the education of mary

It’s been a few years since I’ve read anything by Ann Rinaldi. An aunt first introduced me to her books — young adult historical fiction — when I was in junior high, or maybe early high school. I was a huge fan for years, reading nearly everything by her I could get my hands on. Her focus tends to be on the Revolutionary War and Civil War eras, two periods of history with which I was fascinated, and her protagonists tend to be teenage girls with somewhat romantic notions, which I could certainly relate to at that age.

When I saw an audio version of Rinaldi’s The Education of Mary in the library a few weeks ago, I was excited to revisit her work. This book is a fictionalized account of the decision of a Quaker schoolmistress, Prudence Crandall, to begin accepting African American students at her Canterbury, CT, school for girls and the controversy that stems from the decision. The story is told through the eyes of 13-year-old Mary, Prudence Crandall’s assistant and confidant, whose sister is the first African American to be admitted to the school.

I’ve long been wary of fictional characters interacting with historical ones, but the last book I read by Rinaldi, Finishing Becca, a novel about Benedict Arnold’s betrayal, and then Phillipa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl both seemed to tell their stories well without trampling over historical facts, and I’ve been a little more willing to give such books a try. This one, however, is probably best characterized as a near miss.

Mary’s story is interesting enough, but I almost feel like Rinaldi is trying to do too much. The school and the controversy are at the heart of the story, but she also connects the aggressiveness of the abolitionist movement, the Underground Railroad, and the dangerous conditions of the Lowell textile mills. It’s not that these topics are unimportant, or even unrelated — it’s just that lumping them all together makes the story seem unfocused at times and overwhelms the development of the characters. Additionally, we’re reminded a few too many times that this story is a true one — and that Mary is fictional — by Mary’s insistences that she, as a servant, won’t be mentioned in the newspaper accounts of the drama.

This novel does seem to have been written for a slightly younger audience than most of her others, which may account for the broader picture rather than the more detailed plotline. I hope that’s the case; I’d hate to think I’d outgrown an author I’ve enjoyed for so long. And it’s not at all an unenjoyable book — in fact, Rinaldi’s fans will probably find it worth their time. But for anyone new to her work, I would recommend trying Finishing Becca or An Acquaintance with Darkness instead; both incorporate the history Rinaldi is so great at portraying, but with stronger characters and more focused plots.

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~ by Molly on April 13, 2009.

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