Thursday, August 4, 2016

Review: The Steep and Thorny Way

The Steep & Thorny Way
Author: Cat Winters
Series: Standalone
Released: March 8th 2016
Publisher: Amulet Books
Length: 335 pages
Source: Publisher for review
Buy: Amazon

Scene: Oregon, 1923.
Dramatis personae:
Hanalee Denney, daughter of a white woman and an African American man
Hank Denney, her father—a ghost
Greta Koning, Hanalee’s mother
Clyde Koning, doctor who treated Hank Denney the night he died, now Hanalee’s stepfather
Joe Adder, teenage boy convicted of accidentally killing Hank Denney
Members of the Ku Klux Klan
Townspeople of Elston, Oregon
Question: Was Hank Denney’s death an accident…or was it murder most foul?

Cat Winters’ books are always such things of beauty, and The Steep and Thorny Way is no exception. The quality of her prose and the depth of her research can only be compared to Ruta Sepetys, at least as far as historical YA goes.

Inspired heavily by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Steep and Thorny Way is a strong enough book to stand entirely on its own and avoid any predictability. While she does use Hamlet’s themes in what could be considered a retelling (the death of protagonist’s father, potential murderer married to mother, plans of revenge), Winters doesn’t rely too heavily on them and constantly adds her own little twists.
The book starts with dramatis personae, there to remind us right away that The Steep and Thorny way is connected to another work. The mystery of Hank Denney’s death is at the forefront from the very beginning. Hanalee’s father was black and her mother is white, their marriage unrecognized in the state of Oregon in 1923. Hanalee mourns her father and dislikes her stepfather, the white town doctor who married her mother the second it could be considered appropriate.

The Ku Klux Klan was strong in Oregon at that time and Hanalee would undoubtedly have been a target. Racial injustice was far stronger in these rural environments than in places like Washington. The Klan was semi-public, seemingly an anti-Christian organization, but really anti everything that wasn’t white and male. Like with her previous books, Winters found a way to shed light on a historical subject, but also to connect problems of that time with issues we still struggle with today. Racism isn’t the only thing our Hanalee struggles with. As a biracial young woman with ambitions, she dreams about becoming a lawyer and marrying whomever she chooses, which seems to be out of her reach.

Through the preacher’s son, a young man accused of Hank’s murder, Winters also sheds light on LGBT issues of that time. Joe was possibly the only person who suffered more injustice than Hanalee, at least once he was discovered kissing a boy in his father’s car. Although his problems aren’t anything new, seeing him through Hanalee’s eyes certainly was. Her initial disgust was rooted in ignorance, and her change of views that came after talking to him and really thinking about him was wonderful.

It could be said that Winters tried to do just a bit too much this time. She is known for adding paranormal elements to her work, and a retelling of Hamlet certainly requires a restless ghost or two, but I sometimes felt that it could have been a stronger book without it. With the Ku Klux Klan and the LGBT themes so strong, there was enough going on even without the paranormal mystery. Nevertheless, a copy of this book needs to be in every house and read by every teenager. There is so much to learn through a connection with these characters.

A copy of this book was kindly provided by the publisher for review purposes. No considerations, monetary or otherwise, have influenced the opinions expressed in this review.


  1. Whoa! Yeah, that's a lot going on for one book. Sounds like she handled pretty well though. Hamlet is my favorite Shakespeare so I do love retellings.

  2. Really interesting, and heavy subjects too

  3. Oh I'm really looking forward to reading this one, Maja. I love a good historical fiction and while I've only read a couple of books by Cat Winters, I like her writing and stories a lot. I'm especially curious about the LGBTQ themes.
    Great review, Maja!

  4. I really, really want to read this book. I like the sound of the historical aspects of this book. I've only read one book by Cat Winters -- In the Shadow of Blackbirds. Hopefully I can get my hands on a copy soon. Great review!

    czai @ the Blacksheep Project

  5. I really liked this one once the Hamlet references didn't become so forced. I always learn new things whenever I read Winter's books. I'm looking forward to her new book!

  6. I need to read this one, I kind of forgot about it. I am intrigued by the Oregon history of course.

  7. So many things going on but I'm glad you were focused and have managed to appreciate what she was trying to accomplish here.

  8. I love Cat Winters so it's great to know that she is still impressing with her historical YA novels; I can't wait to read this one! It's a shame that Winters tried to stuff too much in one book though, a series would have been better ;)

  9. Cat Winters is one of my auto-buy authors. I just love how she incorporates historical research into her books while still keeping them interesting and relevant. Wonderful review, Maja! I'm looking forward to her next book.


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