Gulliver Books/Harcourt / 230 pages / (June 2002)
There is a fine line between a plucky, young heroine and an obnoxious brat. Lizzy Enders is that rare combination of cynic, smartass, and compassionate emerging woman that readers can get strongly behind. Here is a true role model for anyone caught in a situation not of their own making; she is a survivor, surviving not at the expense of others, but through honesty, empathy, and her quick thinking. Though The Staircase may be set in the 1870s, it is an object lesson to readers of any age or any gender.
It also happens to be enormously entertaining. Who suspected that of a historical novel? You simply can’t assume anything these days.
A personal tragedy on the Sante Fe Trail lands Lizzy with the Sisters of Loretto, instead of heading west with her family. Not only does she have the inescapable impression of being abandoned, she finds herself the only Methodist amongst a boarding school full of earnest young Catholics. While many of the impressionable girls await their “calling,” Lizzy rolls her eyes at their histrionics and prefer to trust reason over miracles. Handling a miraculous event in a novel is also a tightwire trick of avoiding saccharine sweetness and total dismissal — another balancing act Ann Rinaldi manages with aplomb.
While Lizzy labours to hold her own against the pious, but devious students, she finds friends among the adults around her, who are not as gullible as she feared. When she insists on bringing a stranger to the church, she is met with horror by the girls who see no miracle in a drifter with supposed carpentry skills. Jose is just one of the adults who will transform her life, even as she is enriching theirs. Lizzy is not concerned about who she should associate with, only with each person’s and animal’s true worth.
Does this imply that Lizzy is always right, the perfect child? Far from it, but she may be the most sensible skeptic to appear in the midst of the mysteries that unfold. Who better to watch the creation of the miraculous staircase? And if she is not entirely certain what did or did not happen, well… that puts her in good company; no one has managed to explain the spiral staircase in the century-plus it has existed.
Lizzy’s stay in the convent school is fraught with tension, sorrow, and strength from surprising sources. In the space of a few months, readers see her go from a inconsolable child to a hint of the admirable women she is becoming. The manner in which she faces down her tormentors and overcomes her own fears and misconceptions makes her a hero genuinely worth emulating and offers hope to others in unhappy circumstances.
It is another kind of wonder that The Staircase accomplishes all this — educating readers, providing a core of hope, tackling the unexplainable — even as it keeps the reader riveted to the story. Young adult fare? I pity anyone who feels to old to enjoy a book this impressive. Or fails to appreciate an author as talented as Ann Rinaldi. Somethings you never outgrow, thankfully.