Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Book Review: "Maggie Elizabeth Harrington" (DJ Swykert)

It takes a talented author to hook a reader from the very first line of a new novel.

DJ Swykert is one such author. His book, Maggie Elizabeth Harrington, the first in a series, begins with the following gem: "My father drowns my kittens."

Who couldn't keep reading after that?

Maggie Elizabeth is a thirteen-year-old girl, growing up in an historic time period (it's difficult to tell which decade or year, given that some of the dialogue, especially, is really too modern for a fully historical novel) with her father and grandmother. Her mother is dead, and she's convinced her father hates her.

Their life in a coal-mining town in Michigan is simple, even minimalist. Maggie Elizabeth has few friends, except a girl named Annie and Annie's older brother Tommie, on whom Maggie Elizabeth has a teenage crush. She recounts the typical life she lives, mundane and predictable, until the day she rescues a litter of wolf pups from a bounty hunter. Then everything changes.

I'd categorize the book's genre as a coming-of-age historical novel, but some of its contents is fairly graphic, psychologically, making this book a better choice for older teenagers (young adult, perhaps) than children or even preteens.

Maggie Elizabeth tells the story in the first-person point of view, in a unique kind of teenage-angst, stream-of-consciousness style. The repetitive commentary --- her father doesn't like her because her mother died; she doesn't think her father likes her; she doesn't know why her father doesn't talk to her; he talks to God but not to her; he never talks to her --- is perhaps accurately teenage to some extent, but after several chapters driving home the same few points, it becomes genuinely repetitive and less endearing.

The other challenge to the stream-of-consciousness style is that it makes for some long, wordy paragraphs. Long paragraphs tend to diminish my interest in the story because I feel like I'm slogging through a lot of information; I just personally prefer a faster-paced story, which lends itself to shorter paragraphs. I think that if this novel is ever reworked for another edition, most of the paragraphs could be broken up to maintain reader interest.

The point of view for the majority of the novel is present tense, which adds to the eager, girlish voice of the protagonist, except in a few places when it switches unexpectedly into past tense for no technical reason; that issue could be resolved, in future editions, with a thorough proofread, which would also catch the periodic errors in punctuation, capitalization, and cliches.

As a means with which to convey the historical setting, the dialogue between characters is sometimes evocative and genuine. Occasionally, though, it comes across as stilted and unrealistic ("... I would like to know one way or the other, that's all") and with an odd combination of historic and modern diction.

As far as a coming-of-age novel, the story "problem" (six months in the life of a teenage girl) is more psychological than actual. The actual, physical story problem --- to protect and care for the wolf pups as they grow, and keep them hidden from hunters --- arrives in chapter 3, which may be too late for some readers who are more used to that problem arriving earlier in the novel.

By the end of the novel, Maggie Elizabeth has grown stronger and more comfortable in her own identity. I had some questions about how that transformation happened, given that the climax of the novel (just prior to her moment of self-realization) is neither positive nor especially redeemable, and, indeed, one of the most difficult parts of the novel to read and understand.

Then again, perhaps I'm accustomed to happy endings.

Nonetheless, for older teens, young adults, or adults, Swykert's novel is an intriguing, engaging insight into the wishes and dreams of a teenage girl at a period in history when girls were ordinarily meant to be seen and not heard. Maggie Elizabeth is largely a likable character, and her voice is earnest and different than one might expect, making the book a pleasure to read, despite the often sad and difficult content.

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Title: Maggie Elizabeth Harrington
Author: DJ Swykert
ISBN: 978-1490515670
Purchase here:

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest, though not necessarily positive, review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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