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Historical horror stories

History buffs and horror fans alike will appreciate these YA books about characters facing their own demons — of the metaphysical, metaphorical, or, most disturbingly, human varieties.

berry_passion of dolssaIn The Passion of Dolssa, author Julie Berry tells the story of (fictional) Catholic mystic Dolssa de Stigata after she escapes being burned as a heretic in 1241 Toulouse, France. Berry constructs her novel as a 1290 account by a monk, and employs both first- and third-person narrations — from Dolssa to Botille (a spirited young woman who, along with her tavern-keeper and fortuneteller sisters, shelters Dolssa) to the vengeful Dominican Friar Lucien who pursues Dolssa, and more. Berry writes in short sentences with relatively simple language, conveying complex historical and religious matters fluently and accessibly for today’s readers. Her thoughtful, sober historical note places the story’s thirteenth-century issues in a valuable modern context. (Viking, 12–16 years)

wung-sung_last-executionThe relentlessly bleak Danish import The Last Execution by Jesper Wung-Sung imagines the final day of a real-life execution victim, the last (in 1853) to suffer that fate in the town of Svendborg, Denmark. Various townspeople cross his path — the messenger who posts the execution notices for the public event, the priest charged with extracting a confession, the carpenter who measures him for a coffin — and their observations are brief windows into the world that led the fifteen-year-old boy to his crime and his fate. Rich with symbolism, historical detail, and contemporary resonance, this is an unflinching portrait of the barbarism of execution and the collective apathy of observers that the practice inspires. (Atheneum/Dlouhy, 14 years and up)

oppel_every-hidden-thingEvery Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel — inspired by the late-nineteenth-century “Bone Wars” between American paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh — is partly a Western adventure story and partly a social commentary on the times. “Handsome young man” Samuel Bolt sets off for the Badlands with his self-taught paleontologist father in search of a rex. They’re hoping to beat out competitor Professor Cartland of Yale University, who is himself accompanied by daughter Rachel, also a fossil-hunting enthusiast; the latter team, in its selfish and misguided zeal, desecrates a Lakota Sioux burial platform. Chapters from the perspective of a Lakota Sioux young man are interspersed with those of Samuel and Rachel (who, of course, fall in love). Issues of class, gender roles, and prejudice against Native Americans are woven throughout. (Simon and Schuster, 14 years and up)

jarrow_bubonic-panicThe bubonic plague seems comfortably trapped in history books, confined to Europe in the Middle Ages, where it famously killed a good portion of the population. In the nonfiction book Bubonic Panic: When Plague Invaded America, author Gail Jarrow covers that territory quickly before bringing us into the nineteenth century, where the plague continued to rear its ugly head in places like Hong Kong, Bombay (Mumbai), Honolulu, and finally San Francisco — where it first appeared in Chinatown in 1900. Jarrow’s text is thorough and fascinating, complemented by a handsome book design and numerous primary source artifacts (documents and photographs). Substantial back matter includes an FAQ, a glossary, a timeline, an author’s note, sources, and an index. (Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek, 9–13 years)

From the October 2016 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Elissa Gershowitz About Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She is a current member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee.

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