cover image The Staircase

The Staircase

Ann Rinaldi. Harcourt Children's Books, $16 (240pp) ISBN 978-0-15-202430-7

Rinaldi (The Coffin Quilt) delivers another winning historical novel, this time turning to New Mexico in the 1870s. After her mother dies on the Santa Fe Trail, 13-year-old Lizzy Enders is deposited by her father in a Santa Fe convent school--without even saying good-bye. Pragmatic Lizzy, who is Methodist, chafes at the hypocrisy and injustice she observes: ""To have pride was a sin. Humility was everything, though all the girls preened and boasted and glowed when they got praise from the nuns."" She is also baffled at the convent's conundrum: the nuns are praying to Saint Joseph for help finishing their newly constructed chapel, which lacks a staircase to the choir loft; Lizzy simply finds a carpenter, the disheveled vagrant Jose. ""Saint Joseph will think we have no faith in him!"" one of the girls angrily tells Lizzy. The dynamics among the girls seem reductive, especially the tense exchanges between Lizzy and the villainously manipulative Elinora, whose evil deeds include poking out Lizzy's kitten's eyes with an embroidery needle. Fortunately, the highly charged description of the Wild West town (and a subplot involving Jesse James) and Lizzy's relationships with the adult characters prove colorful and lively. An endnote explaining the enduring mystery of the chapel staircase will leave readers pleasantly intrigued. Ages 12-up. (Oct.)