Phoebe’s Heron, by Winnie Anderson (Crispin Books, February 2018)

(Reviewed by Sandy Brehl)

Phoebe’s Heron ticks all the right boxes for me: a bright young girl, in a loving family, confronting complex issues. I enjoyed the role played by boom-town Denver in the 1900s as an effective backdrop and contrast to the semi-isolated mountaintop life in the new home in the Colorado Rockies foothills where uprooted Phoebe’s coming of age unfolds.

Phoebe, the twelve-year-old daughter in a wealthy family, is the first-person narrator of this compelling story set in Colorado in 1900. The novel launches with Phoebe’s description of the family’s arduous train and wagon ride up the steep mountains above Denver, leaving below her familiar city life. Her mother suffers from tuberculosis at a time when medications provided little or no chance of recovery. The doctor’s prescription for recovery, common in that era, was to move to the clear, high-elevation air of the Rocky Mountains, above the pollution of the city.

Phoebe's Heron, by Winnie Anderson

There, Phoebe and her family will live in a picturesque, elegant log home, custom-built to continue their privileged life (her father is a railroad executive).

But even with Nurse Daisy on hand to cook and care for her mother, Phoebe feels arbitrarily and unhappily isolated from her Denver friends and her previous life.

She desperately hopes that the change will restore her mother to health, but that hope is the scaffold on which her guilt grows – she longs to return to Denver to resume her friendship and lively days spent with her sophisticated friend, Lisbeth. Together, the two girls spent many happy hours flouncing before mirrors in fancy feathered hats at Lisbeth’s family millinery shop, or gossiping about the patrons of the fortune-teller, Ruby, who resides in the rooms above the shop.

Anderson writes in a descriptive and fluent present-tense narrative and letter-writing format. Phoebe’s observations, reflections, and questions combine with her letters to Lisbeth to reveal her angst, ambivalence, and growing awareness of a wider world. While Phoebe’s mixed feelings and emerging conflicts are very specific to her circumstances, they will resonate with anyone living through adolescent changes, increasing in awareness of one’s place in a wider world, and eager to control one’s own destiny.

The charming subplot between straight-laced Nurse Daisy and Mr. Spencer, the amiable architect-builder, provides lovely interludes for readers craving a touch of romance. Author Anderson has a subtle hand with Phoebe’s insights, as shown in this deft passage:

There’s a lot going on, although little is said about it. How they feel about each other is beneath the words they speak. Kind of like the way a tip of an iceberg above water is only a small part of the mountain of ice that’s beneath the surface. Or like a flower just before it has fully bloomed. They like each other, plain and simple. It’s as easy as that. Mother and I both know it.

In the mountain setting, Phoebe has plenty of free time to develop a friendship with a local boy, Jed, and his affable dog, Mike. Their encounters that take place outdoors, often at a nearby mountain creek or exploring the surrounding environs of small lakes and open meadows, are an opportunity to make an honest evaluation of the frayed, friendly, curious and always-hungry local boy. Phoebe learns who he is, a less-well-to-do youngster who has to work to help his father with their market hunting business. Phoebe learn to appreciate his knowledge of nature and lack of pretensions, a far cry from the standards of her own family’s privileged life or the prejudiced judgment of the summering wealthy folks at the local resort in nearby Pinedale.

Their emerging friendship plays an important part in Phoebe’s growing awareness of the impact of the fashionable feather trade on winged creatures who inhabited the earth long before her arrival. Her concern for a heron’s well-being soon comes in conflict with her former frivolous concerns and with her realization that the feather trade provides a meager means of survival for Jed and his father.

On a visit back to Denver, a fortune-teller, Ruby, who has her shop above the fashionable millinery shop where Phoebe and Lisbeth likes to play dress-up, offers Phoebe some reassurance that her sensitivity and worries are indicators of her caring heart, a heart that holds hope and promise of doing good for the wider world. During that visit Phoebe becomes aware of the backstory about the feather trade in the fashion scene (and its impact on wild bird populations), and she discovers a social network of budding women activists who were organizing to gain a public voice on behalf of the environment.

Those women’s circles would be the beginnings of the Audubon Society conservation movement, which was just coalescing at the start of the 1900s.

There are tensions aplenty in this historical fiction novel, ranging from close encounters with mountain lions to seeing Jed treated poorly as riffraff when the kids visit the local resort. Throughout it all, Phoebe’s family demonstrates love, decency, and strengths of character that are heartwarming and realistic. The many threads are artfully woven into a rapid and satisfying resolution.

Winnie Anderson, author of Phoebe's Heron

Phoebe’s Heron offers middle-grade readers (or readers of any age) rich opportunities to discuss and debate their own foundational values, as Phoebe begins to recognize questions in her new circumstances. It’s not hard to choose species survival over frivolous feathery-hat fashion choices, but how can she deal with withholding information from her new good friend Jed, knowing that he and his father must sell feathers to survive?

The story invites discussions of privilege and prejudice, of standing by or standing up, and other very current topics.

This well-crafted story involves universal themes that will resonate with readers today: the angst of separation from a dear friend, the tensions of an emerging friendship, the awkward balance between personal wants and family needs, especially when the stakes are high. Phoebe’s concerns about the right thing to do reflect the inevitable growing pains that plague many who are on the cusp of adolescence, forced to weigh and reevaluate the easy assumptions of childhood.

There is action to balance reflection, and you’ll find yourself looking through Phoebe’s eyes as her exploration of the mountaintop prompts her to resume sketching, an outlet she had recently neglected.  I urge comparison to Amy Timberlake’s One Came Home, exploring similar considerations of both family and social values.


Phoebe’s Heron, by Winnie Anderson
Crispin Books • 2018
Paperback, 224 pages
Juvenile Fiction/Ages 8 –14
ISBN 978-1-883953-91-1

Author website: Winnie Anderson

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Reviewer Sandy Brehl is author of the Odin’s Promise middle-grade historical trilogy set in occupied Norway during World War II, including Odin’s Promise, and Bjorn’s Gift, and Mari’s Hope. An active member of SCBWI, she lives in Muskego, Wisconsin.

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