Donnelly, Jennifer. These Shallow Graves. New York: Delacorte Press, 2015. 978-0385-906791 487 p. $19.99 Grades 8-12.
Jo Monfort is rich, clever and trapped. In 1890s New York, upper crust young ladies seek and receive only early marriage proposals, the richer and more stable, the better. They do not seek to showcase their opinions, writing skills or investigative interests, as Jo wishes to do. Jo and her friends know that their parents will seek for them the best match based upon family history, source of wealth, stability of name, etc. For Jo, that means she and her good friend Abraham “Bram” Aldrich will likely marry. By all accounts, he is quite a catch: kind, intelligent, handsome, and rich. But as much as she likes him, she doesn’t love him and doesn’t even know what that means. In fact, heavy issues like business and delicate issues like the body, or, heaven forbid, sex, are not discussed and not understood (Jo’s friend Trudy honestly thinks that a stork brings a child and only after you’ve married.)
When her father is found dead in his study, the police rule it an accident (he was cleaning his gun), but Jo knows he was too smart to make that mistake. When investigating on her own, she meets Eddie Gallagher, a handsome reporter for the newspaper, The Standard, owned by her family. Through him, she learns that the evidence points to a suicide, and her trusted uncle likely paid for the “accident” ruling to save the family name and business. Shocked, Jo is driven to know what would lead her father to suicide. Excited, Eddie is driven to break a huge story that will make his career. Attracted, they both fall in love and unearth some astonishing answers and deep mysteries around the shipping business shared by her father, uncle, and several other men. Eddie is more able than Jo to believe ill of her family and its business. As naïve, but driven Jo sneaks out (night and day) to seek answers, she risks her reputation (girls don’t walk alone, let alone go to the morgue or a graveyard). Fortuitously for her, she’s understood and trusted by several new friends: Eddie, his mortician friend Oscar, and street criminals Tumbler and Fay. Fay teaches Jo some needed self-defense skills, and saves her life more than once before the story is done.
The story gives a realistic look at the disparity between classes and sexes in 1890s New York, but strains credulity on many occasions—as when Jo repeatedly succeeds in avoiding repercussions, and she finds just who or what she needs when she needs it. The denouement, when the evil man finally answers, at great length, the entire history, after being shot in the kneecap, is nearly unbelievable (the “ouch” he utters, and his clarity of mind, do not match the pain or shock of this injury). But by then readers just want all the details and a happy ending for Jo, too. And it’s a happy ending we do receive.
THOUGHTS: Given its length and focus, this is for advanced readers who love a deep mystery sprinkled with a little romance. Indeed, this could begin a series for Jo and Eddie working together. The complicated world of 1890s New York provides excellent fodder for numerous murder mysteries and a furthering of Jo and Eddie’s relationship. Oscar in particular, as mortician, adds an incredible amount of interesting information to the tale.
Historical Fiction; Mystery Melissa Scott, Shenango High School