Fourteen-year-old Clara Hargraves lives on a farm in Hopkinton, a small New Hampshire town, during the early 19th century. She has a couple of big problems. First of all, she has a stepmother, Priscilla, who used to be her spinster schoolteacher aunt. Clara resents that her late mother’s older sister has not only married her father but is about to have a baby. To make matters worse, “Prissy Priscilla” keeps trying to make the rambunctious, clever, and witty Clara act like a proper young lady. Secondly, Clara has red hair, making her a target for teasing by a handsome older boy, Dickon Weeks, and by her pretty seventeen-year-old Dread Cousin Hetty. Clara, however, has a secret plan she hopes will change this. During the last week of June, 1825, Clara’s town is abuzz because the famous General Lafayette is about to visit their state during his farewell tour of America. In those eventful seven days, Clara learns a lot about her family, Hetty, Dickon, herself, and about Lafayette. She comes to understand the huge and vital role the young French aristocrat played in America’s Revolutionary War and to see that her problems might not be quite so terrible after all.
A historical fiction book that heavily focuses on the American Revolution and the Frenchman – known as the National Guest in the States – General Lafayette. It is set in June 1825. The story is told from the point of view of 14-year-old Clara Hargraves from New Hampshire. She is struggling with some major changes in her life (like her spinster smarmy schoolteacher aunt now being her stepmother – and pregnant!). As if that is not betrayal enough, now “Prissy Priscilla” is trying to conform Clara into a proper young lady – no more wearing her brother’s breeches, no more riding like a man, no more swimming in the pond. To make matters even worse, Clara has red hair and becomes the target of teasing. With General Lafayette visiting for his farewell tour, Clara learns many things and hears many stories about this great man who saved America.
The chapters in this book are grouped together by the happenings of each day in the final week of June 1825.
Clara – 14 year old main character; clever as a whip; suffers teasing for her read hair; resentful of her aunt becoming her stepmother
Joss – Clara’s older brother; a jester and jokester; dislikes having to help Clara with chores
Priscilla – Joss and Clara’s aunt-now-stepmother; very pregnant; wants Clara to be a proper lady
Father – supportive of Priscilla; kind and gentle type
Dickon Weeks – the older boy who teases Clara incessantly
Hetty – Clara’s mean, snotty, snobby cousin; she loves any opportunity to put Clara down
Lafayette – a kind, chubby man who saved the nation; he is back in the States for his farewell tour
I did indeed feel as if I had wandered into the Cinderella story. How confusing that my fairy godmother and my wicked stepmother are turning out to be the same person, I thought. But my stepmother is not really wicked. She is just not my mother.
The Highs and Lows
- Historical aspect. The book revolves entirely around Lafayette’s part in the American Revolution, for which he is now known as the National Guest. In almost every chapter there is something that brings back the focus to Lafayette and continues to explain various pieces of history leading up to true separation of the colonies.
- The State of the Family. Back in the day, it was common for a brother to marry his brother’s widow and look after the family. Although not as common, the reversal is true, too. Caroline Hargraves passed only a little over a year prior to the book’s beginning. Her sister Priscilla, who taught school for years in Boston, has returned home and married Caroline’s widowed husband. They are now expecting a baby any day.
- – Clara’s Behavior. At times Clara had major outbursts and said some very hurtful things. She’s 14 and her mother died barely over a year ago, and now her schoolteacher aunt has become her stepmother and is very pregnant. It is a lot to take in while still grieving, and I can understand the resentment. What surprised me, though – especially for the time and the belief in such highly respectful attitudes towards your elders – was that Clara’s father never punished her. Or even spoke to her about her outbursts. Those moments did not seem plausible to me, given what I have read in the time period.
- + Dickon Weeks. Clara and Dickon have grown up together what seems like their whole lives. During that time Dickon picked on Clara constantly. In fact, the word she used was “tortured.” As the book plays out, an increasingly embarrassed or disappointed Dickon shows his feelings for Clara, who completely misses them by miles. She still believes he is up to his no good tricks, but all the signs the author gives about Dickon’s behavior reveal how much he likes Clara. It was sweet and cute and the classic story of “he teases you because he likes you.”
- – Hetty. She is atrocious! Just awful! There is even one point where, in front of her own mother and Priscilla, she says something incredibly rude to Clara, and both older women are shocked. She is so ill-spirited! (And narcissistically egotistical.)
- + Clara’s Growth. Over the course of the book, more aspects of Priscilla are revealed. Indeed, she doesn’t seem like such the wicked stepmother Clara believes her to be, and eventually Clara must confront her very own notions. She looks at things as they really are, instead of how she perceives them. This helps her get past her grief and accept her new family the way it is. To go from such strong resentment to acceptance and kindness at the end takes a true act of character, and it leads up to what happens at the end of the book.
- The Lafayette Scene. In a moment of despair and private crying bout is when Clara meets the National Guest, General Lafayette. It is a beautiful and sweet scene, and even though I don’t believe the scene to have any historical merit, it makes me like the man even more. This is where the title gets its name. I didn’t know what a “buss” was until I reached this point, and then it all made sense.
- The Afterward. There is an afterward and a glossary at the end of the book that explains further some of the historical relevance of the time. I found it very helpful to be included.
This was a historical book heavily founded on the American Revolution, and certain key players in it. What I liked most was how Clara seemed to resolve her issues with Priscilla, Hetty, and Dickon in such realistic ways. Clara is a bit of an introvert, and it takes her a while to figure things out and the best way to approach them, but she does, and things end up slowly falling into place.
Recommendation – Buy, Borrow or Skip?
Borrow. Unless this is something you love right off and know you will read over and over again, I suggest borrowing. It is a great read with such historical presence, but not a read I would buy for my shelves to keep always.
Dorothea Jensen, born in Boston, Massachusetts, grew up in Chillicothe, Illinois. She majored in English literature at Carleton College. After teaching high-school English and serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Brazil, she earned a master s degree in education at the University of New Mexico. In 1989, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich published Dorothea s novel for young readers about the American Revolution, The Riddle of Penncroft Farm. In addition to other honors, it was named an International Reading Association Teacher s Choices Selection and is read in classrooms throughout the U.S. A Buss from Lafayette is set in the small New Hampshire town where Dorothea lives. Two things inspired her to write this story. First, was learning that Lafayette passed right by her house during his 1824-5 Triumphal Tour. Another was meeting a woman whose ancestor received a kiss from Lafayette. That buss, passed down through generations, eventually came to Dorothea. This sparked her interest in Lafayette s contributions to our struggle for independence. Dorothea also enjoys writing rhyming verse. She has written a series of award-winning illustrated modern Christmas stories in verse featuring Santa’s Izzy Elves.
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