A short yet extremely powerful historical novella. As a Barrington Stoke book, the language may be relatively simple but the images have the potential to make the reader more than a little uncomfortable.
Eight-year old Maggie lives in the woods with her parents, brother and sister. The whole family are dirt poor but Maggie is happy because she has Pa. In her eyes, Pa is all-wise, all-knowing, all-seeing and immortal. It never occurs to her that he might not be around forever. Then the impossible happens – Pa dies and the whole family sink further into poverty, coming close to starvation. Desperate to help, Maggie resolves to use the skills she learned from Pa: she takes his rifle into the woods and brings back a squirrel that she’s shot straight through the eye. However, instead of being grateful for fresh meat, her mother is appalled by her “unladylike” behaviour. She marches Maggie to the County Infirmary and abandons her to a life of cruelty and abuse. Luckily Maggie is one of life’s survivors and her skill with the rifle might just prove to be her salvation.
This is a short yet extremely powerful novella. Maggie’s age at the start of the book might suggest that this is a book for middle grade readers but the subject matter and interest level is most definitely teen. Indeed, this intimate reimagining of the life of frontier sharpshooter Annie Oakley deals with issues such as sexual abuse that are really only suitable for older readers. Admittedly the text itself isn’t in any way graphic but the horror of the abuse Maggie suffers is enough to make the reader more than a little uncomfortable.
Published by Barrington Stoke, the language is kept simple – giving the story a reading age of nine – but the imagery that author, Tanya Landman, achieves with this is seriously impressive. (I haven’t read any of Tanya’s books before but it’s easy to understand how she came to win the Carnegie Medal). We easily identify with Maggie and the historical setting is perfectly realised.
In the ‘Author’s Note’ at the end of the book, Tanya is clear that the story is not intended as a biography. Rather she describes it is ‘an imagined tale of how it might have felt to have a childhood like Annie Oakley, and to emerge from those dark days into the dazzling bright lights of global stardom.’ In this she succeeds brilliantly and the book probably only misses out on a five-star rating because the story only takes us to Maggie’s transition to a new life: I can’t help thinking the plot may have been stronger if it continued until we reached those dazzling lights.
If you enjoyed this and are looking for another impactful historical story that uses simple language, why not try Race to the Frozen North by Catherine Johnson or Armistice Runner by Tom Palmer. These are both suitable for readers from middle grade through to adult. Alternatively, if you’re looking for a teen read, why not join me in checking out Tanya Landman’s other writing – there’s the Carnegie Medal winning Buffalo Soldier or her other book for Barrington Stoke, Passing for White.
Publication date: March 2019
Publisher: Barrington Stoke
Author’s website: Tanya Landman