“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.
A thrilling reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Steep and Thorny Way tells the story of a murder most foul and the mighty power of love and acceptance in a state gone terribly rotten.
1920s Oregon is not a welcoming place for Hanalee Denney, the daughter of a white woman and an African-American man. She has almost no rights by law, and the Ku Klux Klan breeds fear and hatred in even Hanalee’s oldest friendships. Plus, her father, Hank Denney, died a year ago, hit by a drunk-driving teenager. Now her father’s killer is out of jail and back in town, and he claims that Hanalee’s father wasn’t killed by the accident at all but, instead, was poisoned by the doctor who looked after him—who happens to be Hanalee’s new stepfather.
The only way for Hanalee to get the answers she needs is to ask Hank himself, a “haint” wandering the roads at night.
Does the idea of retelling the story of Hamlet, setting it in rural Oregon in 1923, sounds crazy to you? It would be understandable to assume that the plot and the setting are a total mismatch. How can a Shakespearean masterpiece possibly be squeezed into that world?
I’m happy to say that it works amazingly well. As crazy as it might sound, The Steep & Thorny Way is a total winner.
Hanalee Denney is the mixed race daughter of a white woman and a black man, at a time and in a place where mixing of the races was not only frowned upon, but actually illegal, at least as far as marriage was concerned. Hanalee, at age 18, lives with her mother and her new stepfather, the town doctor, and grieves for her beloved father, who died after being hit by a car a year and a half earlier.
When the driver of the car is released from prison and is rumored to be hiding out back in Elston, the rumor mill — and the town’s intolerance — boil to the surface. Joe, convicted of murder and subjected to a horrifying prison stint, pleads with Hanalee to hear him out. He did hit her father with his car; that much is true. But Joe saw Hank alive before the doctor entered the room to care for him… and was dead by the time the doctor came out. Meanwhile, Hank’s ghost has been seen about town, trying to get a message to Hanalee.
Can she really believe that Joe isn’t a murderer, but a fall guy? Can she honestly view her stepfather as a killer?
There’s much more to the story than meets the eye. The town is rife with KKK plotting. A racist undercurrent permeates every town gathering. Non-whites are not welcome in the town’s main restaurant. And Joe has a secret that puts his own life in great danger, with no one except Hanalee at all willing to help or save him.
Cat Winters is an amazing writer, and this era is her specialty. She fits her characters’ actions and words into the Shakespearean framework without ever letting it seem forced. The story flows from one revelation to the other, and Hanalee is anything but a stock figure.
I learned a lot about life in Oregon in the 1920s, the power of the Klan, and the shocking truth about the legal institutions that attempted to enforce racial exclusion, separatism, and even eugenics. While The Steep & Thorny Way is a work of fiction, the politics and intolerance that it portrays are, sadly, historical fact.
I have now read three YA novels and one adult novel by Cat Winters, and I look forward to reading, well, basically everything she ever writes from now on. Don’t miss out on this powerful, dramatic, face-paced book.
Interested in this author? Check out my reviews of her other works:
In The Shadow of Blackbirds
The Cure For Dreaming
Title: The Steep & Thorny Way
Author: Cat Winters
Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication date: March 8, 2016
Length: 335 pages
Genre: Young adult/historical fiction