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steepandthornyway_cvThe Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters
Amulet Books, March 2016
Reviewed from a final copy

Not a roundup, not a Best Of list, not a bird OR a plane, it’s a review! With three stars and a shout out in the comments of our original list, this is historical fiction with a twist — a Hamlet-infused ghosty twist. This is not the only Shakespeare inspired fiction that we’ve looked at this year, and it’s certainly not the only historical fiction. What makes this a standout title?

The historical setting is very well done, and focuses on rarely-talked about, very ugly aspects of US history — state-sanctioned racism like laws against interracial marriages, eugenics, forced sterilization, etc. (The author’s note at the end provides a great list of further reading.) My favorite kind of historical fiction is the kind that connects past conversations with current situations and issues, and the parallel conversations happening today certainly let us know that, as a history teacher in my school posted on the wall, “history is not the past.” It seems strange to type this, but maybe the strongest part of this novel is the description of the KKK — seemingly innocuous efforts at hosting baseball games, pancake breakfasts, and repairing potholes combined with heinous acts like terrorizing people. This is such a powerful way to show white supremacy at work, maintaining unearned power and privilege, and always, always finding a way to create in- and out-groups of people. These are crucial conversations, and I’m grateful that this book is having this conversation.

Readers don’t have to be overly familiar with Hamlet in order to read this new work; Winters uses it as an inspiration but brings an atmospheric setting, and vibrant, relevant-to-today historical issues to help repurpose the plot. In both stories, the rottenness is coming from the highest levels of society, and will eat up young lives in order to maintain power. Hank Denney’s ghost adds a little genre pushing so that this historical fiction flirts with fantasy (or maybe magical realism). Hannalee’s indecision over what to do works really well with her as a teenage girl. She’s tough and quick thinking, but a little impulsive — and of course, unsure who to trust.  

There are a few smaller missteps. The photographs are a part of a beautiful book design, but didn’t add much to my understanding. The way Winters handles the destruction of the oak tree — off page, with a barely described father-son reunion — is abrupt (I wanted more emotional resolution for both Hannalee and Joe). In addition, I’ve gone back and forth on the inclusion of the character of Hank Denney. Although his ghost is walking the road only because of Hamlet, his warning at the Witten cabin adds real suspense and creepiness — those tense moments illustrate the rottenness that is the KKK at work. But in general, the magical realism moments just provide convenient plot exposition and deus ex machina life saving.

Hannalee is a sympathetic character — and Joe is extremely likable, too. It’s easy to root for them, and the ending, where they literally drive to find the future, is satisfying. The supporting characters aren’t as well-defined, don’t have as much vibrancy, however. Whenever Hannalee talks to someone who isn’t Joe, the Hamlet connection doesn’t feel quite as unforced, and the story falters. And overall, the characters are not subtle; their motivations never really become complex. Readers don’t get any hints of subtext or specificity to the characters. Sometimes, the dialogue is too long on exposition and short on character development. The biggest flaw is that the characters don’t really stand out enough from the fantastic atmosphere and setting here. It makes this engaging read feel superficial and simplistic.

We’ve been asking this season, would I nominate it? And I’m not convinced that I would. But you may have a different take on this title — I’d love to hear your nomination in the comments.


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