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Girl and nation, coming of age

1876 Philadelphia is the setting for the story of a troubled teen, connecting to something larger.

From the book jacket
From the book jacketRead more

By Beth Kephart

Egmont USA. 176 pp. $16.99

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Reviewed by Elizabeth Mosier

Beth Kephart is the real deal.

Teenagers can smell a fake, or a lesson, a mile away, so authenticity is key to persuading them to suspend their disbelief. In Dangerous Neighbors, Kephart's fifth book of young adult fiction, 1876 Philadelphia is rendered realistically in exquisite sensory detail: the flowers and foods and fabrics of the Centennial Exhibition, all the "noise and crush of progress" encroaching on a city once so quiet you could hear a runaway pig squeal in the street or a girl "flat-fingering" a Schubert piano piece.

This living history - the "unfinished pile of City Hall like a half-baked cake," the just-built Academy of Music, masted ships afloat on the Delaware - makes the old city new. But what makes Kephart's work feel true is its authentic adolescent sensibility, which she artfully conveys.

Here is 17-year-old Katherine's love for her twin sister, Anna, which sometimes seems like a battle unto death. Here, too, is Katherine's angry scrutiny of her unfashionable suffragette mother, who abandons home and hearth to fight for her daughters' futures. And here is romantic love as Anna experiences it: forbidden and dangerous, secretive and sweet (literally so, as Bennett the baker courts her with cranberry pie), a rebellion against her parents' matchmaking plans.

Kephart understands the trap and allure of being chosen - Anna is picked as the family's marriageable beauty, identical Katherine as their father's favorite - particularly for Katherine, a young woman who doesn't yet know who she is, whose future has vanished with her sister's death in a fast-changing Centennial world.

From childhood, Katherine has been charged with keeping an eye out for Anna, who stands "too dangerously close to things." She blames herself for her sister's fatal accident - and, as the novel opens, she's determined to die, too, with a leap from the roof of the Colosseum that once stood at Broad and Locust Streets.

"She has a plan," Kephart writes sparingly, intensifying an already urgent scene. "She will fly and soon feel nothing."

As Bennett pursues her through the city, trying to share a secret he hopes will keep her alive, Katherine reunites with another boy named William, who has a gift for rescuing lost animals with soft talk and empathy. "You should try it some time," he's told her - and though Katherine cannot save her sister, perhaps she can protect someone else.

Katherine clings to her memories of Anna, though her grieving mother advises that the future lies in the future, never in the past. It's this tension between yesterday and tomorrow that makes this story larger than a tale of two sisters.

The country itself is a coming-of-age character: long constrained by a devastating Civil War and now rushing without a compass into its potential. The Centennial Exhibition brings the world closer and makes it unfamiliar, inviting in (as Katherine's father warns) new and "dangerous neighbors."

Kephart's narrative structure - a fast-paced present-tense story set on the Centennial grounds, intersecting with memory moving backward to her sister's death - perfectly expresses the disorientation fairgoers must have felt as they entered the "world of wonders" housed between the past and a Shantytown future coming on as quickly as consuming fire.

The novel's setting is powerfully symbolic. Here, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony launched their radical Declaration of the Rights of Women on July 4, 1876 - history to which Kephart wisely alludes without burdening her fiction with too much fact.

Behind the scenes, Katherine's mother rushes to meetings with "Mrs. Gillespie" (Ben Franklin's great-granddaughter Elizabeth Duane Gillespie), presumably part of the planning committee for the Women's Pavilion that showcased women's industry from needlework to laborsaving inventions.

Throughout the novel, descriptions of birds - caged, freed, soaring - echo women's pent-up ambition. In this potent atmosphere, Katherine finds her own voice; liberated from suitors' eyes, she becomes a keen observer.

Dangerous Neighbors begins and ends with a bird's-eye view of Philadelphia: the ideal vantage point from which to perceive the great gains and regrettable losses that progress always brings. Standing on the observation deck of the Main Exhibition Hall, Katherine sees "The red brick and white lintels and brownstones and green swaths and temples of home. It is flat-roofed, peaked and pompous, congested and incomplete," as unfinished as she is. Her sense of connection to something larger than herself gives her new perspective, frees her from the intense self-focus that characterizes the turbulent time of adolescence, and finally allows her to grow.

Kephart is a writer who believes, as Anna tells Katherine, that "No heart is as plain as day." As a writer, as a mother, I'm grateful to her for taking young adults seriously enough to create complex characters and meaningful stories for them, about truths that even adults once had to learn.