“The Steep & Thorny Way” by Cat Winters (2016)
Genre: Historical Fiction, YA, Retelling
Page Length: 352 pages (hardcover edition)
A thrilling reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Steep and Thorny Way tells the story of a murder most foul and the mighty power of love and acceptance in a state gone terribly rotten.
1920s Oregon is not a welcoming place for Hanalee Denney, the daughter of a white woman and an African-American man. She has almost no rights by law, and the Ku Klux Klan breeds fear and hatred in even Hanalee’s oldest friendships. Plus, her father, Hank Denney, died a year ago, hit by a drunk-driving teenager. Now her father’s killer is out of jail and back in town, and he claims that Hanalee’s father wasn’t killed by the accident at all but, instead, was poisoned by the doctor who looked after him—who happens to be Hanalee’s new stepfather.
The only way for Hanalee to get the answers she needs is to ask Hank himself, a “haint” wandering the roads at night. (description from Amazon)
The Steep & Thorny Way is a modern retelling of Hamlet set in the background of the Prohibition Era. Hanalee, our main protagonist, searches for answers behind her father’s death while danger arises in her city. Who killed Hank Denney and why?
The book, as stated in its synopsis, is somewhat similar to Hamlet in plot. I was very excited to read this novel because of the Hamlet theme (it’s one of my favorite Shakespeare plays), it has a PoC (person of color) lead, and because it was historical fiction. I liked how Winters sets the scene in the novel by including a character list (set up like a play) and fills the pages with pictures of the time period, landscape, and people of the era in between chapters. On top of that, some of the chapters have a Shakespearean theme such as “Where Wilt Thou Lead Me”.
I will admit that I was a that little worried about a Caucasian writer talking about what it was like to be black in the 1920’s, but Winters does extensive research to back up Hanalee’s personal experience. Never does she try to “speak” for her, but she wants the readers to share the character’s experience with readers so that you can empathize with Hanalee.
I also think Winters provides a great suspense story as well as a history lesson in the novel by reminding readers of race relations, religious hypocrisy, the KKK, the eugenics movement, and prohibition of the era. She takes her readers to a turbulent time in history and I appreciate that she didn’t stray away from the bad stuff and didn’t sanitize history. Winters shows in her writing that she dug deep in into her historical research and tells Hanalee’s and others’ stories without overstepping boundaries or being offensive.
As for the writing, the chapters flow and the plot makes sense, but I feel as if Winters just scratches the surface when it comes to her characters. Where are the true backstories of the characters? Winters glosses over the surface, but could stand to dig a bit deeper into their backgrounds. The first quarter of the book was very slow, but the plot finally picks up after 130 pages. While I loved this book it was really hard to get into at first. It was a bit jarring at the beginning and it took some time for the story to weave together and find its commonplace.
I think this book is awesome, but it could benefit from way more character development and more involvement of Hanalee’s ghostly father’s presence rather than popping up here and there. It seems he was just placated in certain spots of the stories and his character wasn’t very consistent.
A fun, suspenseful read! If you enjoy retellings and historical fiction, this book is right up your alley.