Lush, detailed, and pointedly aware of social and political influences, DARK AND DEEPEST RED by Anna-Marie McLemore is a wonderful novel for strong middle-grade and young adult readers. The world-building, character development, and emphasis on relationships is wonderfully detailed and create a magical realism storyline that switches between 16th century Austria and modern-day USA. With themes of oppression, LGBTQ identity, pride in ethnicity, misogyny, xenophobia and discrimination, Dark and Deepest Red feels at once anchored in today’s issues with echoes in history and folklore.
from the publisher:
Summer, 1518. A strange sickness sweeps through Strasbourg: women dance in the streets, some until they fall down dead. As rumors of witchcraft spread, suspicion turns toward Lavinia and her family, and Lavinia may have to do the unimaginable to save herself and everyone she loves.
Five centuries later, a pair of red shoes seal to Rosella Oliva’s feet, making her dance uncontrollably. They draw her toward a boy who knows the dancing fever’s history better than anyone: Emil, whose family was blamed for the fever five hundred years ago. But there’s more to what happened in 1518 than even Emil knows, and discovering the truth may decide whether Rosella survives the red shoes.
The story of Lala is more compelling than Rosella’s storyline, but the work wonderfully together. Lala is Romani, but must hide her identity in 16th century Strasbourg for fear of being blamed for the outbreak of a “dancing plague” afflicting women in her area. The story references both the bigotry against the Romani and previous purges of Jewish residents who were scapegoated for their religion. Lala’s love interest, Alifair, has his own secrets that he and Lala must protect against local prejudice, vigilantes, and the courts during the plague. Rosella’s story is more personal, but leads her to a connection with Emil who provides a direct thread to Lala’s story.
Readers who love historical fiction and those who appreciate magical realism will enjoy exploring the complexity and modern sensibilities set up in this novel. The emphasis on empathy for feeling like “the other” will allow readers to relate to Lala’s choice to deny her heritage for survival and Rosella’s feeling of being singled out for her brown skin and traditions. Readers of all backgrounds will find moments with which to connect and from which to learn.
Dark and Deepest Red is made up of short chapters that bounce between 1518 Strasbourg and the modern day USA. Some readers may find the temporal shifts confusing or even frustrating. However, for motivated readers the story will allow them to immerse themselves in the worlds McLemore has created.