowledge of several opiates and other drugs, legal and illegal, and I have credibility issues in believing a 14 year old of the 1800s wouldn’t have at least a vague knowledge of omnipresent laudanum.
I had the sense that Levi should have really been aged as 11 or 12 instead of 14, and that in some ways this was really a “middle grade” hero story.
Regardless, our narrator is a young white teenage boy, Levi, who tells us (in flashback) about the time when he, with his sisters and cousins, seven in total, found themselves alone on the trail to Kansas after fever killed his aunt and uncle. An Exoduster wagon train allows them to travel with them for a few days until they reach the next settlement, and Levi soon finds himself falling under the spell of the beautiful woman, Lu, who is both the preacher’s wife, and a woman with a medicine box. Enter the evil witch.
There is a romantic subplot between two characters who befriend Levi, one being a young woman named Hopeful who sings and shares a basket of apples. Will she be able to marry her handsome prince?
While when I sit down to summarize the plot the parallels to Snow White become obvious, as I was reading this book they didn’t jump out particularly, the incorporation of the fairy tale feels quite organic and unforced.
There is also, to the delight of those of us who have read the previous books and stories in the series, a ‘guest appearance’ by the character Hauer, previously “the woodsman” in the Little Red Riding Hood retelling, Cloaked. (I believe Hauer may also appear in some of Ms Kovaciny’s short stories, I haven’t read all of those yet!)
This book wasn’t as humorous as the previous two in the series, which is a bit of a shame, but it was well paced, and was an enjoyable relatively light, short read. (It is 250 or so pages long – and took me about three and a half hours to read.) It seems more consistently formatted and edited then the previous book, which makes sense, as was can all hope to build on our successes.
I look forward to book four, although I do hope we haven’t read the last of “funny” in this series!
(You can read my review of book 2 in the series, Dancing and Doughnuts, here.)