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PD Quaver
The Ordeals of Elly Robin
PD Quaver, author
Six-year-old piano prodigy Elly Robin enjoys what seems to her a perfect life as a vaudeville headliner. But in San Francisco, her troupe is caught in a devastating earthquake, and when she watches the hotel containing her mother and father collapse before her eyes, something in her mind collapses as well. Next day, a child is found wandering through the city's smoking ruins, mute and traumatized, clutching her blackened doll. Convinced she is an imbecile, the authorities consign her to a dismal children's asylum... So begins P.D. Quaver's extraordinary multi-volume saga, The Ordeals of Elly Robin.
Retired professional pianist Quaver (Unplugged) puts his young heroine through a bevy of unthinkable catastrophes in this middle-grade historical, the first of a nine-book series sharing the same title as this entry. Eccentric Elly Robin, a six-year-old piano prodigy, is happy performing all over the U.S. with her parents and their vaudeville troupe—until they reach San Francisco, and the earthquake of 1906 leaves her alone in the world. Elly, who only speaks when she feels like it, is sent to a nightmarish home for mentally ill girls. Run by a corrupt matron and a physician of questionable morals, the hellish home sees Elly escaping and joining a group of hoboes while trying to pass as a boy. After one of the hoboes sells Elly and a fellow orphan, Jimmy, to a traveling professor, things begin to grow more dire—with Quaver ending the tale on a tantalizing cliffhanger.

The narrative is historically accurate, which includes racial slurs that would be unthinkable in polite society today (Quaver prepares readers for this in a thoughtful author’s note before the first chapter.) As well, some of Quaver’s ordeals for Elly—which include parental death, institutional abuse, and human trafficking—are harrowing, though Elly’s spirit lights even the darkest passages. Quaver continually invents arresting scenarios and characters, rendered in sharp, memorable prose. A subplot with a growing list of murders of young women in every location the troupe travels and a hinted family rift between Elly’s parents and their families are teased, but not gone into in great detail, promising threads to entice readers for the next book.

Elly’s many trials before becoming a teenager would be hard to imagine even in an octogenarian’s experiences, although Quaver carries them all off with a certain sense of derring-do. It’s impossible not to root for this determined young girl, who refuses to let anything at all—whether it’s a devastating earthquake or a daring escape from a questionable institution—stop her determined moves forward.

Takeaway: The start of orphan Elly’s unfortunate but engaging 20th century journey

Comparable Titles: Stacey Lee’s Outrun the Moon, Megan Chance’s A Splendid Ruin.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: A-
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A-