Monday, January 17, 2011

What I've Read This Week

What I Read This Weekend . . .

The Education of Bet by Lauren Baratz-Longsted -- Young Adult Historical Fiction
In the nineteenth century, girls like Bet don't typically have many advantages. The daughter of a maid and nobody knows who, Bet has been lucky in life for sixteen years. First, her mother was allowed to stay in her position as maid in the Gardener household and keep Bet in the servants' quarters. Then, after the deaths of Bet's mother and Mrs. and Mr. Gardener, Bet and the Gardener's son Will, were taken in by Will's great-uncle Paul. At first Bet and Will were raised like brother and sister, until they were ten and Will's maternal relatives insisted on sending Will to school and keeping Bet in her place as companion to Will's uncle. Not quite family but not really a servant, Bet is well enough, but she isn't really content. What she really longs for is an education. Angry at Will for being sent down from yet another school (this makes four), Bet wonders why Will would willingly give up something she longs for. Will dreams of joining the military instead and Bet comes up with a daring plan that will give them both what they dream of. Bet disguises herself as Will to attend the Betterman Academy, a school for losers and misfits who can't excel anywhere else. Masquerading as a boy is a lot harder than Bet ever imagined. The school work isn't hard but she has to contend with bullies, keeping her identity a secret and falling in love with her handsome roommate, James Tyler. Bet also worries about Will, who is employed as a drummer boy in the army. What will happen if he's killed? What will happen if her identity is discovered and will she ever be able to reveal herself to James? This first-person narrative of a young woman's struggle to achieve her dreams is a great read. Bet is an inspirational, plucky heroine. Her dream of wanting an education may be difficult for modern readers to really understand but she's a very sympathetic character and the reader will want her to achieve her dreams. Will doesn't appear much in the novel and I'd love a companion story about his coming-of-age. The romance is totally swoonworthy (the best line in the book is "Swoon!") and so very sweet. Though the story is likely improbable, it's a fun and fast read that girls 12 and up will love hopefully as much as I did. This is one of the best YA books I've read in a long time for the simplicity and sweetness of the story and the sheer courage of the protagonist.

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