I Don’t Know How the Story Ends
by J.B. Cheaney
Publication Date: October 6, 2015
Publisher: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
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Our story begins in a dusty little town in California, a bustling place called Hollywood…
Isobel Ransom is anxious. Her father is away treating wounded soldiers in France, leaving Izzy to be the responsible one at home. But it’s hard to be responsible when your little sister is chasing a fast-talking, movie-obsessed boy all over Hollywood! Ranger is directing his very own moving picture… and wants Izzy and Sylvie to be his stars.
Izzy is sure Mother wouldn’t approve, but scouting locations, scrounging film, and “borrowing” a camera turn out to be the perfect distractions from Izzy’s worries. There’s just one problem: their movie has no ending. And it has to be perfect – the kind of ending where the hero saves the day and returns home to his family. Safe and sound.
It just has to.
Never before has a first-person narrative has grabbed my attention and secured my sympathy as quickly as that of Isobel Ransom. In the opening paragraph, she sets the scene, lending a palpable immediacy to her story:
The first I heard of Mother’s big idea was May 20, 1918, at 4:35 p.m. in the entrance hall of our house on Fifth Street. That was where my little sister ended up after I pushed her down the stairs.
With her wry wit and passion for reading (immediately established by a mention of Jane Eyre as her “new most-favorite”), I quickly fell in love with Isobel. And not far behind came an appreciation for her cute, funny, and often bumbling, little sister Sylvie.
Fittingly, I began reading I Don’t Know How the Story Ends on an airplane. While sitting in that small cabin in the sky, I was transported to a by-gone era as the text allowed me to witness the Ransom girls traveling by train with their mother from rainy Seattle to sunny California. You see, Isobel’s life changes when her father joins the World War I effort overseas. And since the dreary autumn Seattle weather does little to make their waiting for his return more tolerable, their mother scoops them up and heads to her native California to visit her sister.
When the family reaches Hollywood, it’s like they’ve entered another dimension. Everything is much different from home. In fact, the still young movie town feels a bit like the wild west — full of mystery, adventure, and even danger. And, thanks to her Aunt’s unpredictable stepson Ranger, Isobel is in for more escapades than she could even have imagined. The two, often with Sylvie in tow, go traipsing about town, and it’s not long before Ranger sweeps Isobel into the magical world of film. As they make their own silent movie, she learns much about film techniques and even more about herself and the world around her.
The seriousness of the World War I backdrop is offset by the energy of early Hollywood. Cheaney’s writing is descriptive enough to bring things to life, while lean enough to keep the tale moving right along. Not only are the characters well-drawn (each is given his or her own back story), they are likable. The novel adeptly explores many sensitive topics: war, family dynamics, pain, loss, grief, and healing. Most importantly, it is told with honesty and nothing is trivialized. And within the story, just as with a good film, there are scenes that will remain etched in your memory long after you’ve reached the end.
Ranger says of film that “stories have to have a balance, you know — a yin and a yang.” With both pathos and humor, I Don’t Know How the Story Ends achieves just the right balance.
— Dawn Teresa
4 of 5 Hearts. A Historical Coming-of-Age Tale of Family, War, Destruction, and Healing.
I Don’t Know How the Story Ends succeeds on several levels. Cheaney’s prose is both descriptive and economical. With likable, well-drawn characters, the novel explores sensitive topics with honesty and realism while providing enough comic relief to keep the tone from becoming too heavy. Middle-Grade historical fiction at its best.
*Disclosure of Material Connection: I would like to thank Sourcebooks and NetGalley for providing me a copy of this title. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
** READ AN EXCERPT **
While we waited to cross the street, Ranger swerved his head and gave me another of his piercing stares.
“Why do you keep looking at me like that?”
I looked but could not tell what I was looking at. Like a gigantic top hat, it stood about twenty feet high, as big around as a house, with a wooden platform circling it like a brim. The cylinder was painted with low rolling hills, trees, and blue sky. A couple of workmen near the back of the platform were fixing a tree in place. They took no notice of us as we walked up to the edge.
“It’s called the panorama—they just finished it a couple months ago,” Ranger explained. “The platform here stays in the same place, but the background moves. Just the opposite of a carousel.”
I couldn’t see the point. “What’s it for?”
“Shooting road scenes and chases. If you put an auto right here”—landing on the platform with a hop—“and a camera there”—pointing to the ground beside us—“you can shoot the car in place while the background rolls along behind it. So it looks like the car’s moving. Sennett used to shoot all his car chases on the real street, but he kept getting in trouble with the natives.”
“It’s delicious,” Sylvie said breathlessly, quite overwhelmed.
I was skeptical. “It’s too big to move.”
“Oh yeah? I’ve made it move by myself—that is, me and a bunch of the neighborhood kids. One night we snuck under the platform and lined up along one of the struts inside and started pushing. It takes a little muscle, but once you get it started… I’d show you now if I could, but I’ve got something important to do.”
He jumped off the platform. “Wait here.” With no more instruction than that, he ran around the curve of the panorama and disappeared.
“Well!” I exclaimed. “How do you like that?”
Sylvie seemed to like it fine. “He’s the wonderfulest boy I’ve ever met.”
We found a pair of orange crates to sit on and were debating that point a few minutes later when the wonderful boy reappeared in the company of an older fellow. The stranger appeared to be about fifteen or so, with a bony face and straight brown hair that might have been cut with a pair of garden shears. He carried a broom over one shoulder.
The two of them stopped about ten feet away from us. Dragging on a cigarette, the older boy looked me up and down with gray eyes as pale as dimes. It was the height of rudeness, which I was just about to mention when Ranger asked him, “Well?”
“Yep,” the other boy said. “Good eyes, good hair. Can she act?”
“Haven’t asked her yet.”
That did it for me. I jumped up and folded my arms and stamped my foot like an overtired child who’s been told she can’t have the last cookie. “What is this about? Tell me right now, or I’m leaving this instant and taking Sylvie with me, no matter where we end up.”
“She can act mad,” the stranger observed.
Ranger turned to me with eyes so animated that they could have jumped out of his head. “This is about art,” he told me, “and life, and truth and beauty too, if we can pull it off.” He paused for effect. And then:
“How would you girls like to be in a picture?”
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