A Line in the Sand
by Sherry Garland
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
Line in the Sand (Alamo) / 0-590-39466-5
I own almost all the Dear America books and, until this one, I hadn't read a single one that I didn't instantly love. By every measure, this book is dreadful.
The good news is that there is some history here, which salvages a single star. The author has managed to get historical details right, and in the correct order. I also liked that for awhile the issue is presented as complicated: the author points out that the Mexicans are being aggressive, but the Texans are being deliberately provocative by refusing to follow the laws of the land. Unfortunately, that even-handedness disappears after the first 80 pages or so, and we are left with bad writing, bad character development, and enough racism to make a reader sick.
There is so much wrong with this book that I cannot believe that the Dear America name was stamped on it. I've checked all my Dear America books and can confirm that this particular author did not author any other Dear America or Royal Diary book that I own, so maybe even the editors realized that it wouldn't be a good idea to ask her back for another book. I'll try to list just all the things that are bad here.
1) Bad Writing: The author simply does not know how to write in a convincing diary format. Here's an event in a typical Dear America book: there's a huge event that the heroine has been looking forward to, and she goes and enjoys herself, but the happiness is cut short by a tragic, unforeseen event. Here's how a good author relays those events in diary format: Write about the huge interrupting event, with a quick note that the wonderful, planned event really was wonderful, and note that the narrator will "write later" about the good event after things have settled down, and then follow up.
However, in THIS book, the author insists on putting everything down in the diary in chronological fashion, so you literally get entries where the writer tells all about the planned event, every little detail, and THEN notes at the end that, oh yeah, the town had to suddenly evacuate because the entire Mexican army interrupted the planned event to show up suddenly, impossibly on their doorsteps and thus the diarist has been packing all night and has to go to bed now. What just happened there? A huge emergency is taking place, as we "speak", and yet she had time to write about the party then and there, down to the smallest detail? I guess the color of her dress and the name of the guy she danced with couldn't have waited a day or two to go into the diary?
Even more amusing is the diary entry that states, almost verbatim, "Mother woke up today and did the following mundane chores...oh, and Father's fever broke in the evening so it turns out that he won't die and we won't have to amputate the leg as we all feared." Yeah, that seems like a postscript to me, too.
This nonsense occurs almost every entry and is very jarring. One more example: the diarist routinely copies letters and pronouncements word-for-word into the diary after a single, casual reading of the letter. In other words, the entry will say, "Mr. Bob came into town with a pronouncement that I read aloud for everyone and then he left with it, on his way to the next town. Here is the pronouncement, word-for-word, from my memory." I literally laughed out loud, however, when another announcement - the Texas Declaration of Independence - is NOT recited in the diary, even though the diarist spent all day transcribing the declaration onto dozens of letters and declares that she will remember it word-for-word until her dying day. Yet I guess she was too tired to record it in her diary at that point.
2) Bad Character Development: For the first fifty pages of the book, I could not tell the difference between the diarist's three brothers, and by the time that I could tell them apart, I didn't care anymore. The author made the diarist and her family so stupid and idiotic that I found myself comforted by the hope that maybe *they* would die at the Alamo. Faced with a necessary plot development - family must stay in San Antonio until the last moment to enhance dramatic tension - the author takes the bold ploy of just having a family of sick women, newborns, and other vulnerable persons simply declare that they don't "believe" Santa Anna is really coming. No broken axles or debilitating sicknesses need apply here - the plot device of choice for advancing the action is flat out stupidity.
When finally faced with the realization that they must flee or die, the family packs up all their belongings, leaves their mules tied out in the yard, and goes to sleep about an hour before the sun comes up. Why didn't they set out right then and there, knowing every moment counts? This way, the next morning they can be absolutely astonished that the cleverer of the refugees have left early...and have helped themselves to the family's transportation. What a shock.
When the plot demands it, the characters will also exhibit random changes in values and beliefs. The strangest example of this is the fervent joy the diarist expresses when the Texans hold a counsel and declare independence. This joy is unusual because, (a) earlier she had expressed similar joy over a decision to NOT declare independence and she has apparently changed her mind between then and now and we didn't need to hear about it, (b) the declaration will not make the war less bloody and will likely make it far worse in the short term, so the reasonable emotion here should be "worry" not "joy", (c) and her two brothers and two uncles are, as she writes, being slaughtered in various cities nearby and would surely be of more interest to her than a functionally meaningless declaration of independence which is not worth the paper it is written on unless some military victories occur soon.
3) Sickening Racism: I saved the worst for last. I love the Dear America books because they strive to be very sensitive to other races and cultures. Even in the most racist times, the fictional Dear America girls tend to have enough sympathy and empathy to realize that people with different colors and cultures are still people. This book fails, miserably.
The only mention of American Indians in this book are that they are horse thieves and a dire threat to the colonists. No attempt is made to point out that there might be another side to that story. In the epilogue, American Indians are invoked as a Deus Ex Machina to explain why one brother survived the Alamo massacre - he was kidnapped by American Indians on the way there. That would have been a great opportunity to point out that the American Indians were more noble than the "civilized" Mexicans who would have killed the boy on sight or the "civilized" American and Texan armies who would have conscripted him against his will, but why point that out when you can just paint the American Indians as horrible kidnappers?
The author treats African Americans even worse; the diarist writes that she cannot cross a difficult river at one point because, "There are no men among us...except Negroes." Well, everyone knows that a white man is worth ten black men when it comes to fording rivers and other manual labor! Another golden gem is when the diarist catalogs the horrors that Santa Anna will visit on them: murdering Texans and freeing slaves are listed as equally horrific things. Dear America has shown that it is very possible to handle important historical topics with sensitivity, and it was very much NOT necessary for the diarist to have been a racist (many Texan immigrants were abolitionists, in fact) - it was just apparently a personal choice of the author.
I'm disappointed that Dear America published this book. I do not recommend it - beyond all the criticisms I've leveled here, it was also, unforgivably, outright boring.
~ Ana Mardoll
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