She‘s run away to become a part of history, and to fall in love…
Background: Scholastic’s Sunfire series is a cautionary tale about judging a YA Romance by its cover: lurking behind the overheated cover art and melodramatic taglines are some of the best stories and most interesting heroines of the genre.
Sort of a historical counterpart of Scholastic’s Wildfire Romances, the series was authored by a handful of Scholastic regulars, such as Vivian Schurfranz and Jane Claypool Miner, and are formulaic, but reliably consistent in quality.
Each volume features a feisty (sometimes anachronistically so) 14-to-17 year old heroine facing an American historical crisis and the choice of two (or more) suitors. Spoilers: she’ll choose the one with the more progressive ideas about women’s rights.
The series tackles some pretty heavy topics for YA Romances, including stories set in the textile mills of Lowell, MA in the 1830s (Joanna) and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (Rachel). The books also feature a historically accurate body count: death and disease lurk around every corner; if the heroine isn’t an orphan when the story begins, she is likely to be one by the end of the first chapter.
The first 15 volumes run around 350 pages, and take place over a number of months (or even years), and focus on life during a general time and place: the Irish immigrant experience in 1840s Boston (Kathleen), prohibition-era Chicago (Jacquelyn), or the Jamestown colony (Marilee). This format also features an illustrated map of the part of the county where the story takes place.
Volumes 16-32 run only about 150 pages apiece, and focus on a specific historical event, often a dramatic disaster such as the sinking of the Titanic (Nicole), the attack on Pearl Harbor (Veronica) or the Great Blizzard of 1888 (Renee).
The Plot: While I have yet to find a real dud in the entire series, I’ll say upfront that Merrie is not one of the stronger stories, and it stretches the belief of the reader starting with the premise: 15 year old Merrie Courtland, the daughter of a wealthy London merchant, stows away on the Mayflower to escape an arranged marriage.
Discovered after a week at sea, Merrie’s presence is not welcome on the over-crowded ship, especially amongst the group of religious Separatists. For a book based on the Pilgrim mythology, the Pilgrims come off as a bunch of fun-hating jerks, and after their arrival in Massachusetts, Merrie is constantly being shunned by the community for offenses such wearing a hair ribbon or being caught reading a book.
Although she lived a pampered life in London, Merrie works hard to pitch in help with the shipboard chores, and eventually gains a little ground with the Pilgrims when she performs a 17th-century Heimlich maneuver on Patience Sedgewick, saving her life. Merrie also catches the eye of two eligible bachelors on board, cheerful and ambitious sailor Luke Bosworth, and serious and sensitive physician’s assistant Zachariah Gaines. She also earns the unwanted attention of Pilgrim Elder Oliver Loomis, who takes an instant dislike to Merrie and vows to put her on the first ship back to England.
The voyage to New England is decidedly not romanticized, and involves a historically accurate amount of vomiting and diarrhea. When they finally anchor off of Cape Cod, there is also a historically accurate amount of death, including all of Patience Sedgewick’s family. The widowed Patience eventually softens towards Merrie, and she becomes the girl’s surrogate mother, despite their differences. Oliver Loomis is not impressed, especially after Merrie gets off a lucky shot with Luke’s musket and brings home a turkey for dinner:
“Mark my words, she’ll heap shame and ridicule on you!” He sneeringly looked Merrie up and down. “Look at her! Unbound hair, flushed face, blood on her hands! She’s a barbarian!”
Zachariah (or as he is called in distractingly 1980s style, “Zack”) is more progressive than his fellow Pilgrims, having been only sent to live with his separatist Aunt after his parents’ death; he has adopted many of the Dutch customs, and courts Merrie by presenting her with a pair of hand-carved ice skates.
But Merrie can’t seem to keep out of trouble, and when Master Loomis catches her dancing with joy on the beach in celebration of her 16th birthday, he convinces the governor to exile her from Plymouth for a week, with the expectation that she’ll be unable to survive in the woods. Jeez, what is this guy’s PROBLEM?
Merrie is doing surprisingly well during her exile, until she steps in a beaver trap and breaks her ankle. Luckily she is rescued by the daughter of the Wampanoag medicine-woman, who takes her back to the village and nurses her back to health. She returns to Plymouth and somewhat unwisely gets all up in Master Loomis’s face, until he shuts her down by telling her that her involvement with Zack is hurting his status in the colony. Merrie decides that she must return to England on the Mayflower’s return voyage, and decide whether to return to her family or marry Luke.
Then she changes her mind, and Luke, ever the gentleman, rows her back to shore, kisses her good-bye and bids her farewell forever. Merrie and Zack are happily reunited.
And that is my main complaint with the book, it comes to a natural conclusion after about 150 pages, then drags on for 70 more, manufacturing needless complications to keep Merrie and Zack apart, as she keeps changing her mind about whether she should stay in Plymouth or head back to London.
Although there is some satisfaction when Merrie proves a valuable diplomat to the Wampanoag, and plays a part in helping to broker peace between the colonists and the Narragansett (no thanks to Miles Standish, who is depicted as being kind of war-crazy and Indian-hatey).
The book ends with the big dinner, and Oliver Loomis gets his comeuppance when both Chief Massasoit and Governor Bradford honor Merrie for her contributions to Pilgrim-Indian relations, forcing Oliver Loomis to (kind of) apologize for constantly trying to drive her out of Plymouth.
Well, good enough.
Puritans Have The Best Names For Their Children Department:
“Mama,” she chirped, “Resolved wants me to play leapfrog on deck. Can I?”
“No, Constanta,” Mistress Hopkins said, “it’s not proper for a young lady.”
Progressive! Department: “Merrie didn’t think it was fair that the women shouldn’t have an equal say in the laws. After all, they were expected to do an equal amount of work!”
Puritanical! Department: “They didn’t even allow an organ, calling it the ‘devil’s bagpipes.’”