BOOK REVIEW – The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters

BOOK REVIEW – The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat WintersThe Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters
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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.

This book won’t certainly appeal to everyone. It’s not free of flaws, and I wasn’t completely satisfied. And yet… As I said in my review of In the Shadow of Blackbirds, any book that tackles important and horrifying issues in such sensitive way, compelling the reader to do some researches about them deserves attention.

In this original retelling of the much beloved Hamlet, Cat Winters takes us into the xenophobic 1920s Oregon, where we follow Hanalee, a teenager whose father, African-American, died under strange circumstances. Eager to shed lights on this awful event, she soon realizes that each discovery proves to be more and more unsettling and excruciating.

Who is to be believed when the general atmosphere is one of distrust and rejection?

“Because we’re living in corrupt times, Hanalee. Even the best intentions can sound cruel when spoken aloud.”

First of all, Cat Winters shows again a real talent to convey an atmosphere and to write in a compelling and engrossing way. Indeed as it was the case with In the Shadow of Blackbirds, I was immersed in the world right away : the hopeless atmosphere is perfectly pictured, the desperation transpiring through every page, letting the reader feel all the anger, sadness and indignation Hanalee faces every day. It always appalls me to see such a racist world unfolded before my eyes (that’s why I never read comments under YouTube videos, otherwise my pessimism would know no limits) : in these times, to be half African-American was a fault in itself, and if people stay relatively “nice” to her (think : hypocrites), it remains that Hanalee suffers daily from different kinds of negative comments about her hair, her skin, her future.

Think peril. Life threatening peril. Fear.

What do you picture?

A dystopian apocalyptic world? Dictators? Serial killers? Creepy aliens? Clowns? (okay, “clowns” is on me)

Say, you see this little quiet town in the middle of nowhere/Oregon. Not frightening? Aww, you’re so sweet. We need some villains? Let’s take people. Regular people. You know, the selfish, indifferent and stupid widespread kind.

Why create an awful fantasy world when we can have history? When we can have our world?

Because, really, what can we say about a world where a teenager is in peril if she enters a restaurant? It’s so sneaky really – one second you’re scared to death for her and thinking no noo don’t go there! And suddenly you realize – but wait, it is a RESTAURANT. Why on earth should she be careful? Why on earth are you accepting it by thinking that she’s acting wildly and dangerously by coming there? It’s a RESTAURANT. Of course she can go. Oh, wait, no.

Again, welcome to 1920s Oregon, where biracial marriages are forbidden and eugenics laws allow authorities to castrate people because they’re homosexuals.

This book made me so, so angry. This book made me furious. For that, I’m grateful. I never want to feel indifferent. Not ever. We need such books to remind us that we are not so far from these dark days and that stereotypes and barbarism are to be fought on a daily basis.

Hate doesn’t even begin to describe what’s happening. (…) People in this state are controlling who can and can’t breed, Hanalee. They’re eradicating those of us who aren’t white, Protestant, American-born, or sexually normal in their eyes. They’re ‘purifying’ Oregon.”

Lost in Cat Winters‘ words, I couldn’t help but feel the hate and fear eating at them, this sickening atmosphere that can change a childhood sweetheart into an enemy. It was truly terrifying to see how peer pressure can morph someone into a completely different person. So, so sad.

Hanalee is a strong and likeable heroine whom I’m glad to have met here. One can argue that she takes some stupid or, let’s say, rushed decisions, especially in regards of who to trust but I understood her. She reacts. She is young. Who wouldn’t make mistakes now tell me?

Mostly the twists and turns managed to surprise me, even though I guess some parts, I have to admit. Yet in my opinion, it’s not even the point : I was hooked from the beginning in any case, and I really appreciated that the story didn’t fall into the stereotypical traps (there’s no romance, for example).

As a retelling of Hamlet, I expected some kind of ghost apparitions and indeed her father’s ghost has a critical role to play in the investigations of his death. Quite eerie, but I found the whole ghost giving answers a little too convenient… I didn’t care much for these parts, I have to admit : not that they didn’t convey emotion in me, because they did, but there was always an undercurrent of falsity that prevented me from completely buying it.

Unfortunately, I did find that, Hanalee excepted, the characterization could have shown more depth : indeed I never really got the sense that I knew any of them, including Joe, which does not mean that they weren’t interesting characters to read about, though. This being said, the mystery unraveling before our eyes must be taken into account : perhaps the fog mustn’t be lifted, after all. I’ll let you judge.

Moreover, as much as I love Cat Winters‘s beautiful writing, the dialogues were a little too formulaic for my taste : sometimes they sounded fake to me, especially during the highly tensed parts.

Finally, the ending felt a little rushed. Yet it’s hopeful, and it makes sense, as the journey we followed is coming to a end.

► Again, I feel the need to remind everyone that 3.5 stars isn’t a bad rating in the slightest. Give this book a chance. Give this author a chance. They deserve it.

“Hate is a powerful demon that worms its way into the hearts of fearful men”

I will never let hate win. Please don’t.

*arc kindly provided by Amulet Books. Thanks so much!*

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1 Comment

  1. Kim

    Great review Anna! This was the first book I’ve read by her and I really enjoyed it. I’ve spent hours since reading it researching the history of eugenics in this country and what I’ve read has left me stunned.
    Kim recently posted…R.I.P. David Bowie ~ January 8th, 1947 – January 10th, 2016My Profile

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