Review: With a Name Like Love by Tess Hilmo

With a Name Like Love by Tess Hilmo. Margaret Ferguson Books, 2011. Currently Available

Genre: Historical Fiction

Face Value: Gorgeous. I love this cover. I love the illustration. I love the look on Ollie’s face. I love the flyers falling out of her bag behind her and the trailer and the landscape in the background. This is one of those magical covers where whoever created it not only clearly read the book, but created a truly lovely piece of art to represent it. It’s also age appropriate, in that it will seem not babyish, but also decidedly middle grade for the 3rd-6th grade reader.

Does it Break the Slate? Yes. And also, no. Aspects of this book (the coming of age of Ollie and her sisters, the strength of her mother) are genuinely Slatebreaking, but there are distinct other elements (the playing out of the mystery) are surprisingly not. It doesn’t make the book not worth reading, but it does merit some context.

Who would we give it to? When I worked in a library a couple years ago I had a parent ask me to help her find books with non-preachy but actively religious characters, and I wish I’d had this one to point her to. Religion is an important and constant part of these characters’ lives and their narrative, but I never got the sense that Hilmo was preaching at us, or telling the reader how they should live their lives with regards to religion. Fans of Ruth White and  well-written small town stories will definitely find this book appealing.

Review: With a Name Like Love is the story of the Love family – the Reverend Everlasting Love, his wife Susanna and their five daughters, Ollie, Martha, Gwen, Camille and Ellen. It’s 1957 and Reverend Love is an itinerant preacher, traveling with his family and spreading the word. As oldest daughter,  13 year old Ollie loves her family and believes in what they do ,but she also has a lot of responsibility and secretly wishes she and her family could stay in one place for awhile. When they arrive in Binder, Arkansas, Ollie meets Jimmy Koppel, a boy her age who has been ostracized by the town. His mother is in jail for murdering his father, and, while no one liked his father, the town has basically condemned the whole family. Ollie takes up his cause, and gets the rest of her family on board, but figures out soon that doing the right thing can get messy quick.

I loved this story for its rending of its main characters. Here is a book with great female characters across generations. Ollie is a terrific protagonist – self-aware enough to recognize what’s going on and understand she wants to make change, but unsure how to actualize it. She has a good heart, but she’s not cloyingly sweet either – her sisters drive her crazy, and she responds to them the way 13 year olds do. Actually the sister dynamics are pretty great across the board – in a short book with one major protagonist we actually get a pretty complex picture of all five Love sisters. Susanna Love, the girls’ mother is a dynamic figure in her own right, standing up for her family and showing a quiet, persistent strength. Even though it’s the 1950s and the Love family follows fairly traditional gender dynamics, we never see her as a martyred wife who does all she does out of obligation to her husband and society. And when Reverend Love learns that his daughter Gwen aspires to follow in his footsteps and become a preacher, he’s surprised at the idea of “a preacher girl” but not opposed, and agrees that she ought to be able to learn the trade.  With these dynamic depictions of different women, I was pretty excited about this book as a Slatebreaking story.

But then we got to the ending. I had a huge problem with the ending, that kept me from fully enjoying this book, or giving it a Slatebreaking label. And for me to explain why, I’m going to have to reveal how it ends. I actually almost didn’t review this book, because I feel like there’s no way to discuss my major concern without totally ruining the ending. So if you don’t want to know how the book ends, stop reading here! Then read it, and let me know if you felt the same way!

SPOILER ALERT       SPOILER ALERT       SPOILER ALERT

As I mentioned in the synopsis, Ollie gets drawn into Binder’s harassment of Jimmy Koppel and his mother Virginia. Virginia is in jail, accused of murdering her violent husband. Because of this, the whole town treats them like trash. Here’s the thing though – everyone agrees and acknowledges as a fact that Henry Koppel was a dangerous, violent abuser. But its Virginia’s alleged actions that are the source of their condemnation.

This is bad enough, but not altogether surprising. People can be small-minded, and for the bulk of the book it was clear that this kind of treatment is a bad thing. But then we find out what really happened. Ray Burton, the sheriff’s adult son had stumbled upon Henry beating Virginia, tried to stop him, and accidentally killed him. It’s clear, when Ray finally confesses, that it was self-defense/defense of Virginia, and the town basically embraces him as a hero, that what happened was “acts of courage…you were helping a neighbor, protecting a friend. You should be celebrated, Ray, not punished.”

I don’t disagree with this statement. But the thing that bothers me is that there was never any question that it was self-defense. Virginia Koppel was badly beaten when she was arrested. Everyone in Binder knew she was a victim of domestic violence. So, when she confessed, even if it was a false confession, it would have still been in self-defense, just as much as Ray’s act was. The implicit statement here, is that it’s noble for a man to protect a woman, but a crime for a woman to protect herself. And I found that incredibly weird and problematic, for a book that otherwise takes a sincerely positive and pro-women stance.

Ultimately, I would still probably recommend this book. I think it has great qualities. But I would want to embed reading of this book in a conversation, talking about why things happened the way they did, and what that says about the characters and the world.

Reviewed from Library copy.

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One Response to Review: With a Name Like Love by Tess Hilmo

  1. Mardi says:

    I didn’t get that take on the ending at all. I had to go back and look at my copy to be sure I had read it and am remembering it right but … *Spoiler Alert* – Ray did not kill Henry, either in self defense or accidentally. Henry fell in a drunken rage and hit his head. His own meanness killed him, in essence, and – for me – there is a powerful thought in that somehow. No doubt the Sheriff had been terribly closed minded, though…and that he (and others) overlooked Virginia’s plight.

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