Saturday, March 2, 2019

Reading Through History: The Nickel-Plated Beauty by Patricia Beatty (1964)

In 1886, in Washington Territory, Hester Kimball's mother is in need of a new stove. Hester's brother, Whitney, who works for the storekeeper, Mr. Willard, orders her one (the "Nickel-Plated Beauty") from the Montgomery Ward catalog without consulting his boss, but is bewildered when the item arrives and it turns out that "C.O.D." means he and his siblings will need to pay Mr. Willard for the stove, and for storage, too, before they can bring it home. Aiming to be able to afford the stove by Christmas, Hester and Whit and their five siblings secretly begin to take on extra jobs to earn the money to pay their debt. With the support of each other and their kind, but firm, schoolteacher the Kimball kids demonstrate the value of setting and achieving a goal and work to overcome the various obstacles that would keep them from giving their mother this gift.

I tend to enjoy books about everyday life, and my favorite historical fiction novels are typically the ones that give readers a taste of what it was like to live as an ordinary person in a certain time and place. This gentle, humorous middle grade novel does just that, and it is a quick and amusing read.  The Kimball kids' relationship to each other is mostly very sweet, and their desire to do something kind for their mother comes across in everything they do. The plot also lends itself to opportunities to understand the music that was popular at square dances, to witness some 1880s medical care, and to appreciate the geography of the coastal area in which the Kimballs live and its implications on how people lived their lives.

Really only one thing gave me pause. There is an odd subplot involving the children's aunt and uncle, who separate for a time owing to Aunt Rose's domineering personality. Hester inserts herself into that situation, and into at least one more romantic relationship between adults in a way that didn't really ring true for me, and also seemed kind of inappropriate. I'm not sure what the point of it really was, except that it gave Hester something to focus on between chances to earn money.  For what it's worth, Hester does also seem to learn that her actions have not been appropriate (but only after she has seen her efforts pay off, of course.)

In any case, this is a strong historical fiction title that helps kids to see how childhood is similar across generations and geography. The Kimballs feel real and relatable, and because of that, the historical context becomes more interesting by virtue of the reader's warm feelings toward the characters. I'll gladly have my girls read it around ages 8-10.

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