Books

Book Review: The Steep and Thorny Way

It’s a long time coming, but here’s the final installment of my Badass History wins. It’s THE STEEP AND THORNY WAY by Cat Winters!

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Before I get to the review itself, I have to show you some pictures. The Steep and Thorny Way is a YA retelling of Hamlet, with a mixed-race protagonist in 1920s Oregon, and if you think that sounds amazing, wait till you see how it looks in book form:

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Seriously, how incredible is this presentation??? Cat Winters’ previous historical YA, IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS and THE CURE FOR DREAMING, also incorporated photographs, and she continues the trend here. I haven’t read either of those, though I have read a short story of hers in the YA horror anthology SLASHER GIRLS AND MONSTER BOYS. I thought hers (another historical ghost story, and one of the most subtly chilling and romantic in the bunch) was one of the standouts in that collection, and I was pretty excited to get to this novel from the premise alone, but gah, I am such a sucker for books that go above and beyond in presentation. (A Series of Unfortunate Events comes to mind.)

Of course, it’s what on the inside that really counts. Fortunately, The Steep and Thorny Way, like Audrey Hepburn, is as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside.

The pitch is irresistible. Hamlet is 16-year-old Hanalee Denny (loved her name), the only mixed-race person in her rural town in Prohibition-era Oregon. Gertrude is Greta, her white mother, and Claudius is the town doctor, Clyde Koning. Ophelia and Laertes are Fleur, Hanalee’s white best friend, and her brother Laurence, who gave Hanalee her first kiss but is now involved with the Ku Klux Klan, which is far less harmless than generally believed. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are his vicious friends Robbie and Gil Witten. Fortinbras is Deputy Fontaine, a “movie-star handsome” police officer rumored to be Jewish. In one of the most ingenious touches of the novel, Hanalee has to obtain moonshine from a bootlegger’s daughter to speak to the ghost of her father. But while the parallels are clear (all the chapters are named after Hamlet quotes), this is not just a retelling. Hanalee is very much the star of the show, but the second most important actor is a new (and really, really good) character, Joe Adder, the preacher’s son falsely convicted of running over Hank Denny. (His name is a clever reference to the King of Denmark supposedly being bitten by a poisonous snake.) While the setup is familiar, it merely sets the stage for an original and surprising story about prejudice and eugenics.

I haven’t actually read HAMLET, though I am familiar with the story. But I did have the tremendous pleasure to see Tom Stoppard’s ingenious play ROSENCRATZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD while in Atlanta, Georgia for my high school Quiz Bowl national tournament! (Last year, my alma mater became #1 in the country!) And I do get a kick out of a Shakespeare retelling–Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and Ran, anyone? There’s a contemporary YA out right now that’s a retelling of The Winter’s Tale, with a high school cheerleader surviving rape, and it’s titled EXIT, PURSUED BY A BEAR–I haven’t read it yet, but brilliant!

I like this a lot. Besides the huge appeal to me as a literary/history/social justice geek, this is just so unexpected, fresh, and engaging. It took a while for it to really take off for me–the dialogue at the beginning was a little overly expository at times–but when it found its footing, it just worked really well. The backdrop of American eugenics felt organic and well done. I had something of a crush on Joe Adder–it helps that his relationship with Hanalee was one of the most genuinely warm and surprising ones I’ve read in YA. It’s not romantic, which felt refreshing–in fact, he’s gay. I loved how the treatment of homosexuality as a mental illness–which, like racism, is sadly not fully gone–is also explored as well as race in a story about eugenics. But I also found the treatment of Hanalee’s feelings for him incredibly well-handled! It culminates in a scene that you really wouldn’t think would work, but it somehow does and it’s honestly one of my favorite scenes of its kind in YA.

Huge thank you to Cat Winters for The Steep and Thorny Way, along with Jessica Spotswood, Sharon Biggs Waller, and Meg Medina. Not just for the free and awesome books (and very kind swag!), but honestly, you’re making the world a better place.

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