Monday, October 24, 2016

Or Give Me Death:Ann Rinaldi's Fine YA Historical Fiction

By Michelle Ule

I'm not sure when I first stumbled on an Ann Rinaldi's novel at the library, but it was a revelation.

I went looking for her work recently and picked up Or Give Me Death, a young adult novel about the family of Virginia's first governor Patrick Henry.

You know, the man who famously said, "Give me Liberty or Give Me Death," during the Revolutionary War.

The book is not a simple family story.

It is about his first family (six children by his first wife; 11 by his second), and how they struggled to deal with their mother's mental illness while Henry solved all the problems of a countryside preparing to fight the British.

Mental Illness and a Young Adult Novel?

I was surprised by the theme as I read this book and yet, aren't many young people struggling with mental health?

Don't many teenagers have parents who may have "issues?"

The strength of a young adult novel is that while it tackles challenging topics, it uses concepts that might be easier for a young person to understand and apply.

Told through the point of view of first the oldest child, 16 year-old Patsy, and then the second daughter, Anne, Or Give Me Death wrestles with family of origin troubles set against a world descending into war. Fascinating.

Research and Experience

Rinaldi wrote out of deep research and wisdom born of her age (She's in her eighties now; Or Give Me Death was published ten years ago).

A journalist, she began looking into history when her teenage son became a reenactor.

Or, as she liked to say, "Most mothers go to soccer or football games, but I went to wars.”

She began to participate herself, cooking meals over iron kettles and wearing costumes. (The things we do for our children!)

The historical experiences drove her to research and from there, story ideas formed.

As the author of 59 novels, Rinaldi prefers American history and often writes of the Revolutionary War and the Civil War periods.

Her protagonists are usually young women, often minority women, confronting difficult situations. Rinaldi allows the teenagers to experience doubt, fear, jealousy and uncertainty--just as modern young people do.

Wikipedia noted:
"In 2000, Wolf by the Ears was listed as one of the best novels of the preceding twenty-five years, and later of the last one hundred years."
Wolf by the Ears is the story of a Hemings slave in Thomas Jefferson's household who has to decide if she will remain enslaved or flee to freedom.
Not your standard YA fare.

Truth or Fiction?

I love how Rinaldi ends her books with a several-page section explaining what was true and what was her fictional embroidery.

In so doing, she demonstrates anew how there's nothing new under the sun and history has much to teach us.

Or Give me Death portrays a family's anguish with mental illness using the means available at the time to cope.

It was very insightful to this woman in 2016 America--whose ancestors lived in the neighborhood.


Ann Rinaldi portrays common YA problems in a Revolutionary household. Click to Tweet

Wolf by the Ears or O Give Me Death; YA historical fiction at its finest. Click to Tweet

Michelle Ule is the biographer of Mrs. Oswald Chambers and five historical novellas. You can learn more about her at

1 comment: said...

Ann Rinaldi is my favorite YA author and her historical fictions are a treat to read and a wonderful way to learn a little history. I recommend her work every chance I get. Her An Acquaintance with Darkness (Abraham Lincoln's assination era...Lincoln, Booth, Surratt, and Uncle Valentine) is wonderful. I would love to meet Ann. Glad to see this post.