Friday, November 28, 2014

Review of The Clever Mill Horse by Jodi Lew-Smith

The Clever Mill Horse by Jodi Lew-Smith
Publisher: Caspian Press
Publication Date: August 15, 2014
Length: 424 pages
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Synopsis from the Publisher: A young woman’s gift could weave together the fabric of a nation . . .

1810, upstate New York. 21-year-old Ella Kenyon is happiest gliding through the thick woods around her small frontier town, knife in hand, her sharp eyes tracking game. A gift for engineering is in her blood, but she would gladly trade it for more time in the forest. If only her grandfather’s dying wish hadn’t trapped her into a fight she never wanted.

Six years ago, Ella’s grandfather made her vow to finish his life’s work: a flax-milling machine that has the potential to rescue her mother, brother, and sister from the brutality of life with her drunkard father. The copious linen it yields could save her struggling town, subjugate the growing grip of southern cotton. Or it could be Ella’s downfall. If she’s not quick enough, not clever enough to succeed, more than her own life rests in the balance . . .

My Thoughts: Jodi Lew-Smith's historical novel The Clever Mill Horse piqued my interest when I first read the synopsis. A young heroine who is equally comfortable throwing a knife and inventing machines? Well, ok, that got my attention. I love strong female characters, and a novel centered on a young woman's invention in the early nineteenth century sounded unusual enough for me to give it a try.

And I enjoyed the book overall. The Clever Mill Horse read, in my opinion, like a Young Adult novel, although it doesn't seem to have been marketed that way. But I think many teens and other YA readers would find it appealing, with its adventurous plot, hint of romance, and intelligent, headstrong, Katniss Everdeen-style heroine. I'm a former American history teacher, and I'm always on the lookout for books that can entice young readers into learning more about periods in the past which may seem . . well, a tad dry (gasp!) in the classroom.

The Clever Mill Horse, fortunately, is anything but dry. Lew-Smith packs a lot of plot into her story of Ella Kenyon's flax-milling machine: kidnapping, horse-theft, fire, blackmail, and a drunk and violent father, for starters. And that's not even including the forbidden love between a Native American man and white woman, a dark and long-suppressed secret about Ella's parentage, and the lesbian who can never share the truth about herself and her desires.

At times, all of that added up to perhaps a little too much action and adventure for me, when I might have wished for deeper character development or more about the flax machine itself and how it could have changed early American society. But YA readers who appreciate a plot-driven novel will find much here to keep them turning the pages and, I hope, might encourage them to read more about the early years of the new American republic.

I enjoyed participating in the blog tour for The Clever Mill Horse. You can check out the rest of the tour stops here. In particular, you may enjoy an interesting guest post Lew-Smith wrote on Just One More Chapter about why Americans stopped using flax for linen. I received a complimentary copy of this book from Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

About the Author: Jodi Lew-Smith lives on a farm in northern Vermont with her patient husband, three wonderfully impatient children, a bevy of pets and farm animals, and 250 exceedingly patient apple trees which, if they could talk, would suggest that she stop writing and start pruning. Luckily they’re pretty quiet.

With a doctorate in plant genetics, she also lives a double life as a vegetable breeder at High Mowing Seeds. She is grateful for the chance to do so many things in one lifetime, and only wishes she could do them all better. Maybe in the next life she’ll be able to make up her mind.

For more about Jodi and about the lives and world of the characters in the novel, visit her website or blog. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Goodreads.

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