Anti-Semitism, Eugenics, Historical Fiction, Homophobia, Ku Klux Klan, Mystery, Racism, Supernatural, YA Fiction
Thank you to NetGalley and Amulet Books for providing this e-Arc in exchange for an honest review.
Release Date: March 8th, 2016
Synopsis: A thrilling reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Steep & Thorny Way tells the story of a murder most foul and the mighty power of love and acceptance in a state gone terribly rotten.
1920s Oregon is not a welcoming place for Hanalee Denney, the daughter of a white woman and an African-American man. She has almost no rights by law, and the Ku Klux Klan breeds fear and hatred in even Hanalee’s oldest friendships. Plus, her father, Hank Denney, died a year ago, hit by a drunk-driving teenager. Now her father’s killer is out of jail and back in town, and he claims that Hanalee’s father wasn’t killed by the accident at all but, instead was poisoned by the doctor who looked after him–who happens to be Hanalee’s new stepfather.
The only way for Hanalee to get the answers she needs is to ask Hank himself, a “haunt” wandering the roads at night.
Cat Winters is a well respected author who I’ve been meaning to try for quite some time, but The Steep & Thorny Way is the first book I’ve read by her. All I can say is that her reinterpretation of Hamlet and combining it with an incredibly dark time in America’s history is a compelling read and leaves me wondering why it’s taken me this long to read one of her books.
The 1920s in the U.S. wasn’t just the era of flappers, and the beginning of the jazz age. It was also a time where racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism were rampant, as was distrust of Catholics, and of course Prohibition. All of these are on display in the fictional small town of of Elston, Oregon. As the child of an African-American father and a white mother, Hanalee’s future prospects for an kind of a meaningful life are pretty much nonexistent. At the age of sixteen she knows that if she’s to have any kind of future, she’ll have to leave her hometown and strike out for the bigger cities who are far more accepting of those who are “different”. When the story opens though, she’s about avenge her father’s death on Joe Adder, the young man just released from prison for his killing. She discovers though that things are definitely not as they seem, and she winds up embarking on a quest to discover the truth with the very person she’s blamed and hated for the past year. Hanalee is someone teens can relate to even though this story is set decades ago. She’s not perfect, she makes mistakes, but despite the hate and prejudice aimed at her she remains pretty open-minded toward other people, which I thought was amazing.
While Hanalee is clearly the main character of the book, Joe is equally important and his story at times overtakes the main mystery. This isn’t a bad thing though. What is done to him and his desperate desire to also escape had me just as emotionally invested in him as I was with Hanalee.
There is no real romance in this book which I think was a wise decision on the part of the author. Instead, there’s a tentative friendship between Hanalee and Joe which flourishes into something quite beautiful. The rest of the characters aren’t quite as well fleshed out, but they still successfully serve to further the story, particularly Laurence, Hanalee’s old childhood friend who’s loyalties are divided.
I did think the central mystery concerning the death of Hanalee’s father could have used a little more development. All the answers are basically provided to her by his ghost. It would have been nice to have a little more sleuthing on her part. But honestly, this wasn’t enough to detract from my overall fascination with this book. Cat Winters does a magnificent job spinning her tale, and I was completely spellbound while reading it. A true measure of it’s impact is the amount of time I’ve spent researching some of the topics it brought up, especially eugenics (forced sterilization of people belonging to certain groups), which much to my surprise and disgust was still happening as late as 1981.
I believe it’s especially important for people to read books like The Steep & Thorny Way given what’s happening in the world right now. For anyone who thinks that hateful idealogy is a thing of the past, pick up a newspaper or turn on the tv. All the same prejudices and bigotry are still very much a part of our society, and stoking the flames are politicians who claim they have their country’s best interests at heart. This is a perfect book for discussion, whether in a high school classroom, a book group, or at home. The best way to combat hatred is to start with our young people and I fervently believe this is something we must do if we are to prevent history from repeating itself.
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