I’ve been reading Sarah Zettel for over a decade now, and wish that more people knew her wonderful books. Hopefully this book, her first children’s/YA, will help her gain some broader recognition. Standard disclaimer: Sarah Zettel was responsible for my love joining the Society for Creative Anachronism, where I later met him. But I like her books for their own merits.
Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel
Dust Bowl Kansas, 1935. Callie LaRoux lives with her mother in the Imperial Hotel, which they run. The town of Slow Run is nearly empty, as the dust and the lack of food and water have caused nearly everyone else to leave. But Callie’s mother refuses to leave, even when the doctor tells her that Callie is dying of dust pneumonia. Callie was fathered by a wandering musician who promised to come back. Callie must keep this secret, hiding behind a pretend Irish last name and staying out of the sun, because her father was a black minstrel. The doctor’s warning does make Callie’s mother worried enough that she makes Callie play the hotel’s piano, which had not been played since Callie’s father left. To Callie’s surprise, her untrained fingers bring out rolling chords, followed immediately by a dust storm. Callie’s mother goes out into it and vanishes, accompanied by the sounds of vicious, triumphant voices. Callie’s search for her turns up only an old dark-skinned man with eyes full of stars, who shares a vision with Callie. Now the plot ramps up, as what seems to a beautiful family comes to the hotel and eats everything – not just the food, but the draperies and even furniture – later revealing themselves as giant magical locusts. But while she’s still figuring out what they are, running back and forth to the store for more food, she meets and hires a boy her own age to help her. Jack has plenty of secrets of his own and, as a travelling homeless boy, tricks up his sleeve and a will to survive. Callie had always believed that her father was just a no-good bum, but from what both the old man and one of the Hopper girls tell her, he was a prince of Faerie, kept from his human lover against his will. With the hotel destroyed by the Hoppers, Callie and Jack set out to find her parents. On the way, Callie meets a couple who give their names as Shimmy and Shake. While Callie thinks that her parents are in California, Shimmy says that Callie needs to go to Kansas City, to the Fairyland amusement park. With some people claiming to want to help and others clearly trying to hurt, chased by the Seelie Court and an anti-bum crusader turned zombie, Callie has to figure out who she can trust and where to go.
There’s a whole lot going on in this book. It’s the first of a trilogy, so it’s got all the plot beginnings for three books. The traditional Seelie and Unseelie courts are used somewhat differently here. The Seelie Court appears to be white and the Unseelie black, but neither one of them appears to be what we’d consider good. Western European faerie traditions are mixed with the reality and mythology of the American West to create a compelling new American. Callie and Jack have to deal with a lot of prejudice – against blacks, Jews, and bums, which felt real enough to bring it home to kids who might not have considered it before without it turning into a hammer-on-the-head Issue book. The book is set solidly in the 30s, filled with both the ever-present dust and the rollicking music of the dance marathons popular at the time. At the same time, Callie and her quest for her own path and identity remain deeply sympathetic and universal. There’s only the hint of possible future romance, and some violence, so appropriate for older middle grade students as well as teens. But my love and I both enjoyed it lots as well.