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Most Girls Are a Lot like Me: Jennifer Donnelly’s These Shallow Graves

A historical novel that looks at a teen who wants to follow the news without becoming the news.

Reporter Eddie says to newspaper heiress Jo Montfort, “You’re a very unusual girl,” and in some ways it’s true: rich and accomplished young women in 1890s Manhattan aren’t supposed to have aspirations beyond a good marriage. But Jo, clever and curious, dreams of being a reporter like Nelly Bly. When her father is found dead in their Gramercy home—authorities say he shot himself accidentally while cleaning his gun, but Jo knows he was too intelligent about firearms to clean it loaded—her life takes a dramatic turn as she struggles to determine the true cause of his death, be it murder or suicide.

these shallow graves

These Shallow Graves. By Jennifer Donnelly. Oct. 2015. 496p. Delacorte, $19.99 (9780385737654). Gr. 9-12.

As her dangerous, potentially reputation-ruining exploration continues, she repeatedly encounters Eddie Gallagher, a smart and ambitious reporter who alternates between aiding Jo and trying to send her home. But she perseveres and soon finds herself drawn into the seedy underbelly of New York as she seeks out information in whorehouses, dens of thieves, and insane asylums—all places where a proper young lady might not belong, but a true reporter can’t avoid.

Donnelly, whose A Northern Light (2003) was a Printz Honor Book, has crafted a remarkable portrait of a girl struggling with the constraints of an overbearing society and looking for answers in the midst of deep grief. The writing is lovely and nuanced and the plot fast-paced and thrilling, though savvy readers will probably guess at least some of the twists. What really sets this apart is the characterizations. Jo is no stock heroine: she is brave and smart and determined, yes, but also rash and impulsive and frequently so blinded by familial loyalty that she doesn’t see things other characters—and the reader—might. Her slowly unfolding romance with Eddie doesn’t detract from her ambition or her goal, and the judgmental rigidity of her society and the mystery surrounding her father’s death are as much a roadblock to her longed-for journalism career as they are to this unsanctioned relationship.

Eddie says that Jo is not like other girls,
but, true to form, Jo disagrees.

And then there is Fay. The smart-talking street thief with a hard-luck life and a bitter future could have been introduced as many things: a foil for the privileged Jo, her romantic rival for Eddie, or just a cautionary reminder of the cost of a fall from grace. Instead, Fay and Jo slowly form a close bond, quickly becoming close confidants despite their different upbringings and outlooks. 

Eddie says that Jo is not like other girls, but, true to form, Jo disagrees. “Most girls are a lot like me,” she says. “Wanting answers to their questions.” This is the ultimate truth to which Donnelly continues to circle back, that there is no solid line dividing different kinds of girls. Fictional or otherwise, people can’t be split into good or bad, rich or poor, unusual or plain. It’s that realization that elevates this from just a well-crafted historical thriller into a smart, insightful, timely depiction of a young woman poised on the brink of a new world after the shattering of another, armed with the qualities and the companions to see her through.

This review first appeared in the September 1, 2015, issue of Booklist.



About the Author:

Maggie Reagan works for Booklist as an associate editor in the Books for Youth department. In addition to the required love of reading, she is also an adventure junkie, animal hugger, and stringed-instrument enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter @MagdalenaRayGun.

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