Confession time. Until recently, I had never read any of the titles in the Dear America series. Originally published from 1996 to 2004, they were simply after my time of middle grade reading, and before my time as a children's bookseller and librarian. It's only now that the series was re-launched in 2010 that they've really come onto my radar, and only when presented with a new title written by Lois Lowry did I make an attempt at reading one. Lowry's new book, Like the Willow Tree: The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce is the newest title in the Dear America series, but it is much more than just another title in a bunch.
Lydia Pierce thinks herself to be quite ordinary. She lives with her parents, her older brother Daniel and her baby sister Lucy in Portland, Maine, and in the year 1918, she turns eleven. 1918 is also the year of the great Spanish Influenza epidemic, which claims the lives of Lydia's mother, father and sister, in the course of one short week. Now orphans, Lydia and her brother go to live with their Uncle Henry and his family, but life there is crowded and unwelcoming, and they are soon moved again, this time to Sabbathday Lake, a nearby Shaker community. It is here that Lydia must learn a new way of living, so different from her old life. On her first day, two of her prized possessions, her copy of The Secret Garden and her grandmother's opal ring, are taken away from her (because the Shakers do not ornament themselves, and believe in communal property). As a Shaker, Lydia must work, doing laundry, helping in the kitchen, knitting (which she hates) and making candy (which she can't wait to do). But there is also school and play, and new friends made, including the cheerful Grace, who talks of one day leaving the Sabbathday Lake, marrying and having a family. Over time, Lydia becomes accustomed to her new life, but brother Daniel does not, and one day he runs away, leaving Lydia with nothing but worry and the loss of the last ties to her old family life.
Though she begins her diary as many typical eleven year olds would, with the sentence "I am desolate", there is a gentleness that comes to Lydia's narrative that inspired from her time living among the Shakers. Lowry does a wonderful job of infusing the diary with the peace Lydia finds there. This is achieved partly by the addition of several Shaker hymns, which add solemnity, but not heaviness. I found Lydia's transformation as she eased into her hardworking, simplified Shaker life to be a breath of fresh air after the weighty gulp that was her earlier confession: "I have not written for eight days. What could I write? Father is dead. Mother is dead. My baby sister, Lucy, is dead." I, who had forgotten what the novel was about, felt a good punch of shock at these words. In some ways, the diary format was limiting, and I wish I could have known more about Lydia's brother, Daniel, instead of only knowing what Lydia knows and thinking what she thinks. But that would have been a book for another day, I suppose.
After this first foray into the pool of Dear America titles, I'm sure I'll find more to interest me, and more authors who have supplied books for the series to entice me (I know Karen Hesse wrote at least one). I don’t know what to expect from the rest, but if they’re anything along the lines of Like the Willow Tree I’ll be satisfied. Because Lowry, after all these years, still has the power to surprise me, and that’s a wonderful thing
Like the Willow Tree: The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce by Lois Lowry