1935 was a hard year, in the middle of a hard decade, for the Great Plains. Beyond The Great Depression, which had the entire country in its grips, the Dust Bowl made a great swatch of the breadbasket of the nation unlivable. People died of dust pneumonia and malnutrition, and millions fled the area.
But Callie, in Sarah Zettel's Dust Girl, is trapped. Her mother owns the last hotel in the small Kansas town of Slow Run, and since Callie's father promised to come back to her someday, she refuses to leave. Never mind that she hasn't heard word from Callie's father since before she was born. Never mind that no one comes through town to stay at the hotel anymore.
Never mind the eternal dust, filling their house and their food and their lungs, slowing choking them to death.
But on April 14, 1935 that all changed. The day of the worst dust storm in all of Kansas, Callie's mother disappears and Callie's life is turned upside-down.
Turns out, Callie's father had a pretty good reason not to come back. Both the Seelie and the Unseelie Courts have a little something to say about his human love and half-breed daughter. And in order to rescue both of her parents, Callie will have to master a world of magic and deception that she didn't even know existed.
The first in the forthcoming The American Fairy Trilogy, Dust Girl does a decent, if not spectacular job of setting up the world in which Callie lives. Zettel assumes the reader has some basic understanding of the Dust Bowl, as well as the Great Depression, which is reasonable. Novelties such as dance marathons are explained well, and add to the atmosphere of the era.
The magical aspect, however, is much less well-defined. Whether this is in an effort not to write herself into a corner in other books, or whether is simply a matter of magic being undefinable is hard to say. The parts that are well-defined, though, show a rather interesting idea of a fairy or magic user being able to use the wishes of those around her to bring things into being is a fairly interesting concept.
Like most YA fiction, Dust Girl is a quick read. The main characters remain engaging throughout, and even if their actions are at time a bit predictable, it's a comforting predictability that takes nothing away from the story itself.
Highs: The descriptions of the dance marathons and the hobo camps show the reader what true desperation is.
Lows: The lack of a defined method of magic among the fairies makes it frustrating at times.
Verdict: A standard adventure story whose seldom-used backdrop puts it a bit above average.
Further Reading: The Midnight Palace, Howl's Moving Castle