cover image Black-Eyed Susan

Black-Eyed Susan

Jennifer Armstrong. Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, $15 (120pp) ISBN 978-0-517-70107-2

Ten-year-old Susie revels in the natural beauty of the vast prairie surrounding her family's sodhouse in the Dakota Territory, but her mother-depressed and homesick for her native Ohio-refuses to go outdoors. In Armstrong's (King Crow; Steal Away) characteristically lyrical language, Susie ponders her mother's ""lonesomeness"": ""Perhaps it had been growing like a seed, and was blooming at last with a pale flower and a sad perfume. All I knew was that Ma never laughed anymore, hardly spoke, seldom smiled."" On a trip to town with her father, Susie futilely combs the mercantile for ""something cheerful"" for her mother. Ma brightens up a bit that evening, when a warm, merry family of Montana-bound homesteaders from Iceland spends the night, giving a canary as a gift. And in the dramatic concluding scene, Susie convinces the woman to come out on the roof of their home to greet the rising sun. With her prairie setting and poetic narrative, Armstrong steps into Patricia MacLachlan territory, but her footing is less sure. While the novel is illuminating in its view of a pioneer family, its many descriptive passages and reminiscences leave the work short on action and too slow-moving for most readers in the targeted age group. Ages 9-14. (Aug.)