Winner of the Sarton Women's Literary Award and the North Carolina Author Project Award.
It has been a long and difficult year for the Decker family, especially for sixteen-year-old Brooke. Her grades have plummeted. She deliberately breaks curfew. She makes out with boys she hardly knows. And now her father has totally lost it. When Tim Decker signs up his family of three to be contestants on a Hollywood reality show, Brooke’s life turns upside down. The place: The North Carolina backcountry. The year: 1861. Brooke is forced to trade in her Victoria’s Secret bra for a rib-cracking corset, her comfy jeans for an ugly farm dress, and her private bathroom for an outhouse. Television cameras will follow her every move as she lives the grueling life of a mid-nineteenth-century farm girl: milking a cow, churning butter, fetching water countless times a day, and riding in a horse-drawn wagon along a rutted road to spend pennies in town. This will be Brooke’s life for four awful months. Unless, of course, she breaks the rules and the producers kick her off the show… Other families are scattered throughout Sweet Sugar Gap. The snotty Prudence Miller soon becomes Brooke’s rival. Wendell Murphy, who works at the local mercantile, is instantly smitten with Brooke—but also makes her suspicious. Does the only cute boy in town really like her, or is he merely showing off for the cameras? Brooke Decker may just have to find a way to make it in the backcountry, leaving behind the modern frills she can’t live without. But can a young girl’s wishful heart surrender to a time and place she believes she can never call home?
Few novels are crafted as creatively as this delightful novel by Leslie Tall Manning! We journey with Brooke, the story's 16-year old protagonist, to a reality show set in North Carolina in the mid 1800s, a show that demands she not only leave her friends and all her modern clothes, makeup and techy devices at home, but that she learn how to literally survive in a world over 150 years before her time. Does Brooke resist? You bet! She's not about to change her life so radically, especially since, in the last year, the death of her mother has turned her world upside down. And now she has to enter another, totally unknown world? No way!
If it weren't for the adamant wishes of her father, whom she loves deeply, Brooke would never even have considered this 3-month experiment, even though, at some level, she knows that her wild ways are leading her into a downward spiral toward sex and weed. And so, she finally agrees.
Thereafter, the author creates a reality-show experience for Brooke, her father and her little sister that literally BECOMES SO REAL it is a time-travel experience for readers as well. It's obvious that Manning spent time researching this pre-Civil War era, because the details of Brooke's life learning to cook at an open hearth, churn butter, construct a broom to clean their cramped log cabin of unwelcome critters, scrimp and save enough coins to visit a genuine country store, go to church every Sunday plus old fashioned picnics afterwards, and even frequent an outhouse, are as authentic as the era itself. Thus, readers learn with Brooke what life was really like a century and a half ago.
But that's not all. This story is packed with conflicts. The difficulties of getting along with snobs in the community, plus a good-looking boy who seems to be attracted to her, and the problems of surviving a hurricane, her sister's serious accident which she caused, not to mention helping with the birth of a baby--all of these experiences and MORE challenge Brooke to grow and eventually become a different kind of person.
In addition, the author has saved some surprises for the end. But I won't give those away here. Better that you find out for yourselves. You won't be disappointed. In fact, I guarantee you'll not only be satisfied when you read the last page of this story, but you'll be sorry too. I was! I'd gotten to know the characters and the setting so well I didn't want the book to end. Perhaps Leslie Tall Manning will consider taking readers on another journey with Brooke in a sequel. I hope so!!!
One of the real joys about reading YA fiction (at least GOOD YA fiction) is that, like in real life, there are some real opportunities for the story to blossom in unexpected ways. Appropriately written (in style and content) for the reader who is not-yet-an-adult yet who has become self-aware (and is certainly no longer a child!), a great YA book can explore what the characters are leaving behind (limited, self-absorbed ME, ME, ME) as well as jump into that future world of how to relate to all these other people who you find in your life.
Brooke Decker leaves her overly comfortable life as a high schooler in modern day New Bern, North Carolina as her family joins the cast of a reality show in the rural backcountry where they are expected to try and make it as settlers in the time running up to the Civil War. There really are so many great facets to reading this book-- my favorite is probably the dominant theme of the character development of Brooke as she begins to understand what her most primary needs and desires truly are (after stripping all the modern diversions and conveniences away). She (and her father and younger sister) are already lacking as a family unit since her Mom had recently passed away, now they will need to rebuild their lives as they learn how to adapt to a smaller world where you either had to create what you need (or make do without).
The story rolls along (and thankfully keeps the reader from being able to obviously predict everything that happens next) and it is packed with obviously well-researched details of the everyday life for the Decker family and how they learn how people lived and worked together in the 1860s. The supporting cast of characters are entertaining and really flesh out the way an entire community would function and relate. This is a perfect historical YA novel for a teacher to assign kids (as long as no one minds the fact that there are simple references to casual drinking and marijuana use by teenagers in the text, certainly not in a gratuitous or celebratory fashion).... Readers will learn about the 1860s history as well as a valuable lesson in exploring what is truly important: how it is to grow up and take the lessons you learn and synthesize them into becoming a more aware person, who takes pride in their accomplishments and learns to find the value of family and community.
That is a lot to ask of any book, but Upside Down in Laura Ingalls Town delivers on all accounts.
Leslie Tall Manning will be giving a two-hour teen workshop on "How to Write a Book Review Like a Pro" at the Western Carteret Public Library, Eastern North Carolina. 9-11 am. Come on out for this informational and fun presentation. Signed copies of her latest novel, Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town will also be available for purchase for only $10.
The workshop is FREE.