Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review - Lumberjanes: Beware the Kitten Holy by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, and Brooke Allen

Short review: Strange things keep happening to the girls at Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet's Camp for Hardcore Lady Types, but they have each other and they are ready for adventure.

For five brave campers
Beware the kitten holy
Solve an anagram

Full review: Lumberjanes: Beware the Kitten Holy is the first volume of the Lumberjanes series featuring five girls attending "Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet's Camp for Hardcore Lady Types". With the slogan "Friendship to the Max!", Ripley, April, Molly, Mal, and Jo have a series of seemingly improbably supernatural adventures behind the back of their long-suffering camp counselor Jen that are equal parts exciting, silly, frightening, and endearing.

The book is presented in four chapters plus a final cover gallery. Each section is introduced with a page drawn from the fictional Lumberjanes Field Manual describing one of the Lumberjane badges and what a girl must do to earn it. These little introductions are essentially played completely "straight", outlining fairly realistic (although in many cases quite difficult) requirements for the badge in question. Inevitably, the subject matter of the chapter that follows is related to the badge, but as the team of girls in the story face a collection of bizarre supernatural obstacles and foes, the relationship is often somewhat tangential. This sort of combinations of the mundane accomplishments sought after by summer camp attendees and the three-eyed monsters, talking statues, and other strange encounters the Lumberjanes have is a large part of what makes this book so good. The girls are at the age where the strange and the outlandish is met with wonder rather than derision or skepticism, and when facing each new challenge, they all pull together to overcome it, not matter how weird it is.

The story opens in media res with the five campers out in the woods looking for a bearwoman when they are set upon by unreasonably aggressive three-eyed foxes. After a chaotic and exciting fight, one of the girls knocks a gold ring off of one of the foxes whereupon they project the cryptic message "beware the kitten holy" and vanish into the night. This opening sets the tone for the entire book - these five girls aren't shrinking violets, although they do get scared at times, and do find things to be creepy and unsettling. Instead they are the kind of girls who will sneak out of their cabin in the middle of the night to try to find a mysterious bearwoman and won't back down from a fight with a collection of obviously supernatural fox creatures. But when they return to the camp, it is made clear that they are young girls - they don't want to get caught by their camp counselor, and when they do, they don't want Rosie the camp director to tell their parents that they broke eight camp rules. This group is going to have exciting adventures, but they are still kids at camp.

While chapter one focused on the "Up All Night" badge, chapter two has the girls getting set to earn their "Naval Gauging Badge", which means they are going canoeing, which, naturally, means water disaster for the girls. Specifically, supernatural water disaster, although Ripley's overactive imagination has her asking if the river will contain whales, sharks, piranhas, blood-sucking catfish, or other river monsters. The river sequence also brings to the fore one of the most adorable elements of the book: When the girls "swear" they use a collection of odd references as their epithets. The most basic being the oft-repeated "what the junk", but also such gems as "what in the Joan Jett", or "Holy Mae Jemison". These off-the-wall exclamations give the impression that the five girls have been together for a while, and in response to likely being told by adults not to use actual expletives, they have developed the kind of "insider" language that close-knit groups often do. This kind of background storytelling, shaping the character of the girls not only individually, but as a group of friends, elevated Lumberjanes above many adventure stories, and makes it something special.

The chapter also shows the relationship between the characters by showing them taking care of one another: When their friends are in danger, the Lumberjanes show almost no hesitation in charging in to help them, even when confronted by a three-eyed sea monster. The story also shows the awkwardness of adolescence as they deal with CPR and mouth-ot-mouth resuscitation by referring to it as "smooching", and approaching it with a modicum of embarrassment. Before too long they find a mysterious cave, and being who they are, dive in, finding themselves in another pickle. The next chapter finds the group trapped underground, and leads off with a description of the "Everything Under the Sum Badge", before they head into what turns out to be a very Indiana Jones-like adventure, encountering talking statues, arrow-firing traps, math puzzles, and finally, anagrams. This section is cute, but somewhat predictable, as each encounter tests a different girl's abilities, although it is fun to see each character have a chance to shine.

The final chapter, titled "Robyn Hood Badge" (which describes some very tough archery requirements) starts off with the Lumberjanes still in trouble from their exploits in the previous chapter and on what appears to be a fairly dull nature hike with Jen. Having figured out what "beware the kitten holy" meant in their previous adventure, the girls are itching to follow up on the clue, and the only thing standing between them and doing so is Jen. After finding a yeti and a lot of poison ivy, the girls come across an even more unexpected problem: Boys. Specifically scouts from the "Mr. Theodore Tarquin Reginald Lancelot Herman Crumpo Camp for Boys", who seem to be just a little too nice, a little too neat, and the little too good at making tea and cookies. Of course, this being Lumberjanes, things aren't what they seem, and after bribing some yetis with delicious treats and finding a mystery at the end of their mystery, the girls wind up on the run from a new and not entirely surprising threat.

The book ends with several unresolved mysteries, clearly pointing towards the next volume of the series, but to a certain extent, the plot, as good as it is, isn't really the main point of the books. Instead, what is showcased in this volume are the girls themselves: Tough, capable, and yet still unmistakably young girls. There is, after all, something quite remarkable in a story that takes a collection of women and makes them into the heroes of the story, not only without men to help, but without any men placed in the position of guides, guardians, or mentors. The girls aren't someone else's prize or emotional support. They are themselves, having adventures together without regard for anyone else (except perhaps Jen and Rosie). They are there for each other, and even when boys are introduced, they don't fall into squabbling over the cute ones as happens in so many other stories, but rather are only interested in their own adventure together. This is a story by women and about women, but with a perfect mixture of summer camp normality and bizarre supernatural events, and a fine balance between the energy of bold action and the depiction of close friendships, like all great adventure stories it is for everyone.

Subsequent volume in the series: Lumberjanes: Friendship to the Max

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

Noelle Stevenson     Grace Ellis     Brooke Allen      Book Reviews A-Z     Home

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