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Young readers book reviews for ages 8 to 12 years old

Also by Donna Getzinger:

For a Speck of Gold

The Picture Wagon: A Children's Historical Novel
by Donna Getzinger
ages 9-12 156 pages Denlingers Pub Ltd. February 2000 Paperback    

Donna Getzinger’s The Picture Wagon is ostensibly the story of Joanna, a young girl serving as a Union Spy in the Civil War. But it soon becomes apparent that it is in fact a minor morality tale, staged with modern actors in a pasteboard replica of the American Civil War. Along a passionless reproduction set, Joanna makes her way in the advertised picture wagon, picking up symbolic characters and opening her doors to all manner of simplistic discussion of the great national trauma.

It’ s painful to read, but the harshest aspect of is the pervasive contempt for anyone and anything not fitting in with Getzinger’s concept of modern values. Every single Confederate or rebel sympathizer is ugly, violent, stupid, and amoral. Slaves are represented by a pair of big-eyed refugee children, grateful for the assistance of their sweet white friend and confident in her “pow’ful magic.”

Saddest and most puzzling is the disdain offered for women throughout the story. It’s become standard practice for adventure heroines to chafe against the traditional roles of women, wanting nothing more than to throw off their skirts and join in men’s activities. But that attitude shouldn’t come at the expense of other women. Every time Joanna interacts with her mother and her older sister Betsey, we're invited to share in her contempt for “housework and pretty dresses,” as though the two go together in any conceivable way. Joanna’s mother, a woman who has raised two daughters, run a farmhouse, and helped pack a family across several states, is reduced to fainting or impotent scolding in the face of danger. Joanna’s sister Betsey manages to sew together a new dress in three days while performing enough housework to earn the family a stay at an inn, and readers are expected to recognize this as a sign of sloth.

In a society where a load of laundry means five minutes switching clothes and dinner can be produced with five minutes and a microwave, it may be easy to forget that “women’s work” was once cripplingly manual labor, women’s labors often fatal, and the female head of household often left to herself to provide education, socialization, and sanity for her rather isolated family. It may be easy to forget; but it’s the job of a historical novel to remind us of these things, to bring the past to life beyond the dry facts offered by a textbook.

But such dimension is lacking even in Joanna herself. She takes to spying on the Confederate troops (though she scrupulously calls them “Rebels” at every opportunity) not out of deep patriotism or in protest over their political beliefs, but out of a wish to hurt the people who hurt her family and a childish craving for adventure. The result is that she seems about as heroic as a child in line for a roller coaster, except that she’s risking her family’s livelihood and her own safety to indulge the urge. That, combined with her amazing ignorance of the political debates that inflamed a nation, makes her seem less a character than a prop, moving through the days of a very civil war indeed.

The honesty that Getzinger keeps from her characters is absent in the setting, too. There are no razed towns, no, and the one battle scene that appears receives as much emotional force as a railroad crossing. Mentioning dead bodies is unimpressive if no one, even the strangely enlightened hero, remembers or cares about them by the next page. Offscene deaths of unseen characters mean little when the hero and her family escape every danger with little damage. This is a Civil War without consequences, reason, or drama.

Perhaps Getzinger feels that the young audience she writes for can’t handle the weight of real history. But if actual children lived through the period, then modern kids should at least be able to know about it. With the real force of the war stripped away, The Picture Wagon is left to find its power in such daring moral statements as “all men should be free”- a daring idea in the '90s, if it were the 1790s. Morals shouldn’t need to be shoehorned into a tale. Any story with some meat to it will reveal such themes organically. Sadly, The Picture Wagon is strict vegetarian fare and practically homeopathic in its serving of drama. If you‘re craving a bit of Civil War fiction, pick up one of the books recommended on the back cover.
Young readers book reviews for ages 8 to 12 years old

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  Sarah Meador/2005 for curled up with a good kid's book  

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