The Springsweet is a young adult historical fantasy set in the late nineteenth century, mainly in the Oklahoma Territory. It’s also a sequel to Saundra Mitchell’s 2011 novel The Vespertine, though I didn’t realize that when I ordered it. So the caveat to my review is that I read The Springsweet without that background. How does it hold up on its own? Quite well, actually.
The heroine is Zora Stewart, a secondary character from The Vespertine, whose fiancé died tragically a year ago. Zora’s mother and friends think it’s high time she returns to society and starts mingling with young men again. Zora wants no part of this; she’d rather offer herself up as a mail-order bride and consign herself to a loveless marriage, or barring that, become a recluse in the attic. Finally, in desperation, she does something impulsive that causes her mother to send her away to live with widowed Aunt Birdie in Oklahoma.
I didn’t always understand Zora’s actions in the early chapters of The Springsweet, but she says herself that her grief made her “a little mad.” Once she lets go of her death wish and realizes she is glad to be alive, she becomes a relatable and likable character. Life in Oklahoma takes some getting used to, but Zora tries so hard and works so hard that it’s impossible not to admire her efforts. She also learns that she is gifted with a magical power: she’s a “springsweet,” a dowser or water witch. Birdie sees Zora’s gift as a way for her to earn her keep and begins to hire her out to the neighbors.
Mitchell paints a vivid picture of the Oklahoma setting, bringing to life both its beauties and its harshness. Zora’s gift is a double-sided coin too. Using her power brings her joy, and sometimes she is able to bring joy to others through its use. But other times she has to deal with unscrupulous people or, even worse, break to someone the bad news that there is no water on their land. Birdie is yet another example of this duality. She reminds me of a (much younger) version of characters like L.M. Montgomery’s Marilla Cuthbert — no-nonsense, hard, practical, but well-meaning and loving at heart.
Along the way there’s romance. The Springsweet contains the usual YA romantic triangle, but it didn’t annoy me as much as it sometimes does. I liked the way it worked out. There’s a subtle message here about female agency: just because a guy is a decent person and likes you doesn’t mean you’re obligated to choose him; you don’t owe him. He can be a nice guy but still not be the right one for you.
Lovely writing adds to The Springsweet’s appeal as well. Overall, I really enjoyed The Springsweet and plan to go back and read The Vespertine soon.