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05 May 2015

Book Review | Wonder at the Edge of the World by Nicole Helget

Wonder at the Edge of the World by Nicole Helget | April 2015 | Little, Brown Books for Young Readers | Hardcover $17.00

★ ★ ★

This review is based on an e-ARC from the publisher via Edelweiss.

I mostly enjoyed this middle grade historical/fantastical adventure.

First, let's talk about some cool non-story stuff. I love the cover. The artwork and the title lettering are both just perfect. I also really appreciated that the book includes a basic map of North America during the time period the story's set in.

The story starts out in pre-Civil War Kansas, where Hallelujah Wonder (cute name!) is dealing with the aftermath of the death of her father as well as escalating violence in the little prairie town where she lives. She's not happy there, understandably, and she's not shy about letting you know it.

The main character (the entire story is told in first person), Lu, is a slightly aggravating little know-it-all. It took me a while to figure out what her main flaw is (and other reviewers have called her a “Mary Sue” because at first she seems so perfect): she’s independent, intelligent, scientifically curious, an abolitionist and friendly with slaves in a border state just prior to the Civil War. Her self-confessed “flaws” are freckles and a lack of desire to pursue a traditional woman’s life of marriage and child-rearing, which aren’t so much “flaws” as they are characteristics that are meant to endear her to modern girls.

Unfortunately, much of the way she addresses the reader as well as other characters, comes off as… I don’t know, a little bit condescending or snobby? She’s constantly explaining things with a sort of tone that indicates that she knows she’s smarter than you, and the things she likes (whales, for example) are clearly more interesting than her current reality (a sadly whale-deprived Kansas prairie).

Here are a couple of examples of her “tone” to illustrate what I'm talking about:
“I haven’t got much oil left. It’s good oil, though, spermaceti, the best illumination oil you can get. Do you know what spermaceti oil is? Well, if you don’t, I’ll tell you.”
“Here in Tolerone, everyone uses the cheap stuff. […] I guess people here in this sea-empty place don’t have access to all the wonderful products humans can make out of whales. [Going on to describe how awesome whale stuff is and how pathetic Kansas people are for not having any whale stuff.]”
“‘I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of a place called South America,’ I say to Eustace. ‘Yes, I’ve heard of South America,’ says Eustace. ‘I’m not a dolt.’”
“Eustace leans his head against a cave wall and stares up at the ceiling. ‘I want to see a penguin someday,’ he says. ‘I heard they don’t fly. Like chickens.’ I’m annoyed that Eustace is interrupting my story. ‘Penguins aren’t even slightly close to chickens,’ I say. ‘Now, shush.’”
This is all from the first page of the chapter, but it continues on in that way for most of the rest of the book. I have to assume that this was purposeful, but I question the wisdom of making insufferable intellectual snobbishness a primary character trait of the voice of a middle grade level first person narrative. Of course, unlikable characters and unreliable narrators often make for wonderful stories, but I’m not sure that most kids of the target age group for this book would be able to actually appreciate Lu’s snobbishness – though she does eventually come to acknowledge that she can be “a little bit bumptious” at times, so there is some level of self-aware character growth going on.

I eventually came to a kind of grudging acceptance of Lu’s attitude, enough to mostly enjoy the story anyway. Lu herself has to find it in her to accept the idea that her beloved father wasn’t perfect, which can be kind of a hard thing for a kid to learn about a parent – especially if said parent is no longer living.

Anyway, the actual story itself is something between cute and harsh. Lu and her best friend Eustace end up running off, in part to escape a villainous character/slavery and in part to figure out the mysteries behind a particularly strange artifact that Lu inherited from her adventurer father. Their travels don’t even really start until nearly halfway through the book, though – when I read the summary I expected that this adventuring would be the focus of the plot, but there’s quite a lot of build-up while the kids are stuck dealing with various dramas in Kansas.

The latter 1/3 of the book was actually quite riveting. Here was the action-packed adventure I’d been hoping for, here was the answer to the mystery of Lu’s super creepy artifact, and here was the satisfying disposal of the bad guy who’d been chasing our intrepid kid-heroes across half the world. It’s almost as though the last part of the book doesn’t even really belong with the first – based on the pacing up to this point, I’d begun to think that this book would end with a set-up for a sequel rather than a full conclusion.

Also, I don’t know if a kid would be interested in the Author’s Note at the end of the book, but I certainly was – the insight into the actual historical people and events that inspired this story actually made me think more warmly of it – it’s hard to be grumpy about a book when you know how much research and careful thought went into writing it!

This is not exactly a stand out in the Unladylike Young Ladies Go Adventuring division of the Historical Fiction genre, but I’m glad I didn’t give up on it at the beginning because it turned out to be a quite fun, satisfying little story.

Publication information: Helget, Nicole. Wonder at the Edge of the World. New York: Little, Brown, 2015. EPUB.

Source: ARC provided by publisher via Edelweiss.

Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

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