Since the William C. Morris Award shortlist was released the other week I'm currently working on trying to read the finalists. The Morris Award is an annual award given to a first-time author writing their debut young adult novel. This award is only two years old but an excellent idea, since it helps promote those new voices which might not receive as much attention as the old stand-bys or hip authors who have lots of buzz surrounding their person and their writings and no, Neil Gaiman I wasn't talking about you. Or you, Caroline B. Cooney for that matter.
The first book off the list I chose to read was Crossing the Tracks by Barbara Stuber. At first glance you might think the book is a work of historical fiction, but it isn't. Or at least it isn't in the way that you could argue Laurie Halse Anderson's Chains or Forge are historical fiction. By that I mean the setting (both time and place) are incidental as opposed to the driving force behind the plot. It could have just as easily taken place in the present day.
I'm glad it didn't. The 1920s setting in Kansas/Missouri is excellent because it is one of those areas of history that you don't see very often. You feel as though you were soaking up historical knowledge without the book beating you over the head, "WASN'T IT SO HARD BACK THEN?! PEOPLE WERE SO DIFFERENT." You get the point.
Iris Louise Baldwin is the 15-year old protagonist who is being shipped off by her dapper, shoe-store owning, neglectful widower of a father to be hired help to a Dr. Nesbitt and his elderly mother who live in Wellsford, Missouri. Iris wouldn't care if it weren't for the fact that her mother died when she was 6 and being sent away is essentially the last straw for her as far as her relationship with her father goes.
At the Nesbitt's Iris finds understanding and companionship through her developing relationships with the doctor, his mother, and a hobo dog named Marie. The only sour note is the tenant farmer Cecil Deets who makes Iris as well as the whole town uncomfortable with his drinking and suspected abuse of his daughter Dot. As in all good books, by the end Iris has grown believably as a character and the reader is left optimistic for her future.
I flew through this book because I enjoyed being immersed in the lives of Iris and the Nesbitt's in addition to the interesting portrayal of life in a small pocket of the Mid-West. I fear that only certain female teens and librarians will love this book since it isn't a contemporary setting full of snarky or scandalous teens. Because I don't think it will garner wide popularity I don't think it will win the Morris Award, although it really is a beautifully written and highly enjoyable work of young adult fiction.
Barbara Stuber, Crossing the Tracks, 2010, Simon & Schuster.