Title: The Steep & Thorny Way
Author: Cat Winters
Publisher: Amulet Books
Release Date: March 8th 2016
Cat Winters’ The Steep & Thorny Way is an engaging historical fiction novel with an interesting paranormal twist. With vivid writing, Winters brings to life an era in American history where prejudice is not only tolerated, but celebrated. While many of us associate the white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan, with the South, I found it really interesting that Winters chose to set her story in 1920s Oregon. I didn’t know how strong an influence this particular group had outside of the South and reading about their widespread impact is equal parts interesting as well as terrifying. Hanalee Denney, the daughter of a white woman and black man, has known her whole life that people look at her differently because of the color of her skin. In the tight-knit community where she grew up in, her exposure to racial prejudice has been limited, but as she’s gotten older, the influence of groups like the KKK has increased and people are much more open to showing their intolerance, including friends she was once close to. Winters does a really good job of showing just how difficult it must have been for someone like Hanalee, who is subjected to discrimination at every turn, to grow up in such an unfair time.
Winters’ novel deals with many subjects from racial prejudice to homophobia. It never escapes my notice when authors approach certain subjects in historical fiction in an almost idealistic way. While it’s a nice sentiment to believe that their characters are not as bigoted as the times in which they are brought up, I often find it unrealistic for these characters to always be immediately accepting of different sexual orientations besides heterosexual when history tells a different story. Winters does no such thing when it comes to her characters. When Hanalee learns that someone she knows is gay, her reaction is much more in line with the times. She doesn’t quite understand and makes a rather insensitive remark; that being said, she is never consciously vicious as her views come from a place of ignorance not hate.
While not a strict retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Steep & Thorny Way is focused on the death of Hanalee’s father and how she deals with learning that he might not have died the way everyone believes he did. Paranormal elements come into play when Hanalee is told that her father’s spirit has been wandering the town. She isn’t sure how to react to such a story and is made even more unsure when she finally encounters his ghost herself. Hanalee is determined to find the truth, even when her search puts her in the crosshairs of some dangerous people. While I did find the mystery aspect of the novel interesting, I did wonder at Hanalee’s methods. She often threw caution to the wind and started voicing her suspicions without first investigating. While I do think this makes sense for who her character is, I think the unraveling of the mystery would have felt more engaging if she had been more sly in her search for answers.
I highly recommend Cat Winters’ The Steep & Thorny Way for those who enjoy historical fiction, especially novels that explore subjects like discrimination throughout American history.