Zeely is the story of the summer that Elizabeth and her younger brother John spend at their uncle’s farm. Elizabeth, determined to have an eventful summer, decides that the way to start is for her and John to take on new names—they become Geeder and Toeboy for the rest of the summer. When Geeder spots Zeely, the tall and beautiful neighbor who, along with her father, keeps hogs on Uncle Ross’ farm, she’s certain that Zeely can’t possibly be a normal boring person. When Geeder finds a photograph of a Watutsi queen in a magazine, she’s certain that Zeely must actually be African royalty.
Zeely is a reflective and thoughtful book with a relatively slow moving plot. It’s kind of bittersweet, since the point seems to be that we must let go of our fantasies and see the world as it is if we want to start to grow up.
I do love the cover—it’s the main reason I chose the book. I was glad for the illustrations every few chapters, too.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Geeder and Toeboy are very realistic siblings. They get on each other’s nerves while still caring about each other. Geeder routinely tries to scare Toeboy, and frequently succeeds. Toeboy knows he wields his power by threatening to tattle on Geeder. They do a lot of things together, and Toeboy misses Geeder when she’s feeling antisocial. When Geeder has to do anything a little scary, she wants Toeboy with her. Toeboy, in the manner of many young brothers with domineering older sisters, tends to go along with whatever his sister says. It’s just easier that way.
Uncle Ross is loving, but he lets the kids have a lot of freedom. Toeboy in particular seems to appreciate that about him—he loves that his uncle will let him quietly hang out and not pressure him to talk if he doesn’t want to.
Zeely and her father don’t seem to get along particularly well—her father seems to have a mean streak that Zeely doesn’t like. She was close to her mother, but her mother died when Zeely was about Geeder’s age.
Lies and Imagination
Geeder makes up stories about everything. The line between reality and fantasy seems a bit cloudy for her. Most of the time, she knows she’s making up stories and Toeboy and Uncle Ross go along with it, knowing she’s making stuff up. But at a bonfire, she tells a bunch of neighborhood children that Zeely is actually an African queen, and she gets upset with a boy who calls her on some of the incorrect details. She seems downright insulted that anyone would dare question these things she made up.
Zeely meets with Geeder to talk to her about the stories she’s made up. She tells Geeder that she used to want to be an African queen, which would explain her exceptional height and give her good reasons for being so different from the other people around her. Her mother told her a long story which had the moral that you can be the main character of a story and still just be a normal person who owes fealty to a king and queen. Zeely wants Geeder to see her and to see herself in a more realistic light and to appreciate what’s really there instead of making things up.
Cruelty to Animals
When Zeely and her dad move try to move their hogs, one of the sows get caught in a fence and is injured. When the kids go into the barn where the injured hog was taken, they realize that it was slaughtered instead of cared for. The kids are pretty horrified, although the scene isn’t very graphic. Later, when finally moving the rest of the hogs, Zeely’s father beats the hogs with sticks. Zeely treats them with kindness, bribing them with food instead of beating them with sticks, and she gets better results.
Fears and Explanations
Geeder likes to terrify Toeboy and finds this very amusing. She tells a story about the Night Traveller who will kill you if you see it or talk to it. He sees a figure in the night, but he’s certain that it’s Zeely. Geeder scares him into doubting what he knows, and in the process makes him really nervous. He talks to Uncle Ross about it who tells stories of slaves and prisoners on the run and how songs about night travellers were used to let others know they were going to run away.
Zeely tells about an old woman near where she grew up. The woman scared most of the kids, but not Zeely. Then one night Zeely was out swimming in the dark. The old woman snuck up on her and startled her. Zeely thought she saw the old woman turn a stone into a turtle and a vine into a snake, and the old woman told Zeely that the girl was the night. Zeely’s mother told her that it was just a trick of the eye and a silly old woman; Zeely admits that she believed her mother’s explanation, but she was never afraid of the dark again because she was the night.
Center of the Universe
Geeder is annoyed when people don’t give her the attention she thinks she deserves. At the bonfire, once the other kids have stopped paying attention to her in favor of dancing, she gets insulted and lonely and she leaves. She often ignores what Toeboy has to say or what he wants, because she can’t begin to understand why her priorities aren’t also his. She bodily drags him into a situation where he feels uncomfortable, even when he clearly tells her he wants to leave. When he finally wiggles free, she doesn’t even check to make sure he gets home ok. She’s too caught up in her fantasy of how her interaction with Zeely will go. When the boy at the bonfire points out that the Watutsi people kept slaves, Geeder basically refuses to believe him and then justifies it since the Watutsi suffered later. The story is from Geeder’s point of view for the most part, but she’s not always someone I wanted to be around.
Geeder’s attention is caught by Zeely because she’s so tall and beautiful. She looks unlike anyone Geeder has ever seen, so she assumes there must be something amazing about her.
When Geeder goes to the bonfire—one of the first times she’s given the local children the time of day—the local girls feel similarly about her. Geeder is from the city and wears multiple strings of glass and stone beads. She’s exotic and must be fascinating and better than they are. But Geeder doesn’t seem to notice this.
It’s just mentioned in passing, but the kids at the bonfire are compared to Indians and some of them have feathers in their hair. There’s a bit of racial identity, such as saying people are “colored like us” but it’s just in passing.
Zeely is one of those books that I don’t regret reading, but I’m not sure my life is better for having read it. In many ways, Geeder is a very realistically drawn character, but I don’t think I gained useful insight from spending the summer with her. It works well as an introduction to literary fiction for the middle grade set, though. It’s not very long and has several nicely done pencil sketches throughout the book. It’s fine for precocious readers ages 8 and up, but may not grab the attention of kids so young.