Review: Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel


June 12, 2012 by Heidi

book cover of Dust Girl by Sarah ZettelTitle: Dust Girl [Amazon|GoodReads]
Author: Sarah Zettel [Website|Twitter|Facebook]
Standing: First in the American Fairy trilogy.
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Historical
Published: June 26th, 2012 by Random House Children’s Books
Format: Kindle edition; 304 pages.
Source: ARC from publisher via NetGalley.
Challenge: YA/MG Fantasy Challenge

Callie LeRoux lives in Slow Run, Kansas, helping her mother run their small hotel and trying not to think about the father she’s never met. Lately all of her energy is spent battling the constant storms plaguing the Dust Bowl and their effects on her health. Callie is left alone, when her mother goes missing in a dust storm. Her only hope comes from a mysterious man offering a few clues about her destiny and the path she must take to find her parents in “the golden hills of the west” (California).

Along the way she meets Jack a young hobo boy who is happy to keep her company—there are dangerous, desperate people at every turn. And there’s also an otherworldly threat to Callie. Warring fae factions, attached to the creative communities of American society, are very aware of the role this half-mortal, half-fae teenage girl plays in their fate.

Before I start my review, let’s have a word about the cover.  Initially, I really liked it.  And then I cracked the book and realized that our main character, Callie, is half-black.  To me, this makes the cover of Dust Girl the latest offender of whitewashing, a practice that needs to stop.

My papa was a black man. That made me a black girl. That meant there was a whole world of things I couldn’t do, and places I couldn’t go. I couldn’t sit in the Moonlight Room, or go to the white school, or try on clothes at the emporium, or ride in a Pullman car on the train, if we ever went anywhere. If anyone knew about Papa, and I got caught doing any of those things, I could end up in jail. Or dead.

Is it the worst offender out there?  No.  Callie is described as light skinned, with grey eyes, and black hair.  Her skin is light enough that she has been passing, BUT this is only because she always wears a hat and gloves out of doors.  Throughout the story, as she spends time in the sun, it becomes clear through the narrative and people’s reactions that she IS NOT PASSING.  Also, she describes the difficulty her mother has had taming her hair to stay flat, which said to me that she had not only black hair, but that of an African American texture.  The girl on the cover is light skinned with grey eyes and brown hair.  To me, she does not look as if she could be half black.  I would really have liked to have seen a multi-race model on the cover, and feel this could have been easily accomplished.  I find whitewashing to be abhorrent, especially when those authors who write these books are working to break down barriers and create more multicultural books.  Please let the covers reflect this—white people will still read them!!

Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel grabbed me after a weekend of picking up and setting down book after book that just wouldn’t do.  Zettel has created a story that is eerie, fresh, grimy, and full of meaning, and I ate it up.  Callie is faced with the harsh reality that her mother is crazy, and because of this, Callie will die.  She will die because they live in Kansas, at the heart of the dust bowl, and Callie’s lungs are slowly filling up with dust, literally drowning her in grime.  She is constantly coughing and struggling to breathe in a town that has been abandoned by nearly all of its inhabitants.  Her mother, however, refuses to leave.  She is holding on to a promise made by Callie’s father that he would return, and has in turn let go of reality.  When in a desperate move Callie’s mother implores her to play the piano, Callie rips her reality in twain.

Callie’s mother disappears in the biggest dust storm Kansas has ever seen, and in her stead, Callie saves a Native American man, Baja.  Grateful, he grants her three wishes.  All at once, Callie can breathe, and she knows where to find her parents, but it will not be an easy road.  Callie realizes she is half fey, and not entirely of this world.  Her father defied his people and a marriage arrangement to be with her mother, and Callie is left the product of opposing factions.  She must decide which road to take, and will face dangers no matter where she turns.  Together with Jack, a young man who dreams of becoming a writer, she sets off to create a story worth telling.

To me, Dust Girl was a wonderful story that deftly combined American folklore, Native American, and Celtic mythology.  I was honestly astounded by how seamlessly these factors were woven together with a tale that could be seen as a very honest reflection of our nation’s history of racial tension.  Callie is a girl of many halves.  She is half mortal, half fey, but also half black and half white.  She doesn’t truly fit in anywhere, particularly not in the 1930s Midwest.  She has always had to deal with that reality, and has never been close to anyone other than her mother, knowing that if they were to find out her truths she would be rejected or criminalized.  For this reason, Jack, a potential friend and the first to know the real Callie even as she discovers herself, is the perfect companion:

“Jack, are you really a Jew?”
”Yeah.  So?”
”Nothing,” I said.  “But if you’re a Jacob Hollander, shouldn’t we be callin’ you Jake?”
”Sometimes it’s not so good for people to find out what you really are.”  Jack crumpled the sandwich wrappers together and stuffed them into one of the stacks.  “Like, for instance, are you really a Negro?” he asked without looking at me.  I’d known that was coming.  But my answer didn’t have such a straight road to travel.
”I think my papa had brown skin, but he was a fairy too, so I don’t rightly know what I am.”
Jack was quiet for a minute.  “Well, from what I seen so far, being a Callie LeRoux is plenty good enough.  Maybe you should just stick to that.”

Callie’s relationship to Jack isn’t an instant attraction, and honestly isn’t really overly romantic at all, and I loved it.  They are partners of convenience.  Callie needs to get to California, and Jack pledges to help her for a price.  He wants to be a writer, and views this strange half-fey girl as an opportunity to create a story equal to The Wizard of Oz.  The two certainly become more to each other as the story goes on, and I am certain romance will bloom, but their affections for one another are always a subtle background to a story that has more pressing concerns.

Those pressing concerns, as it were, have to do with the fact that both the Seelie and Unseelie courts are after Callie, and will seek to gain control of her through trickery, coercion, or brute force.  There is an eerie creepiness throughout the events of Dust Girl, and I felt that Sarah Zettel had the power of fear well in hand.  This story was full of action and incredibly fast paced without being muddled or overdone.  I loved that the traditional white and beautiful = good and black = bad notions were thrown completely off in Dust Girl.  The beautiful white and shining fey of the Seelie court were terrifying, whereas the black and merry fey of the Unseelie court were much more welcoming.  That doesn’t mean the Unseelie are ‘good’ and the Seelie are ‘bad’, they’re both quite terrible, but I was happy to see this untraditional dichotomy.

Dust Girl is an enchanting and terrifying start to a new trilogy, and I cannot wait to see where the story leads.  The lore, history, and magic involved is unique and rich, and the characters read to me as very real.  I didn’t always love Callie, in fact, she is at times incredibly selfish, short sighted, and naive, but she is also strong, resourceful, and dedicated.  The entire cast was well developed, and I am personally loving Jack, even more so than our lead.

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  Yes!  I’m really looking forward to reading where Callie and Jack go next.  This wasn’t just another fey romance for me, it’s an adventure and journey story with important themes of friendship, family, and race.

Recommended for: Historical fantasy fans, those who love The Wizard of Oz, or Out of the Dust.  Anyone who enjoys stories of the fey, but wants something more than just romance and petty drama.

Real life repercussions of reading this book:
Had a total Flynn Rider moment:

Flynn Rider from Tangled

I love me a cast iron fry pan, so many uses!

Get a second opinion:
Good Books and Good Wine
Ageless Pages
A Cupcake and a Latte


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  1. flannabanana says:

    I honestly JUST read April’s review over at Good Books and Good Wine when I saw you tweet this review. I had decided to put this one off for a while but the way you write about it makes me feel like it might have a similar reading feel as The Native Star. Have you read that one? So many things intertwine together in that one–magic, Native American folklore, the wild west, etc. If you haven’t, just from reading this review I think you’d really dig it. I’ll keep this one in mind.

    • Heidi says:

      I have NOT read The Native Star. Adding it to my list! I didn’t absolutely love Dust Girl, but I did really enjoy it. It was the right read for me at the right time, and I dug it.

      I did wish she’d gone even more into the Native American mythos, but I loved that it was there.

      Also my new biggest fear as an asthmatic may be dust pneumonia. o.O

  2. This sounds really interesting and different, which is something I’ve been craving lately. It’s great to see fantasy novels published that don’t just rehash everything that’s already been done. I hope Flannery reads this! Also, I think you would like The Native Star Heidi!

    • Heidi says:

      I added The Native Star to my list! It sounded really intriguing, and to have a lot of the aspects that I most enjoyed about this one. And YES, I get really sick of certain things in fantasy. Like CHOSEN ONE gets a bit old, as do fairies for that matter, but this was a bit different for me.

  3. I read the GBAGW review of this yesterday which was the first time I’d heard anyone mention the whitewashing which is such an irritating and kinda dark side of modern publishing. That girl is definitely not black or half black. However, the author most probably had no say in this so I think it is best just to detach the book’s contents from its cover. It does sound really good and I like mythology and lore so I shall keep an eye out!

    P-S- I started my librarian job on Monday and am really likin it so far! Lots of ‘reminding’ grumpy teenagers to get some work out though 😛 x

    • Heidi says:

      Yay! I’m so glad that you’re liking your librarian job! Congrats, seriously. =)

      And yes, authors often have little say in their covers, that’s why I separated out my admonishing about whitewashing from my review. I blame the publishers for that rather than the author, when, as I said, the author doing a great thing by writing about diverse characters.

  4. […] Bunbury In The Stacks – “Zettel has created a story that is eerie, fresh, grimy, and full of meaning, and I ate it up” […]

  5. I am so glad you pointed out the whitewashing as well. I think as bloggers one of the best things we can do is raise our voices against it.

    That said, you definitely enjoyed Dust Girl more than I did, which is awesome. I do have to say that I like Callie and Jake together. And think they are a great match.

    Besides that, I don’t really have much more to say, you were super thorough in your review.

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, April. =)

      And I agree on the topic of whitewashing, publishers need to hear that it’s NOT OKAY so that they can stop doing it. I like Callie and Jack together as well, though I’ll admit I was at times thinking he was too good for her (she really irked me at points).

  6. […] by Karen Thompson Walker This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers Magic Dreams by Ilona Andrews Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel Let’s Talk About Sync, Baby BEA Wrap-Up With Bated Breath: BEA Edition Series Review: Hex […]

  7. […] created a story that is eerie, fresh, grimy, and full of meaning, and I ate it up.” — Bunbury in the Stacks […]

  8. […] friends.  When I finished reading other American historical fantasy novels earlier this year like Dust Girl and Theiftaker and expressed further interest in this niche of Historical Fantasy, Catie, […]

  9. molly says:

    I hate the whitewashing of covers! I just finished The Immortal Rules, which has an Asian protagonist but an obviously white girl on the cover.

    I’m into historical fantasy, but even more excited about this one because it’s set in Kansas.

    • Heidi says:

      I always get really excited about books that have somewhat unique settings, and Kansas (and heck, the whole corn belt) is totally a neglected area! I enjoyed this start to the series, it’s definitely worth checking out if you like historical fantasy. Hopefully the next cover will be better!

  10. […] Fairy series (book 2, Golden Girl, releases this month).  The paperback of book 1, Dust Girl, uses a new cover model who is definitely of a proper ethnicity for the main character who is […]

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While the source for each book I review is posted within its review, please assume unless otherwise stated that books reviewed on Bunbury in the Stacks were received free from the author or publisher in exchange for an honest review.