The Ballad of Dinah Caldwell / Kate Brauning / Book Review

The Ballad of Dinah Caldwell


Gabriel Gates killed her family. Now she'll kill him. 

The Caldwell family is just one of many under the thumb of local kingpin Gabriel Gates. Dinah and her brother Warren know their family is in debt. They've known it ever since Gates repossessed their father's mechanic shop years ago, prompting their father to leave them behind for better prospects. Things aren't better now, and the Caldwells in possession of something much more valuable than a shop--something that Gates wants. The Caldwell family has a freshwater well, one of the few water sources left in the county. And Gabriel Gates wants it, no matter the cost. When he decides to force their hand, Dinah and her brother run, leaving their mother behind. But Warren has asthma. He can't run for his life, even as bullets rip through the Ozark woods. He just. Can't. Breathe.

Suddenly, Dinah's alone.

And unlike the rest of the county, Dinah doesn't owe Gabriel Gates anything. 


I wanted to like this. I really did. And I loved the set-up and premise of it. If only romance hadn't consumed the plot at the end of the day... 


  • Fringe Sci-Fi: There's been a real dearth of sci-fi in YA recently, and so anything that hits even the margins of this genre is incredibly exciting to me. This book might be set in the near future (relatively near, anyway), and it doesn't feature any great advances in technology. It's not a dystopian regime. It's not a space adventure. It's rooted in what is and what will continue to be, but it's still got that sci-fi ring to it. It's relevant, connected, and familiar for a contemporary reader and yet is most definitely happening not now. And that's what I'd like to see more of.  
  • Rural Problems: Even though this is a futuristic science fiction story, it doesn't just assume that all rural problems have vanished. It doesn't assume that Internet connection in rural Missouri is a given. It in fact addresses the inclusion of the Internet, as it should. For a rural girl like Dinah caught somewhere between St. Louis and Little Rock, Internet connection would be a problem today and will most likely continue to be a problem for a while to come. I can remember being a fourth grader (ten- or -eleven-years old) and visiting Jefferson City, the capital of Missouri, on a field trip. There was a petition then to bring the Internet to rural locations to help Missouri farmers grow their businesses as well as build better infrastructure generally. That didn't happen at the time, and the discussion got renewed many years later with the advent of COVID, when most people were required to work and learn from home. When large parts of the state don't have reliable access to the Internet (let along home tablets, computers, et cetera for students and teachers to access), it's a major problem--and will continue to be. Kate Brauning suggests that Amazon Internet finally connected rural America, and that's the type of innovative (if unsettlingly close to life) science fiction conjecturing that is needed. It can't just be assumed that this problem will get fixed. Because history shows that it won't. 
  • Timeless Tale: This story may be set in the future, but it is incredibly relevant to today. Anyone experiencing job loss due to recession (due to, I don't know, global pandemic) will feel some of the teeth of this tale. There is a chasm between the rich and the poor. Classism never dies. And while this story feels familiar today, it also harkens back to older stories. The works of John Steinbeck most notably come to mind. As long as capitalism is king, this type of story will never go out of style. 


  • Helpless: This critique doesn't mean to say that our main character Dinah is helpless, only that she never seeks help. Or, more specifically, she never seeks help except where absolutely plot-relevant (that is, only when seeking help will get her in trouble or something equally dramatic). She doesn't seek help when her brother is dying. She doesn't seek help when she gets attacked by a dog. She seeks help when the dog bite gets infected, but seeking help here only puts her in harm's way. So only when seeking help leads her to more trouble does she actually seek it, and that's kind of irritating from a reader's perspective. The plot is too strong. The rationality is gone!
  • Romantic Subplot: This is the real letdown of this book. I know it's almost a requirement for YA, but I really wish romance wasn't so ubiquitous. Especially in a book like this--where revenge is the primary plot--the romance really isn't needed. This book could have done without it entirely, and the romance subplot quickly overwhelmed the plot itself. It should also be of note that this book isn't a YA-safe-zone type of romance. There's sex in this book. Explicit sex. And that's not very YA-friendly at all. 
  • Diverse Cast: I know. This sounds like a good thing, right? And it should be a good thing. I love a diverse cast of characters. But even in some future reality, I'm really left doubting the diversity levels portrayed here. Rural Missouri today is very white. That might change. I hope that changes, but I don't think it will change to the extent that this book proposes. I am just not understanding the demographics change here at all. I get the white families. I get the mixed families. I get the families of Latinx heritage, even. And I get that there could (and hopefully will be) more diversity in these rural areas in the future. But the diversity just kept coming. This book basically covered all aspects of the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ spectrum, and that felt overboard. It didn't feel realistic. 



Those who enjoyed the gritty, rural darkness of Laurie Devore's A Better Bad Idea will enjoy this new end-of-the-line story. Anyone wanting to see the rural side of Ernest Cline's Ready Player One will appreciate this near-future capitalist wasteland. 


Publisher: Page Street Publishing
Date: November 2, 2021
Series: N/A

Note: I was provided with an ARC by the publisher through Edelweiss+ in exchange for an honest review. All opinions here are my own.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Sky's End / Marc J. Gregson / Book Review

Most Ardently: A Pride & Prejudice Remix / Gabe Cole Novoa / Book Review

Best and Worst of 2023