Title: These Shallow Graves
Author: Jennifer Donnelly
Publisher: Random House Teens
Publication Date: 2015
Josephine Montfort is of the New York Montforts, and that means Miss Sparkwell’s School for Young Ladies, balls and galas, and finding a suitable husband. It does not mean writing school newspaper stories about the abuses of young girls in the textile mills. Even in 1890, after Nellie Bly’s exposés, true journalism is not an opportunity open to Jo. However, when Jo’s father dies from an accident while cleaning his gun, her world crumbles. Her mother descends into a depression and Jo is all but cooped up in the house of mourning.
When a chance opportunity occurs for her to deliver an item bequest in his will, Jo jumps at the prospect of visiting one of her late father’s holdings, the Standard, a city newspaper. In awe of the bustle and excitement of the newspaper, Jo overhears the shocking accusation that her father’s death wasn’t an accident; it was suicide. Overwhelmed by grief and confusion, Jo searches her father’s study for some indication of rationale and finds her father’s agenda. Questioning of her uncle reveals that the cause of death was suicide but Jo continues to search for more answers. The further she delves into the mystery, the more uncertain the facts become until Jo realizes that her father’s death wasn’t an accident or suicide; it was murder.
With the help of a scrappy ace reporter, a talented pickpocket, and a budding forensic doctor, Jo stretches out further from the home and life she has known and faces a new, sometimes exhilarating and sometimes terrifying, world. The question is how much of her old life is she willing to let go and how much does she not want to return to. The stakes of status, honor, and integrity are high but the threats to her sanity and life may be even greater.
I’ve read a few of Jennifer Donnelly’s adult books and enjoyed them, but this mystery book really caught my attention. It is a young adult book but is unique in that it is a true historical mystery; mystery books are a rarity among young adult fiction. Although I could see where the plot was going, I enjoyed how the author showed the growth of experience and knowledge in the young protagonist. The concept of a young girl from a well-to-do family exploring the seedier side of the world is not a new one; what makes this story a bit unique is her clear awareness of both sides of life. She realizes what sacrifices must be made on both sides while still maintaining a realistic naivety and open-eyed outlook on the world.
I found the book to be very enjoyable and I loved the gothic feel. Amazon recommends the book for 9th grade and up and I think that is appropriate. Although there is no sex, references and discussions are made in a youthful questioning and reflective way. As the character learns what a brothel is, what it entails, and what it means for girls less privileged that she, the innocence is almost heart-breaking.
Who might like this book:
My daughter and I have had numerous discussions about the dearth of good young adult mysteries – historical or not – that don’t involve vampires, dystopian societies, or sappy emotions. I think this book is a refreshing change and one that adults – both young and old – may enjoy.