Queen Esther's World
By Jim Remsen
Sunbury Press. 178 pp. $14.95 paperback
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Reviewed by Katie Haegele
In this historical fiction book for young readers, two stories unfold: one about a young girl named Maddy, and another about a notorious woman known as Queen Esther.
In the present day, we have an 11-year-old middle-schooler from Texas, who's spending the summer with her father in a tiny Pennsylvania town where he works on a natural-gas rig. The Indian place names in the area - like Susquehanna, Tunkhannock, and Tioga, which was pronounced more like Teaoga by the people who originally lived on the land - intrigue Maddy, who is unfamiliar with them but fascinated in general by history.
When the novel takes us back to 1790, we meet Esther, a local matriarch with an unusual role as leader of a mixed-Indian village that was blended during the upheaval of the American Revolution and other conflicts. She has set up camp at peace talks about to take place between the Iroquois and the new U.S. government in what is now Pennsylvania near the New York state line, on grounds that had long been used for treaty-making by the Indians there.
Maddy volunteers at a summer camp run by an enthusiastic local historian who fills her in on all that is known (and speculated) about the dynamic "queen," who is remembered - factually or not, no one knows - for killing several white settlers after the murder of her young son. A local monument is inscribed with the commemoration of the settlers' destruction of "savagery" and introduction of "civilization" to the area, and Maddy is disturbed by all that this implies.
Remsen, a former Inquirer editor, has cast Maddy as a highly sensitive girl who can pick up on vibrations of the past. Soon after arriving in Pennsylvania, she begins having visions of Esther's time there. In this way, he weaves the past and present together, and encourages young readers to understand their home - whether it's in Pennsylvania or anywhere in the Americas - in ways they may not have considered before. Like many novels that alternate perspectives, the change can feel abrupt, and might present a challenge for some middle-grade readers. But used as a history teaching tool, the book has much to offer.
In the novel, the only reminder of what the area was like 200 years ago is that racist monument - and there isn't much in the way of reliable information about Queen Esther in reality either, as Remsen writes in the book's afterword. Outside of the work and passion of a small group of local historians, much of the detail of her life has been lost to time. Remsen's exhaustive research combined with his knack for crafting vivid imagery brings her to life again.
Jim Remsen, "Visions of Teaoga: Queen Esther's World"
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