Cat Winters, The Steep and Thorny Way.
Amulet Books, 2016.
Hanalee Denny’s African American father, Hank, has been hit by a car driven by 16-year-old Joe Adder, the preacher’s son, on Christmas Eve, 1921. A few hours later, Hank Denny dies in the care of Clyde Koning, the only doctor in the town of Elston, OR. Joe is convicted of manslaughter and sent to a penitentiary without being allowed to testify in his own defense.
Clyde Koning marries Hanalee’s white mother within months of the accident. Hanalee’s resentment is quiet until she sees her father’s ghost, who tells her to “stay away from the doc.” Then she vows revenge. Sound like Hamlet? It’s supposed to; the titles of the book and all of its chapters are quotes from the play.
While the Hamlet parallel adds literary flair to the book, it is at best inexact, for “Uncle Clyde” Koning turns out not to be the Claudius Hanalee expects. The villain of the play is the Oregon KKK, which, together with the eugenics movement, has slowly infiltrated the respectable families of Elston, and made some villagers determined to get rid not only of Hank Denny and his daughter, but Joe Adder, who, as a gay man, is threatened with legal sterilization.
Working together in an uneasy truce, Joe (who is in hiding) and Hanalee discover the terrible truth about Hank Denny’s murder and plan an escape to Washington, where the law permits interracial marriage and tolerates people of all types. Whether they can be successful depends upon their courage – and, ironically, upon the stepfather Hanalee so deeply resents.
This is an interesting book for both literary and historical reasons.
Like Vermont, present-day Oregon is liberal in a way that disguises its history of tolerating eugenics and the KKK. Hanalee’s story reminds readers just how dark and terrifying that history was.
Hanalee, facing it, is a crack shot with the pistol she carries, but her real defense is her determination to be a lawyer who will work against laws that make bigotry and suspicion legal.
She is a well-drawn character, and though other characters in the book don’t match her depth, they are believable enough to remind us that passive acceptance of “the way things are” and refusal to believe that one’s longtime friends can be corrupted by an evil doctrine lead to horrible injustice.