Happy All Hallow’s Eve! I saved today’s review for today especially because one of the most heart-wrenching yet evocative scenes is a deliciously historical Halloween party. If you loved old-fashioned parties in books like Betsy-Tacy and L. M. Montgomery’s books—you have to find The Star that Always Stays!
The Star that Always Stays, by Anna Rose Johnson is a MG historical novel (set in Michigan at the beginning of WWI) that feels like a classic. I read a couple reviews that called it “slow-paced,” but I would argue that “unhurried” is a better word; the pacing is perfect. The story centers around 14-year-old Norvia Nelson, who is struggling to fit into her new stepfamily and new high school while holding onto her Ojibwe heritage. It reminded me of so many of my favorite childhood classics (many of which get some subtle or overt nods throughout the story), but most strongly of Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy high school stories.
I truly loved this story. I loved the style, I loved the plot and the plot construction, I loved the fact that it’s based off the author’s family, and I LOVED the characters. You are going to absolutely fall in love with Norvia’s little sister, Dicta, I guarantee it. While some big families feel somewhat forced, the big family dynamics here were spot on.
But I did have a lot of thoughts and feelings about one element, and I’d love to discuss it with you. A major plot element is Norvia’s mother’s divorce and resulting abandonment of her Catholic faith. Anna Rose Johnson delved deeply into the consequences of one aspect of this: the prejudice and downright meanness with which Norvia’s family was treated as a result of their parents’ divorce and remarriage. My heart broke for Norvia, and I was convicted to be more careful of my own prejudices and pre-conceived ideas. But, as a Catholic, I felt confused that one element was left untouched. To me, leaving my Catholic faith would be a whole lot like abandoning my heritage. While Norvia struggles throughout the book to hold onto her Ojibwe heritage even when it might be difficult, the abandonment of the faith in which she was raised (and which had clearly been important to their family at some point, as evidenced by her sister’s name—Benedicta—and pride in it!) is brushed over very quickly. There don’t seem to be any consequences to it. I imagine that as a Catholic I am more sensitive to this than other readers would be, though it didn’t once stop me from being fully invested in Norvia’s story, watching the way the fall-out from her mother's decisions impacted her life. And of course, it is Norvia’s story, not her mother’s. So what I think of her mother’s decisions are beside the point, in a way (all the more so as this is based on real people!).
Another reason this plot point hit me so strongly—in a different way—is that I kept imagining how a book like this would have impacted my own grandmother if she'd had a chance to read it. When she was a young girl and teen, she experienced incredible cruelty from her peers because of her family situation. Her parents were unmarried; her father was terribly abusive; at some point in her childhood, he ended up in prison because of this abuse. My great-grandmother did what she could to protect her children from the gossip and exclusion they were bound to encounter—but one can only do so much. If my grandmother could have read a book like The Star that Always Stays when she was a child, I imagine it would have been incredibly helpful to see another young girl suffering from prejudice and cruelty because of decisions she had no part in. (Note: none of the parents in this story are cruel, though Norvia's father is less than exemplary.) I wonder how many children, like my grandmother, need a story just like this to show them they're not alone.
On a totally different, lighter note—modern readers who are interested in diversifying their style should take a look at the marvelous construction of this story. Anna Rose Johnson uses a technique I usually only see in older books (like the aforementioned Betsy-Tacy), of overlapping small plot points to keep the story moving forward and keep the reader engaged without the need to add overdramatic or unrealistic elements just to create tension. The plot of this story is unhurried and simple, but it drips with tension. Very, very well done.
Bottom line: I highly recommend this lovely story, especially for lovers of old-fashioned stories and for young teenage readers who may not feel comfortable with the more mature topics in most YA. (Or, you know, adult readers like me who aren’t always comfortable with them, either.)
You can purchase The Star that Always Stays from your local bookstore here.
For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations, check out Always in the Middle!
11/1/2022 12:58:36 pm
I hope you love it, Brenda!
10/31/2022 01:42:46 pm
You opened my eyes. This book has many parallels in it, and I may have not picked up on Nora's feelings of abandonment by the church -- her heritage yes. This is the first time I've seen Catholicism addressed in such a way. I certainly know a lot of people of faith who've felt abandoned by their churches, no matter what religion. But never dove deeply into it. This sounds like a fascinating read. Thanks for sharing.
11/1/2022 12:59:57 pm
Thanks for your thoughts, Patricia!
10/31/2022 04:57:57 pm
I agree that this book reminded me of an older style of writing like the Betsy-Tacy books. And I love those books. I've already shared this one with my sister and mother. What a lovely story :)
11/1/2022 01:03:17 pm
That's a good idea, Maria. I think my mom would love this. (And if you're reading, Mom, just forget you saw that! :)
11/1/2022 02:09:22 am
What a beautiful photo! I meant to say that last week too!. :) I haven't read this book, but I think you raise a very good point. Religion is a big part of culture, and I would have thought particularly for Catholics at that time life would have revolved a lot around the various feasts and fasts, novenas, sodalities and other Catholic organisations? I know it did in Ireland. I would have thought it quite traumatic to be brought up to believe one thing and then suddenly to have that taken away, especially when the new lifestyle is one that she would have learned to be morally wrong? However as this is based on a true story, maybe that was the case, but I do find it surprising. Thanks for raising such an interesting topic! :)
11/1/2022 01:07:56 pm
I definitely think that the fact this was based on a true story necessitates following a certain plot line even if pure fiction might demand a different path! I'd love to know more about the actual family's experiences! I do love how in the story Norvia's little sister never loses her pride in her Catholic background. To someone that young, the change probably could have gone unnoticed if no one made a big deal of it!
11/1/2022 05:26:13 am
Lovely photo (beautiful baby and dress!) and a very comprehensive review. I loved Betsy-Taco stories so Might like this one too. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. I love how you included your own personal thoughts and how your grandmother might have felt about this book.
11/1/2022 01:08:56 pm
11/1/2022 09:28:55 am
Fantastic review, Faith! This sounds like a must read for me. I love historical fiction set around this time period. The issue of abandoning one's religion is also rarely explored in MG Lit. Heartbreaking issue for sure. Adorable baby picture and thanks for posting your review on this week's MMGM..
11/1/2022 01:03:38 pm
Unhurried. What a wonderful way to describe this kind of book. I have just put this book right at the top of my TBR list. Thanks so much for reviewing it here.
11/1/2022 01:11:04 pm
Thanks, Greg! Even though this left me with some questions, I absolutely loved that faith was so central to this story without getting preachy or annoying. It's rare to see in current MG books!
11/1/2022 01:42:01 pm
Sometimes I need an unhurried book that will let me sink into the story. Definitely putting this one on my list; so many things interwound into the story.
11/2/2022 06:51:45 am
I've been hearing so much about this book and now your review has convinced me to get to the library and borrow it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about it.
11/2/2022 01:20:07 pm
I hadn't heard of this book, but I love historical fiction and the time period this story is set in. Thanks.
11/6/2022 11:47:48 am
I'm reading it right now and loving it, esp. the effervescent Dicta. I've been puzzled too over the mother's quick dismissal of her both her Ojibwe and Catholic heritage. I know that I would've missed receiving the Blessed Sacrament, but I think even a 100 yrs ago, people received Him only infrequently (hence the precept to receive at least once during the Easter season). Thank you for this review and congratulations on this new space of yours. As always, beautiful.
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Hi! I'm Faith. I blog about books and creativity, family and faith. Welcome!