The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters. March 8, 2016. Harry N. Abrams, 352 p. ISBN: 9781419719158. Int Lvl: YA; Rdg Lvl: YA; Lexile: 880.
A thrilling reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Steep and Thorny Way tells the story of a murder most foul and the mighty power of love and acceptance in a state gone terribly rotten.
1920s Oregon is not a welcoming place for Hanalee Denney, the daughter of a white woman and an African-American man. She has almost no rights by law, and the Ku Klux Klan breeds fear and hatred in even Hanalee’s oldest friendships. Plus, her father, Hank Denney, died a year ago, hit by a drunk-driving teenager. Now her father’s killer is out of jail and back in town, and he claims that Hanalee’s father wasn’t killed by the accident at all but, instead, was poisoned by the doctor who looked after him—who happens to be Hanalee’s new stepfather.
The only way for Hanalee to get the answers she needs is to ask Hank himself, a “haint” wandering the roads at night.
Potentially Sensitive Areas: Strong language; Mild sexual themes; Racist language and violence; Homophobic language and practices
Booklist starred (January 1, 2016 (Vol. 112, No. 9))
Grades 9-12. Hanalee Denney’s father has been haunting the crossroads of Elston, Oregon, right where Joe Adder ran him down in his Model T after a night out drinking. Now that Joe’s out of prison, Hanalee’s ready to get her revenge, but before she can fire the bullet home, Joe convinces her to take a closer look at her stepfather, Uncle Clyde, who married her mother quickly after her father’s death. If that plot sounds vaguely Shakespearian, you wouldn’t be wrong. Winters retells Hamlet in a grandly realized Prohibition-era Oregon setting, featuring biracial Hanalee in the title role, while the prejudices of the day simmer in the background. Compellingly, Winters doesn’t cleave faithfully to the Hamlet story. Instead, Hanalee discovers something far more rotten than a murderous uncle: the KKK are eager to rid Oregon of anyone who doesn’t conform to their ideals, and Hanalee, along with her parents and Joe Adder, is at the top of their list. Hanalee’s investigation of her father’s murder and her growing friendship with Joe are engrossing enough, but Winters amplifies the story by weaving Oregon’s troubling true history—state-sanctioned discrimination, eugenics, forced sterilization—throughout the tale, adding weighty, unsettling context to the slow-burning mystery. A powerful, gripping, and exceptionally well-executed glimpse into a little-known corner of U.S. history.
Horn Book Magazine (July/August, 2016)
In 1923 small-town Oregon, Hanalee Denney has some friends, but she’s well aware of the prejudice surrounding her. After the death of her African American father, Hank Denney — apparently from injuries sustained when he was hit by a car driven by young Joe Adder — Hanalee’s white mother married Clyde Koning, the doctor who treated Hank after the accident. Convicted of the murder, Joe has been released from prison and returns to town an outcast, which brings Hanalee and Joe together even though she knows him as her father’s killer. When she begins to see Hank’s ghost, it leads her to suspect foul play. Was it in fact her new stepfather, not Joe, who killed her father? The more Hanalee investigates, the more she uncovers of her town’s shadowy underbelly, including a thriving local Ku Klux Klan chapter that targets not just Hanalee and other nonwhite people but also Joe, who is gay. As in her previous novels, Winters (In the Shadow of Blackbirds; The Cure for Dreaming, rev. 11/14) incorporates historical photos into the text, adding a documentary-like feel. While the influences from Shakespeare’s Hamlet are clear, the novel is not so attached to its inspiration that it fails to let its plot flow naturally. The unique setting and thorough research take the book beyond Racism 101: the KKK has it out for anyone who’s not “white, Protestant, American-born, or sexually normal in their eyes,” and readers might be surprised to learn of the Klan’s Rotary-like activities, which allowed it to keep its hate crimes hidden. This is genre-pushing historical fiction that will surprise and enlighten readers. sarah hannah gómez
About the Author
Cat Winters is an award-winning, critically acclaimed author of fiction that blends history with the supernatural. Her young adult works include In the Shadow of Blackbirds, The Cure for Dreaming, The Steep and Thorny Way, and the forthcoming Odd & True (Sept. 2017). Her adult novels are The Uninvited and Yesternight. She has been named a Morris Award finalist, a Bram Stoker Award nominee, and an Oregon Spirit Book Award winner, and her books have appeared on numerous state and “best of” lists.
Winters was born and raised in Southern California, just a short drive down the freeway from Disneyland, which may explain her love of haunted mansions, bygone eras, and fantasylands. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two kids.
Her website is www.catwinters.com.
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