And Condors Danced by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (Delacorte Press: $14.95; 216 pages)
The stern father of 11-year-old Carly Hartwick, this novel's spunky heroine, objects to most of the books she wants to read because they're "too stimulating." Unfortunately, one can't lodge the same complaint against this book; it's far from stimulating enough.
Zilpha Snyder, an award-winning author, dedicates this novel to her mother, "whose vivid stories of life in rural Southern California at the turn of the century were a vital part of my own childhood." Presumably drawn from those reminiscences, this story has a sweetly nostalgic ring. But in an effort to establish conflict, the driving force of any narrative, Snyder resorts to contrivance as frankly fake as the Sherlock Holmes get-up Carly loves to wear.
The year is 1907; the place, Ventura County. One of the central scenes is a Fourth of July parade, and the town bully has tried to buy his way onto the Sunday School float. When his efforts don't pay off and Carly is chosen instead, he tosses a string of firecrackers, causing the horses to bolt and ending Carly's brief moment of glory.
It doesn't take Dr. Watson to figure out early on where this rickety old plot is headed. Readers of the first few pages will not be surprised to find out that Carly's Sherlock-like efforts to track down the culprit succeed, that she later saves this bully from an attack by a rabid coyote, that he is the grandson of a villainous rich man who has kept Carly's family from getting water to irrigate their ranch, and that this grandfather then relents in gratitude for Carly's heroic deed. What may have passed as high drama 80 years ago seems like ho-hum melodrama today.
Far more intriguing are the family relationships described in the novel. In addition to Carly, youngest of five living Hartwick children, there are beautiful Lila, who pines for Johnny Diaz (Spanish, Catholic, and generally unsuitable); two brothers who can't do anything right, and Nellie, the family martyr who sacrifices her own dreams to take care of everyone else.
Father is a misanthropic cuss who seems unable to get along with anybody, while Mama passes her days reclining on the sofa and mourning for her little son who died a year before Carly was born. They are caught in a neurotic bond, too selfish and self-centered to love anyone, and although Carly may sense it, she isn't yet mature enough to confront these facts head on.
A Couple of Wranglers
In contrast to Carly's parents, there is the redoubtable Aunt M. (for Mehitabel) and an ancient servant named Woo Ying whom Aunt M. generally addresses in a yell as "you lazy Chinaman." Woo Ying is no victim, however; he yells right back at "old woman." These two wrangling characters dote on Carly--a good thing, because nobody else seems to take much notice of her, unless it's to bawl her out for some minor infraction.
The publisher describes "And Condors Danced" as "young adult fiction" for ages 9 to 13--with the emphasis on "young" rather than "adult." And that may be the heart of the book's problems. On the one hand, Carly is a spunky kid, the only one in the family to stand up to her insensitive parents; on the other, an 11-year-old is too young a heroine for the kind of plot this material cries out for.
Both of her older sisters, though less interestingly drawn than Carly, are searching for ways to live their lives--one in a Romeo-and-Juliet fantasy, the other as parent to her own child-mother. Either girl could have been the focus of a more believably satisfying plot. One wishes that the author--who, after all, has the power to change what was into what might have been--had selected an older character as the heroine for a potentially fine story.