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Reviewed by Jack Magnus for Readers' Favorite
Stealing Mr. Smith is an historical fiction novel written by Tanya Williams. Life didn’t seem at all fair to Bernice. She was only nine years old, and she had suddenly become a nurse for her ailing mother and the mother to her six-year-old sister. Her brothers were far more fortunate in that they at least got to go to school several days a week when they could be spared from helping their father with the farm. Their big sister, Alice, had escaped the misery of their dirt-floor house and meager rations. She had married and moved away. Bernice had thought that she would eventually send for them to come live with her -- it’s what Bernice would have done -- but that letter never came. Much as she loved her mother, the darkened sick room where she had to spend hours cleaning vomit and dripping water into her mother’s parched mouth was horrible; her everyday life was dark and depressing. Once, some time before, Bernice found a litter of kittens. They were tiny and sweet, and she fell in love with them. They were hers, and for once in her life, she felt what she thought might be happiness. Then her father came upon her laughing as she watched their antics. He said they couldn’t feed them, and he’d take care of them for her. She watched, horrified, as he placed them in a burlap sack and tossed it into the Big Sioux River. Something in her died that day.
Tanya Williams’s historical fiction novel, Stealing Mr. Smith, is an engrossing story of a young girl and her family, which is set in the 1940s. Williams eloquently details how poverty and misfortune turn Bernice’s once happy and fun-loving father into a dour and taciturn stranger, and transforms Bernice herself from a child capable of wonder at a kitten’s antics into a young woman whose dreams have died and who has become obsessed with getting a husband. I was struck by the unfairness of the cultural expectations for women and girls that plagued Bernice as she was growing up and later as she tried to make her way in the business world, and I was saddened by her growing loss of confidence in her own abilities to survive and thrive. Williams’s characters are beautifully drawn, especially Bernice and her sister Patricia, and her plot brings the culture of the late 1940s and early 1950s to life. Stealing Mr. Smith is most highly recommended.