For my first read in the 2011 Historical Fiction challenge, I started off by breaking one of my own specs. In the post where I announced that I’d take part, I said, “I’m going to try and focus my search on books with protagonists who are at least 16 years old, at the older end of the YA spectrum.”
Too often, I think, historical fiction for kids and teens places its heroes in dangerous situations, very realistic to the times the authors are writing about, and then…somehow…make those situations feel not dangerous. I think there are various ways this happens–the hero has a powerful adult around for support; the hero doesn’t actually live IN the world where the danger exists and can pretty much escape as needed; the point of view never gets close or deep enough to show real threat or real fear; the hero’s story gets overwhelmed, and cushioned, with too many details of the historic setting. Whatever the cause, I frequently find myself frustrated with a story that somehow takes me away from the actual pain and hardship I should be feeling.
Not so in Black Storm Comin’.
Colton Wescott may be only twelve, but he is moving through a world in which twelve can and does mean carrying a man’s life on his shoulders, a man’s responsibilities, and definitely without that safety net. The story starts as Colton and his family are traveling with a wagon train on the way to California–at the tail end of that wagon train, because Colton’s mother is black and his father is white, and nobody really wants them there. His mother is “in bed” in the wagon, with her newborn baby, and his father is jittery and nervous, so much that he accidentally shoots Colton with a blast from his shotgun and takes off–fleeing both the consequences and his family. Colton and his next-oldest sibling, ten-year-old Althea, immediately and literally become the adults in the family, barely getting the wagon and their very-ill mother to an outpost with a doctor. And getting them there with just about no money.
That’s when Colton sees the advertisement for Pony Express riders. The idea of becoming a rider pulls at him, both for the money and for the chance to ride–to fly, really–over the land he’s been plodding across for weeks now. His decision is complex, layered with the worry that what he’s really trying to do is desert his family, just as his father did, and with the added complication that he’s light-skinned enough to pass for white–which will let him apply for the job–but the rest of his family is not. He worries that keeping the secret is betraying them, and something in himself. Still, he is an adult, and there are too often, in an adult life, no real choices. He applies for and takes the job.
And what a job. If life as not-quite teenager in 1860 is hard, you should try life as a rider for the express. Colton is assigned the route–you can’t really call it a road, or a trail, or anything other than a direction the horses know by heart–over the Sierras into California. Just as winter sets in. Wilson is a fantastic author; she takes Colton along that route twice. The first time is to set us up for knowing how miserable it is, to show it to us in detail, with the horse barely making it up the mountain and small, skinny Colton barely staying on that horse’s back. The second time is the time of real urgency, with a specific life-or-death letter that Colton must get through. Each pass has its own tension–from the near-impossible physical test and from the urgency of Colton’s task, and each–again–gives no way out for Colton, no extra or unrealistic shelter or aid. Each time, it is Colton and the horse, and that’s it.
As it would have been.
Yes, there are people who help Colton. There are adults who help him get a job that he is, historically, too young to hold, and people who care for him when he is badly injured. The thing is, though, the help is at a par with what any adult would have gotten and comes with nothing extra for him because he is so young. And any aid Colton receives is countered by the help he doesn’t get, from his loving but fatalistic mother, from the old prospector who would all too quickly give away Colton’s secret–just for the fun of it, from the father who definitely does not swoop back into the story at the darkest moment and save the day. All the people in the story are well-drawn, but one of the best secondary characters is Althea, who is thrust into the same role as Colton and given no chance to ride like the wind, to get away from the dreary reality of keeping her mother alive and her younger sister at least safe and fed.
Childhood is not always a safe place, even today, and the best realistic stories, modern or historical, are the ones that do more than talk about that on the surface, that show the weight kids and teens carry, that show the battle they have just to survive.
Diane Lee Wilson has told such a story. Beautifully.