Review of the Day: Highland Fling
They say not to judge a book by a cover, and maybe in a perfect world such a thing could occur. Yet nine times out of ten a book cover is a dead giveaway of the material hidden inside. And librarians, booksellers, and readers all know this. Pity then the smartly written book nestled within garish packaging. Or, in the case of Kathleen Ernst’s overlooked, “Highland Fling”, maybe the word “dowdy” would be more apropos. Now I’ve been reading many many children’s books this year. I don’t have time to read all of them, though, and usually if a book doesn’t look too enticing I’ll settle for a chapter or two and leave it at that. So the only reason I was even able to read “Highland Fling” was a) I used to dance the highland fling myself as a child and b) I removed the cover. Once I got into it I found, to my very great delight, a book worthy of not just interest but downright applause! This is a truly interesting title. Now maybe I’m just saying that since I’m of Scottish descent and because I can still deliver a mean sword dance if called upon to do so, but I doubt it. Though the book will not grab the casual shopper, those brave enough to give it a go by looking beyond the packaging will be rewarded with a truly enjoyable story of a girl, her family, and a campground full of kilt-crazy Scots.
Have your parents ever dragged you to something you didn’t want to go to? Well, for fifteen-year-old Tanya, that kind of thing has happened more than once. First her mom drags both of her daughters, including Tanya’s sister Nan, from the Midwest to North Carolina. Now she’s being dragged to yet another Highland Festival celebrating the family’s Scottish heritage. Ever since her parents divorced, Tanya’s mom has plunged wholeheartedly into this new obsession and this is one teenager who's anything but willing. Sure, she takes Highland dancing lessons, but she screws up in her first performance while competing in a sword dance event. The only thing Tanya really loves to do is create documentary films, and now she’s decided to use this inescapable Festival week-end to do a tell-all on the dishonesty behind these so-called “Scottish” traditions. What Tanya doesn’t count on is the friendship of a Puerto Rican bagpiper, a connection to her own genetic history (which reveals itself in unpleasant ways), and a surprise visit from her father. The week-end may not be very long, but it’s certainly going to be eventful.
I’m sure lots of books written like “Highland Fling” could have ended with the heroine falling in love with her heritage by the story’s end and begging to be included in future Highland Games. Ernst is smart enough to instead inject her story with a little reality, and that’s awfully refreshing. Maybe Tanya hasn’t reached a perfect understanding with her father and her mother’s new obsession, but at least she isn’t overflowing with spite anymore. It’s a start. I also liked that this wasn’t one of those stories where a kid just isn’t giving something, like dancing, a chance and by the story's end she finds she has actually loved it all along. Tanya doesn’t like Scottish dancing, bagpipes, or obsessed Scotland freaks and that does NOT change by the end of the story. What she does and does not like is her business and it’s up to her parents and her sister to accept that. Instead, it's her view of her own home life that changes.
What Ernst does well is balance Tanya’s family situation with her professional one. Equal attention is paid to the girl's up-and-down relationship with being Scottish alongside her up-and-down relationship with her parents. Less successful is a bizarre hating-someone-from-a-rival-clan-is-in-your-genes argument added to the narrative for a bit of spice. It’s kind of fun to watch Tanya instantly hate and freak out over her "genetic history", and it will certainly give the readers of the book something to chew on. Still, sometimes it goes just a touch too far. For example, there’s a stand up and cheer moment near the end of the book that’s so unbelievable it almost throws the entire book out of whack. Anytime you see the words “Music” and “Mist” used as individual sentences, run. Also, sometimes Ms. Ernst keeps Tanya from acting on her instincts by filling her to the gills with guilt over how it would make her mother feel. Knowing the details of the divorce, this isn’t surprising. I was a little less inclined, however, to believe that she would feel unable to stomach the image of her dance teacher, “lying awake at night” thinking she’d failed her. I mean, if you really hate something, your last concern is going to be the teacher with dozens of other students.
On the plus side, I greatly enjoyed Tanya’s attempts to create a special undercover report of the seamy underbelly of the Scottish Highland Games. Ernst brings up some excellent points on what makes a good documentary (which is less surprising when you discover that the author was once an executive producer for a TV series). Recently I read and reviewed the magnificent “A True and Faithful Narrative” by Katherine Sturtevant. In that book, a girl learns what it means to write a memoir without imposing your own point of view. Tanya learns the same thing here when she finds she can’t control what her filmed subjects say at any given time. And though she argues honestly that, “any documentary comes through the lens ... of its creator”, that doesn’t mean the truth has to be stretched to fit that director’s vision. Heady stuff, yes? But Ernst lays in on the line in a straightforward fashion, even managing to show how Tanya is also imposing her own narrative on her parents’ marriage and her own personal past. Bravo.
The book is being sold as a teen title, but I’d argue against that designation. Sure, there’s some light swearing, but nothing an average tween would be shocked by. And yes, the heroine is fifteen in this book, but she’s dealing with issues any kid could understand. The divorce of her parents. Her family forcing her to partake in something she could not care less about. The difficulty of making new friends. And then, of course, there’s that ancient fear of disgracing yourself on a stage in front of an audience of onlookers. Ernst does all this and manages to make Scottish history interesting to boot. Teens might like what it has to offer, but I’d suggest letting some of the younger kids give it a go as well. Basically my rule is, if the heroine of the book receives a t-shirt with the phrase “Kiss My Thistle” and doesn’t comment on it in any way, shape, or form, the book is kid rather than teen friendly. My two cents.
It takes guts to write a book where the heroine discovers that, when the fire of her outrage has cooled, deep down she doesn’t really like her father and he doesn't like her. All the better if that same book is a fun read. The phenomenon of the American Scotch obsession has always been ripe for the children’s book picking. Credit Kathleen Ernst for capturing the beauty and deep abiding nerdiness of such a backdrop. By bringing her action out of such a bizarre but worthy custom she’s created a book well worth reading. Fun and smart which, should anybody ask, is a rare combination at best.
Notes On the Cover: Oh lordy lordy. Where to begin? Look, Cricket Books, let’s sit down and discuss this. Now, you have on your hands a really pleasant title. I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but what the HECK is going on with this cover? This looks like it was painted circa 1983 and makes anyone who sees it physically recoil. No exaggeration. Just today I recommended it to a fellow librarian and she told me she’d been avoiding it specifically because of the cover. Talk about counterproductive. I won’t even get into how the boy playing the pipes could hardly be called Hispanic and instead grasp desperately at the fact that at least the artist (who shall remain nameless) showed the girl on the cover actually doing a fling. Now, ideally this book would win a huge following in spite of its nasty outer layer and you could re-release it in paperback with a better image. Realistically, I think you just shot yourself in the foot. Naughty bad, Cricket Books! No shortbread for you. Now never do this again.