As usual, I’m a little behind. I found Ann M. Martin’s Better to Wish, Book 1 in her Family Tree series, on the bookmobile shelf, but apparently, Book 2, The Long Way Home, already came out in October. Which makes me happy, because I can keep reading that much sooner.
I didn’t have huge expectations for Better to Wish. I knew it would be a well-written story, because, hey, it’s Ann M. Martin. But between the cover–which I think makes the book look younger and also more simple/simplistic than it is–and the idea of a series highlighting a girl in each generation of a family…well, I just thought it would have more of historical emphasis, that the books would each be used to focus on, even teach, about a period in time, and that the characters in the story might get relatively short shrift.
Not so. Sure, I could tell you that Abby’s story starts during the depression and takes us up and into WWII, and, sure, that has some bearing on the story and the people, but the weight of the book is very much on the characters. And, despite the cover art that makes Abby look pretty bland and boring, she and the rest of the characters are portrayed with strength and depth.
Take Abby’s father. I realize that I am pretty harsh toward story parents who, in my view, fail their story kids. I do find myself wondering whether, as a twelve-year-old girl reading this book way back when, I’d have cut Abby’s dad a little more slack or even veered off, in worry or fear, from the anger he made me feel. I think, though, that Martin has done such a wonderful job drawing him that, even back then, I would have disliked him. Hated him. Wanted to have more power so I could help Abby deal with him. He really is an awful man, with narrow views and a self-centered perspective. And he has the authority to make those views and perspectives the law in his family. To some serious destruction. But he’s not flat. He’s not a moustached villain rubbing his hands and gloating. Martin has played with heroic flaws in reverse–she’s given this villain just a couple of moments in the story when something decent, if not completely good, shows through. These moments don’t make me like him, but they certainly make me believe in him as real.
And Abby herself, in her responses to her father and in her own world views, is real, too. So many of her qualities are “good girl” traits, and that’s a big part of who she is–partially, I felt, because she is the oldest child in a family that needs that role to be filled by someone responsible, but also partly because that is who Abby is. Whether it comes from her mother who, while not strong, does have a kindness Abby’s father lacks, or whether it’s something she is born with, you see Abby taking care of people: her sisters, her mother, and as best she can–her friends. She is living in a world of limits, both because of the era and because of her father. She doesn’t scream and shout; she doesn’t dramatically break down the barriers around her, but she makes little choices and creates little moments that push against them. Until she makes the big one, at which point, the reader is completely and enthusiastically cheering her on.
The other wonderful surprise, for me, was the way Martin has told a story that, despite covering the years from 1930-1945, despite being introduced by older-Abby-of-the-future, and despite a few interjections about this Abby’s memories of the past, doesn’t feel episodic. That was another one of my expectations, as I started reading and saw the structure Martin used. But that expectation soon disappeared. Martin has done a beautiful job of building a plot out of the family’s problems and emotional themes, and of Abby’s growth along those themes. Fifteen years feel tightly strung together and connected, gaps of multiple years bring us right back to the crux of who Abby is and the journey she is on.
This is a highly recommend, folks. Start reading!