the Little Red Reviewer

Dust Girl, by Sarah Zettel

Posted on: August 6, 2012

Dust Girl (American Fairy Trilogy, book 1), by Sarah Zettel

published June 2012

Where I got it: purchased new

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In a small town in Kansas, in the dustbowl of the 1930’s, young Callie lives with her mother in the hotel her family owns. As the dust storms intensify, more and more families move out of the town, and Callie’s dust pneumonia gets worse.  Callie’s mother refuses to leave town, insisting that Callie’s father will return to save them. But it’s someone, or rather, some thing, else that comes to town with the next storm, and soon Callie is all by herself. She needs to find her mother, and the father she’s never known.

This is the American Fairy Trilogy, so it’s no spoiler to say that Callie discovers she is half fairy. Her mother had told anyone who would listen that Callie’s father was a traveling salesman. But the truth is that he was a black jazz musician. And even more of that truth was that he is a Fairy Prince. Callie may be royalty in the fae world, but in the plains of the 1930s, she’s now just one more biracial orphan, dependent on keeping her skin as light as possible so as to pass as caucasian for as long as possible.

With her new friend Jack, Callie begins a journey across the country to find her parents, and to find her destiny.  And when she does meet her fairy relatives, will they be happy to see her? That’s the thing with fairies. Their goals are not human goals. Their promises are not human promises.  They have something very different in mind for naive Callie.

I don’t read much YA, so I couldn’t tell you if this book “got it right”, but I can tell you that if I’d read this when I was twelve years old, I’d have been in heaven.   It’s a nicely written coming of age story with a lot of real life issues woven in – poverty, classism, racism, and the general state of America during the time.   There’s even a burgeoning romance between Callie and Jack, but as they are two naive kids, all they can do is sneak curious glances at each other and attempt to awkwardly complement one another. It was quite adorable.

As expected from Zettel, the prose is finely polished and flows nicely, and the world is fully realized. I’ve mostly read Zettel’s science fiction, so I’m no stranger to her flawless worldbuilding. This is the first novel I’ve read of hers that takes place in the real world, referencing real events and real people. She’s traded scifi worldbuilding for extensive research that feels effortless (she’s even got a bibliography in the back). Read this just for the feeling of being there, of feeling the dust in your throat, of watching your crops die, of watching the dry ground crack and crumble. Zettel is balancing the weight of that with a fun story that doesn’t get too deep into plot or emotion.

My only real complaint was the end. I’m not going to tell you anything about what happens, except that while the setting of the ending is fairly genius, how it all comes together felt incredibly rushed, and ultimately underwhelming. A handful of characters make a quick appearance and then disappear, leading me to assume they are developed further in book two.

It was a fun read, but Dust Girl hasn’t sold me on YA.  Dust Girl entertained me and kept my interest, but I didn’t feel challenged by it, I didn’t feel like it was making me think about anything outside the pages of the book. I know not everyone wants their books to be super heavy, but yup, I’m that reader. I want books that stay in my brain long after I’ve finished reading, and Dust Girl was just too kiddie for me in that scope.

Also, something has got to be said about the cover art. There’s a very pretty young lady on the cover, who I have trouble believing is the child of a white mother and a black father.  Callie is described as light skinned with grey-blue eyes and very curly kinky hair. There is even mention of the trouble her mother goes through to keep her hair straightened (relaxed). Umm, can you say White-washed?

I had the chance to see Sarah Zettel at a local booksigning, and I actually asked her about the cover art (and yes, I know the author rarely, if ever, has control over cover art). She very diplomatically said her favorite part of the cover art was the ghostly faces in the swirling dust, and that it is an unfortunate truth that people judge books by their covers, and that she was happy to be involved with a book that was keeping these kinds of discussions going. Well played Ms. Zettel, well played.

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4 Responses to "Dust Girl, by Sarah Zettel"

Agreed on the ending. It wasn’t very satisfying.

On the other hand, I did love the idea of combining fantasy with the Dust Bowl setting. I like reading books that feel fresh and original, with premises that haven’t been done before. Great Depression fairies made me happy.

Also agreed 100% on the cover. I find whitewashed covers to be insulting to readers. The girl on the cover just isn’t Callie.

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The premise was most definitely refreshingly original. The ending probably isn’t so bothersome to younger kids who are reading this.

I can only hope they’ll do different cover art for the paperback. :(

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Maybe if enough bloggers complain the publishers will get the message and change the cover art. Even the Twilight-esque imposing-looking-object-on-black-background would be better than a deliberate misrepresentation of the main character.

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