Hallelujah “Lu” Wonder and her friend, former slave, Eustace, run from 1850s Kansas to Massachusetts, and board a whaler bound for Antarctica in order to get rid of an evil and powerful artifact
Adult novelist, Helget, combines, not entirely successfully, two pretty disparate settings and themes here – Bleeding Kansas and the run up to the Civil War; and an adventure set on a whaling ship. Binding them together is the fantasy story of Lu Wonder and the Medicine Head her father found and, later, died for. The pacing of the novel suffers from trying to balance the too long and slower-paced set up in Kansas, with its backdrop of warring abolitionists and slave owners; and the high seas whaling voyage, which felt too short to me.
Lu, herself, narrates the book in the present tense, occasionally breaking the fourth wall to address us. She is “persistent and brave and strong” and follows in her father’s scientific footsteps. She is something of an intellectual and a know-it-all, and, in this, like other character traits she is reminiscent of Lucy Darrington in Heather Mackey’s Dreamwood.
Eustace, her companion, is fleeing slavery and finds a small utopia on the whaler, where what you can do is important, not skin color, age or gender. He is the cool foil to Lu’s hotheadedness, and shows that he too has “a good knot” in his skull. Other characters don’t register much above two dimensions, particularly the stock villain, Captain Greeney, who chases Lu with the doggedness of a bloodhound.
In an author’s note at the end, Helget acknowledges Charles Wilkes as the real-life inspiration for Charles Wonder, who may also have inspired Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab. She gives some historical information about Bleeding Kansas and whaling – perhaps enough to push a reader to investigate some more, though probably not into reading Moby Dick!
Historical novels can be a hard sell to middle graders, but with an attractive cover and the combination of a spunky girl protagonist with a “hare-brained adventure”, there should be enough to get Wonder some fans.
Reviewed from an ARC.