Elizabeth’s Aunt Libby is not exactly the family member the young girl would choose to move in with while her father travels to Australia. Libby is a scientist who lives alone with no children of her own. She sends Elizabeth odd birthday and holiday cards at the proper time, but Elizabeth’s mother died long ago and she’s only seen her aunt – her mother’s sister – perhaps twice in her life.
But Pop insists that this is the best plan, so off Elizabeth goes.
Soon after her dad drops her off at the house where Aunt Libby and Elizabeth’s mom grew up, Elizabeth notices a portrait of a young woman in the hall.
Her aunt tells her that the parchment sketch is of a girl called Zee, an ancestor they know little about. Modern-day Elizabeth, with her streaked hair, hoodie, and jeans, looks at the picture of her ancestor in a cap and kerchief, and suddenly is eager to learn more.
With this simple device, Patricia Reilly Giff’s Storyteller sends young readers back to the 18th century and the American Revolution. Elizabeth’s curiosity sets her delving into Zee’s life. Her research uncovers a dramatic tale. Zee’s family was split apart. Her brother and father left home to fight for the Revolution and then Zee’s mother was killed, probably by Loyalists supporting the king. Young Zee was forced to fend for herself.
“Storyteller,” with its female protagonist, makes a perfect companion to the excellent “Woods Runner,” a Revolutionary War tale by Gary Paulsen released earlier this year (CSM review, 5/3/10) with a male teen protagonist caught up in the melee of war.
Both books serve up a vivid slice of history and a realistic sense of the dark horrors of war without descending into graphic details inappropriate for young readers. And both are ultimately stories of character transformation as well.
“Storyteller” follows Zee, as the formerly carefree – and sometimes careless – girl learns to tackle daily farm tasks, witnesses her house being destroyed, and finally ventures off to search for her brother and father. Her difficult experiences reshape her until Zee eventually realizes she is “no longer only the girl who had spilled the soap fat, who had burned the bread. I was another person entirely.”
But in the present day Elizabeth is changed as well. She’s become a storyteller, inquisitive about her family’s history, about her mother, and her aunt. Intertwining Elizabeth’s story with Zee’s underscores how much the girls are alike, though separated by centuries.
Giff is a two-time Newbery Honor winner. This small, beautiful novel will both intrigue her fans and steer new readers her way. A clever juxtaposition of two young women living in vastly different times, the story will appeal to readers ages 9-14.
Augusta Scattergood regularly reviews children’s books for the Monitor.