Book Shelf Blurb: Set in 1890s and true to the time period, These Shallow Graves is about Jo Montfort, an aristocratic girl whose father gets murdered and who must dig up information—including a dead body–in order to solve the mystery.
As we approached to Halloween, I was intrigued by the title of Jennifer Donnelly’s newest YA novel, These Shallow Graves, and wanted a good bone-chilling novel to keep me awake at night. Although I enjoyed the book, I am glad to say I won’t be left with nagging or reoccurring nightmares. Instead, I am left with a sense of relief to know the innocent lives lost in the telling of the story get their due in the end.
We start the story with three people digging up a corpse–apropos to the title, but it isn’t the literal grave that Donnelly wants her readers to grasp, but rather the figure of speech. We all are subject to ‘digging’ our own graves, and as the plot thickens we see how narcissistic people can become.
Covered in dirt and standing with a shovel above a grave is our protagonist, Josephine Montfort. Jo is a 17-year-old girl living in the 1890s among the upper echelon in New York City. She is covered head to toe in dirt, but we are not told why; instead, we are transported to the past, where it is unveiled why our lovely and innocent protagonist is standing at a graveside at 2 in the morning. Jo’s father has been murdered; his partners in his shipping company have been murdered as well, and it seems the business has been compromised when shipping manifests mysteriously disappear. Compelled to become a reporter, Jo finds herself yearning to learn the truth of her father’s untimely demise, as well as the truth of the shipping business.
Much to Jo’s chagrin this is not the time when a young lady can ask questions or go anywhere without a chaperone. Jo is at the mercy of the era and has to discover how to elicit answers without shaming her family or herself. Thanks to her intelligence, wit and charm, she manages to befriend a newsie who has connections throughout the city. This friendship quickly evolves into a romantic relationship which will epically fail due to their lineage.
The historical aspect of this novel was compelling, as was the plot development and characters. I felt like a winner because I knew who did what before Jo did, but that isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book. The authors depiction of the time allowed me to create beautiful images of the story as I read (well, some not-so-beautiful, as New York has a lurking evilness to its west side, with its pickpockets and ladies of the evening, though some of these settings allowed for great characterization to develop).
In the classroom:
Historical fiction allows the opportunity for a cross-curriculum activity. Jo is 17 and getting ready to enter the world in which she was raised. Her family has selected the correct man for her to marry. They have molded her to lead a perfectly sheltered and blissfully ignorant life. But she has other plans.
What was life like for teenagers in 1890 versus today? A comparison/contrast paper is the perfect assignment for this novel. Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources (CCSS 9-10 English/Language Arts/ History/Social Studies). Do not make students write a paper, but merely find sources. Teach them the difference between secondary and primary, as they are difficult to determine when a student is using the Internet. The Internet can be deceiving and it is best to educate prior to giving an assignment. Once you have instructed them between the differences, you can assign a book report allowing students to select historical fiction books detailing the differences between current day and the past.
These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly (Delacorte Press | 9780385737654 | October 27, 2015)