I was drawn to this book by the gorgeous cover (I love that shade of green) and eye-catching font announcing the intriguing title. When I saw Jodi Lynn Anderson was the author, I knew I wanted to read it. I read Anderson’s Tiger Lily back in 2012, but it’s a book I still think about (Time magazine included it in its list of the 100 Best Young Adult Books of All Time: http://time.com/100-best-young-adult-books/). I will have the privilege of listening to Anderson speak at the ALAN Workshop in St. Louis in a couple of weeks so I was excited to get a chance to read her latest book before then. I was even more wowed by her writing in Midnight at the Electric than I was with Tiger Lily (and that is saying something).
It’s 2065. Adri has been chosen as one of a select number of stellar individuals who will live on Mars to work and research in order to make the planet habitable someday. Because her training will take place in Kansas (far away from her home in Miami), she will be moving in with a distant cousin who was previously unknown to her. Lily is a 107-year-old woman who lives on a farm in the middle of nowhere. She has a 150-year-old tortoise named Galapagos, a brain that is quickly losing its battle with dementia, and a sharp wit that reminded me of Sophia from the Golden Girls. Adri is not friendly. She is flat and stoic and doesn’t make friends. She makes it clear to Lily upfront that the two of them will not be friends. Adri is matter-of-fact about it, not rude. Lily takes it in stride and is determined to make Adri feel welcome while respecting her boundaries. Bored without any electronic devices (not allowed for future Colonists) or entertainment, Adri starts digging around the closet in her room and finds a box filled with a journal, old letters, and pictures. And our story begins. Adri learns of Catherine who lived in this same farmhouse during the Dust Bowl. Adri reads of Catherine’s desperation to save her little sister from dust pneumonia and her love for her family’s farmhand. Adri also learns of Lenore who writes letters from England to Beth (who lived in this same farm house) in 1919. Adri learns of Lenore’s heartbreak after her friend, Beth, moved to Kansas, and after Lenore’s brother died in the Great War. Adri becomes obsessed with the mystery of the identity of these women and what relation they are to her. She feels connected to them and must find answers before she moves to Mars forever.
This story is told in a way that keeps it moving quickly: Adri - Part I (present day action), Catherine - Part I (journal), Lenore - Part I (letters), Adri - Part II, Lenore - Part II, Catherine - Part II, and Adri - Part III. This book is easy to read in one sitting because of this format and the reader’s desire to find out what will happen to each of these women and whether Adri finds her connection to them. Happily, she does. This one definitely had me shedding some tears (Lily’s goodbye to Galapagos!) and feeling lots of feels. Anderson beautifully writes about the friendships of women and the ties of family. Midnight at the Electric poses an interesting challenge to librarians who genrefy their fiction collections. Although the story takes place in 2065 and the main character is preparing for the colonization of Mars, this book is not Science Fiction. Although this book spends a lot of time in 1919 and 1934, this book is not Historical Fiction. It defies classification and I love that. It’s an original piece of fiction that will most be appreciated by adults and strong-reading teens.
Side note related to the Dust Bowl. In 2001, while taking a class for my Master's Degree called "Library Materials for Children and Youth," the instructor (my friend and mentor and all-around-rockstar-retired-high-school-librarian, Dr. Maggie Newbold) told the class about a book called Out of the Dust, a verse novel that takes place in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. I very clearly remember her describing Karen Hesse's descriptive writing and how, when Maggie read the book, she could taste the dust in her mouth, feel the grit between her teeth, and sense the soot sticking to her skin. Maggie's description of that book has stayed with me over the years and Out of the Dust is a book I often think of (if you haven't read it, you must).
Jodi Lynn Anderson's description of dust storms reminded me of Hesse and Maggie: "I didn't know it was possible to hate anything as much as I hate the mud coming out of her lungs. (She's a mud pie all over. Dirt in her hair and on her bare arms and legs that we can never wipe off because there's always more settling on us) (60).