Book: Palace Beautiful by Sarah Deford Williams
I first encountered the term Palace Beautiful in Little Women. The March sisters loved to play Pilgrim’s Progress, where they would pretend to be Christian on his journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. One of the stops on this journey was the Palace Beautiful, a lovely resting place reached after mounting the Hill Difficulty. I was attracted to this book by its name (as I am for anything reminiscent of Miss Alcott’s works) and assumed that the nomenclature would just be a coincidence. Happily, I was wrong.
Sadie Brooks, along with her father, expectant step-mother Sherrie, and younger sister Zuzu, has just moved to Salt Lake City from Houston. Zuzu is all golden curls, gregariousness, and expressive emotion. Sadie is quiet, pensive, and artistic, with a penchant for expressing herself in uniquely named colors and figuring out people’s birth stories: hers is the Great Dog story, some people come from red birds, some from Adam and Eve, some from the cabbage patch (this may sound odd, but when you read them you will understand). She quickly meets her new next-door neighbor, a girl called Kristin who prefers the name Belladonna Desolation. Bella, very interested in ghosts, tells Sadie that from the attic in Sadie’s new house one can see the cemetery. When Bella goes to show Sadie the cemetery view, they discover a small crawl space with a hand-painted sign saying “Palace Beautiful.” They also discover photographs and a journal written by Helen White in 1918, when she was 13, Sadie’s age. Deeply intrigued, the three of them, Sadie, Bella, and Zuzu, decide to meet every day to work their way through the journal.
It is at this point that Miss Deford Williams reveals herself to be a master storyteller. She simultaneously spins two narratives, Sadie’s and Helen’s, each with its ups (Sadie and Zuzu growing closer to each other and their grandmother; Helen creating and decorating her Palace Beautiful as her personal secret spot; the sisters each surprising each other with their own improvements to Palace Beautiful; Helen’s friendship with Martha) and downs (Bella’s mother keeping her away from the sisters; Helen’s friends and their brothers off fighting the war). The two stories also share an element of suspense about impending doom. Sherrie, the girls’ stepmother, is seven months pregnant. The sisters’ mother died while giving birth to Zuzu, so when Sherrie experiences some complications, Sadie worries that the same fate might befall Sherrie, whom everyone loves very much. Helen’s family and friends are caught up in the influenza epidemic. So many people lose their lives, including some members of Helen’s family, who else will fall victim? Helen’s journal ends abruptly—was she herself a casualty of the epidemic?
I found myself racing through the story to see what would happen next. As a character-driven reader, this was unusual for me. The reading specialist at my school often calls kids of today plot junkies—they are too interested in the next event to focus on any other elements of the story or author’s craft. I found myself identifying with them—to some extent. Even while I eagerly read on to find out what happened to Helen and Sherrie, I appreciated the well-drawn characters (Sadie and Bella, particularly), the connections they made with each other and Grandma through learning how to knit, and the evolving relationship between Bella and her mother. I also greatly enjoyed the “creation” stories Sadie’s mom had told her and Sadie’s knack for color-naming, Dark-Planet Purple, Clenched-Fist Gray, Dried-Up Beige, and Sweet-Butter Peach among my favorites.
In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, travelers wending their way to the Celestial City can find respite and comfort at the House Beautiful, the palace on the crest of Hill Difficulty. Below Sadie’s attic there is conflict (the antagonistic relationship between Bella and her mother), discord (the sisters initially don’t get along very well), and worry (will Sherrie survive pregnancy and delivery), for Sadie, Zuzu, and Bella. Atop all this difficulty, they, too, find respite and comfort in Helen’s journal and each other’s company in Palace Beautiful. Miss Deford Williams skillfully weaves plot, character development, and symbolism into this touching and satisfying tale.