It's 1906 and seventeen year old, Mattie Govey, lives on a small farm in the northern woods, in New York State. Mattie's abiding passion is books and she is desperate to go to college and, eventually, become a writer. How unlikely a dream this is quickly becomes evident as we hear about her life. She lives with her widowed father and three sisters, her elder brother, Lawton, having recently run away after a row with his father. They are a poor family and life is hard. Day to day living for Mattie is a constant round of chores, cooking and looking after the family; inbetween that she manages to fit in her school life which she loves more than anything. Words are her passion and she has a game in which she chooses a 'word of the day' and her, and her friend, Weaver, the only black teenager for miles around who also wants to go to college to be a lawyer, think of as many meanings for the word as they can, throughout the day.
The narrative, told in the first person, skips around over the space of some months, so we first meet Mattie in the present when she's working for a local hotel, waiting tables and skivvying in the kitchen. A body has been found in the lake and it's one of the hotel guests, a young woman, Grace Brown. She had been staying there with a young man, her fiance, Carl Grahm. But Mattie knows that that's not his real name because Grace had given Mattie some letters and asked her to burn them. Mattie had tried but not managed to do it and when the body turns up she eventually reads the letters instead. What is revealed shocks her into considering what her life has been and will become. Mattie is presently engaged to Royal Loomis, a blonde haired, good looking boy whose people own a neighbouring farm. Why is he so interested in a plain, bookish girl like Mattie? Especially as he has no interest in books himself and is scathing of her passion for them. Mattie looks back over events of previous months and draws parallels between her life and Grace's. Her head tells her she will never make it to college and even if it were possible she would still have to make the choice that most female writers of the previous century, and this, have been faced with - that of having a husband and children or having a career in writing. It seems to her that it's not possible for a woman to have both.
Well, this rather special book won the Carnegie medal for 2004 and I'm not even remotely surprised. You could describe this as a feminist book and that would be correct: it most certainly is. You're not beaten over the head with it precisely but woven into the story are straightforward facts about the lives of women at the beginning of the 20th. century. Their limited choices, sexual lives (not explicit but very matter of fact), continual child bearing, daily drudgery and so on. Even if you were well off and intelligent things were not that much better, men still had the upper hand and most women had, basically, to do what they were told or what was expected of them by society. It sounds depressing and, for us looking back, it is. But the book is not depressing as a whole, there is plenty of humour and Mattie herself is an absolute joy. Her personality jumps off the page at you and you can't help but grieve for her situation and lack of prospects while at the same time loving her zest for life.
There were elements of several of my favourite books in this story. Partly it was a sort of a backwoods version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn but also there were shades of The Little House in the Big Woods and Anne of Greengables, albeit rather adult ones. It depends on the teenager of course, but I don't think I would recommend this book for anyone under the age of fifteen or sixteen as some of the themes are quite adult in nature.
All in all, a wonderful read... perfect for anyone doing the feminist challenge that I've seen on a couple of blogs lately. Certainly it'll feature in my top ten list of best reads this year and might even be my book of the year. Yes - it was that good.