Some people give YA fiction and even middle-grade fiction such flack, and I don’t understand why. As long as a book has relevant themes and characters that you care about, it doesn’t matter who is reading them. I have lots of writer friends who still flock to middle-grade fiction time and again, whether because it brings them back to that time in life, or if the authors they reach are really just as good. I personally love middle-grade fiction, and Sheila O’Connor’s book Keeping Safe the Stars only reinforces the strength and love that we forget exists in young children.
In 1974 Minnesota, during the rocky days of Nixon’s resignation, orphans Kathleen, Elise, and Baxter Star—better known as Pride, Nightingale, and Baby—live with their kindly hermit grandfather in a secluded cabin, where they’ve been taught self-reliance. These three children take great pride in what their Old Finn has taught them, even when he takes ill and has to stay in a hospital. Pride, the eldest at thirteen, tries to stick to their lessons when Old Finn is moved to a bigger hospital far away, but she quickly realizes that, however smart or clever she and her siblings are, they will have to reach out for help.
The fine line between truth and lies is explored very deeply in this book, exemplified by how much everyone talks about Nixon. And that’s really the only marker that this book takes place in the 70’s, aside from a few mentions of communes and the hippie culture. Although I’m not sure that children of Pride, Nightingale, and Baby’s age would have talked about a president as much as they do, I can understand why the parallel between Pride’s lies and Nixon’s scandal is made. Pride struggles with her stubborn pride (get it—her namesake?) and how much telling the truth and lying has helped her family to survive. Self-reliance is celebrated by all the characters in this book, but trusting and seeing the good in the world is part of the lesson learned. Pride not only has to wrestle with her pride, but see the good of the world that has handed her and her siblings such a bad hand.
And there is a very likable cast of characters to follow here. O’Connor kind of subverts the typical sibling threesome here, with Pride being the compulsive dreamer, and Nightingale, the middle child, being the responsible bookworm. I kind of wrestled with Nightingale, though: she is a stiff-backed bookworm, and yet she doesn’t like wearing shoes and regular clothes—in fact, she wears nothing but cotton nightgowns for clothes. I would have thought that because she is so responsible and smart that she would have dressed more practically. Wearing nothing but nightclothes seemed to just be a quirk of hers that I thought would have transferred better to Baby. Baby is the youngest and the daredevil of the trio, who I could very well imagine staying in his Wranglers and cowboy hats even when it wasn’t appropriate.
Also, Nightingale seemed to be a pretty harsh source of conflict for Pride. The Stars all have a legitimate fear of being sent to a shelter and being separated in the foster system, so Pride’s lying to the adults around them is not completely unjustified. And yet, Nightingale lectures Pride time and again for lying just to keep them all safe until Old Finn gets home. I know everyone should have their morals, but Nightingale getting mad about something that was keeping her and her siblings together wasn’t entirely welcome. That being said, Nightingale did come through for me, though the other characters were just as nice to read about.
Pride was a likable narrator whose love for her siblings and her Old Finn was heartwarming. Although we don’t see much of Old Finn (whose real name is Michael Finnegan, by the way, haha) his personality and just how much he touched the people around him was palpable. His neighbor, Miss Addie, is a delightfully senile woman who loves the Stars as much as Old Finn, but I think my favorite character was Nash. Nash is a Chicago writer who has come to Minnesota on a freelance assignment, and when he discovers the Stars selling pony rides and homemade souvenirs to survive, he is impressed with their optimism and creativity. He is a reporter in a time where such people are not entirely trusted, but his caring not only for his young daughter, Sage, but for the Stars when they need help, is sweet, and he plays a large part in helping the Stars complete their journey.
In short, Keeping Safe the Stars is another reminder of the power, joy, and sorrow that a universal story holds—that a twenty-five-year-old can be moved by the story of three children bonded by love and determination.