By Nicole Helget
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (April 14, 2015)
Reviewed by Carol Baldwin
I don’t usually think about historical fantasy as a genre until I read Wonder at the Edge of the World by Nicole Helget and was contemplating how I would review it. Then I realized I’ve read other books with both historical and magical elements; King Arthur and Percy Jackson and the Olympian series are two that come to mind. If this genre appeals to you, then you’ll want to read this book.
Set in Kansas right before the Civil War, this is the story of how a young girl, Hallelujah Wonder; and her best friend, Eustace, who is a slave, deliver a dangerous Medicine Head to the cold depths of Antarctica to prevent Captain Greeney, a wicked Navy captain, from using it to work evil.
In a nutshell, the historical and magical elements of this middle grade book make it a story of adventure, friendship, and sacrifice.
The reader gets an early glimpse into Hallelujah’s (who prefers to be called Lu) character when she tells the reader that she intends to be “the first lady scientist in Kansas—maybe the only scientist at all in this sunbaked, thorny-plant, tree-lonely, dirty-water, skinny-animal, dusty-air, grasshopper-happy, God-forsaken place.” (p. 8,9) We also find out that her role model is her father who Captain Greeney murdered. Her father was not only a great explorer who discovered Antarctica, but he also brought home a number of valuable artifacts. So valuable that they are hidden in a cave which only Lu and Eustace know about.
One of the artifacts, a Medicine Head that talks, can only be heard by certain individuals—including Lu. Bundled in a crate with the instructions, “KEEP COOL. DO NOT DESTROY!” Lu feels the head calling to her. When she can’t resist touching it, she sees visions from the past; including images of Captain Greeney pursuing her father in order to possess the Medicine Head’s power. With Captain Greeney on her trail, but now knowing all of the Head’s powers, Lu decides it’s her job to get the Head to Antarctica—where it is cold and will never be destroyed.
At the same time, pre-Civil War unrest infiltrates Tolerone, her midwest town. A fight between the abolitionists and slave owners leads to a devastating fire leaving Eustace temporarily without a master. Recognizing that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to be free, Eustace leaves Kansas with Lu on her quest to keep the Medicine Head away from Captain Greeney.
Like I said, the story mixes fantasy with history and I enjoyed the historical parts the best—which shows you what kind of reader I am! I particularly appreciated how Lu describes the changes she sees in Eustace after leaving Kansas and arriving in New Bedford, Massachusetts where they hope to find passage to Antarctica:
“Eustace is walking funny. He moves through the lanes of New Bedford with a confidence I never saw in him at home.” (p. 206)
Seeing Eustace’s freedom through Lu’s eyes tells the reader a lot about both characters:
“I try to feel what Eustace is feeling right now. I’m sure he misses his ma. I know he does. But if he had stayed in Tolerone, he’d probably have been separated from her anyway. He’d probably have been shipped off to work all day, every day, for mean old slave owners who would never appreciate a single thing he did or knew. They’d probably never realize how smart Eustace is. They’d probably never appreciate how loyal he is. They’d probably never see how strong and courageous he is. Or how forgiving he is. Even if he is a mama’s boy and hits girls.
“I wonder if he’s looking around and thinking about all the possibilities he has. All those things he had hoped for his life, about being a cowboy or a scientist, are suddenly possible. I feel happy for him. But I feel a bit of unhappiness, too. I know that at some point, our journey, successful or not, will be over, and Eustace and I will have to separate.” (p. 218)
When Lu finally rids herself of the Medicine Head, she’s no longer a prisoner to its whims. She has found her freedom; in the same way that Eustace has found his.
CAROL BALDWIN‘s most recent book is Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8 (Maupin House, 2008). She has coordinated the Charlotte Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators critique group for over twenty years, blogs at www.carolbaldwinblog.blogspot.com and is writing her first young adult novel. She is a writing instructor in the Continuing Education Department of Central Piedmont Community College. The three Gs in her life are gardening, grandchildren, and golf. Follow her on Twitter at @CBaldwinCarol.