In 1980 Ann Arborite Joan Blos won the prestigious Newbery Medal for her young adult novel A Gathering of Days. That story was told in the form of the journal of a thirteen-year-old farm girl from the early 1830s. The journal allowed Blos to be intimate about history and to suggest the major moments of her story directly through the thoughts of her character. It made for a very intriguing read, and was much imitated. Now, after several books for younger readers, Blos returns for only the third time to a larger format written for older children.
Much about Letters from the Corrugated Castle is told us in that title and its subtitle, A Novel about Gold Rush California, 1850-
1852. Blos tells this story through letters, and they allow her much of the same liberty and restriction she found in using the journal/
diary format in her earlier book. Eldora, the young woman whom we follow from age thirteen through her fifteenth birthday, is an inveterate letter writer, keeping in touch with a cousin she left behind in Massachusetts when her parents decided to move to California. Although we never see the letters from the cousin, we can assume her questions and a bit of her life from the rich letters Eldora writes. These were tempestuous years, after the war with Mexico, of the Gold Rush and of California statehood, so a good deal of fascinating history makes its way in, but Blos is careful to keep that information a part of the narrative. It feels necessary to Eldora's excitement rather than some kind of instructive intrusion.
The "corrugated castle" of the title refers to a prefabricated metal house — apparently a fairly common construction during the first rapid development of San Francisco — where Eldora finds herself living with a kindly older couple after the presumed death of her parents. The "uncle" is an idealistic New Englander trying to create a school in the West modeled on utopian examples from transcendentalist Massachusetts. Into this house, drawn by the generous spirit of its inhabitants, come miners, journalists, travelers from — yes — Michigan, and children from the neighboring Spanish-speaking parts of the burgeoning city. But Eldora is also reintroduced to the mother she thought had vanished, who takes her off to explore more rural parts of the new state.
And here, as Eldora attempts to create a relationship with the woman from her past while maintaining connections with the people who have supported her for many years, the novel finds its tension and its emotion. As Eldora reveals herself through her letters, we are drawn into her world and learn to respect her intelligence and her generosity. Blos's novel contains a lovely historical vision, but it is also a view of Americans resisting prejudice and learning to live with each other during moments that might otherwise seem governed by greed and its resulting inhumanity. Her triumph is that she can do this and keep us fascinated by the emotions and development of the young woman who tells her story.
Joan Blos reads from Letters from the Corrugated Castle at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Wednesday, May 16.
[Review published May 2007]