Set against the backdrop of America’s Bicentennial, History Lesson for Girls weaves the coming-of-age story of Alison Glass and friend Kate Hamilton with a project for their history class.
Alison’s parents, a poet and an artist, leave the aggravation of New York City and move to Connecticut. Their relationship is already shaky, and the move is a way to alleviate the tension between the two. Alison, an eighth grader who wears a brace for scoliosis, meets Kate Hamilton, and the two develop a bond through their love of horses. Their animals symbolize a means of escape for both girls.
Kate must deal with a father who believes he is a new-age shaman and a mother strung out on whatever drug is the flavor of the week. Both seem to have drifted from the free love movement of the 1960s into the tawdry scene set in the 1970s.
Alison’s scoliosis brace symbolizes the need for structure in a world where everything twists and turns into convoluted truth. Alison’s mother grasps for a cure and forces her daughter to try alternative techniques, including yoga and faith healing, when the medical world suggests Alison’s condition is worsening.
For their history project, Alison and Kate escape into a fictional world and tell the tale of Sarah Beckingworth, a heroine who must deal with the new frontier, Indians, and the death of her parents. Beckingworth’s journey parallel’s Alison and Kate’s need to understand the crazy lives they have been dealt.
As the school year progresses and the town’s “Women of History” plan the local Bicentennial celebration, the girls’ friendship grows as the two face individual struggles. Despite an illicit affair between Alison’s mother and Kate’s dad, the girls forge through the fallout, adamant about keeping their friendship a priority. The unraveling of the affair shatters the myth of the perfect family. Will everyone handle the repercussions?
Sheehan develops likeable and despicable characters in History Lesson for Girls. They are believable and representative of the tacky time period associated with disco fever and renewed patriotism.
The novel provides a quick read, partly due to the addition of the girls’ class project. Readers easily see how the two stories parallel one another and show that history does repeat itself.
Sheehan has written a delightful coming-of-age tale with two strong female characters who prove that you cannot run away from problems and that it is best to meet challenges head-on.
History Lesson for Girls that has the potential to become a new classic that offers a dose of humor while dealing with sensitive subjects.