Sarah Zettel has finally done what even Rick Riordan failed to do. She has taken Old World European tropes like fairy creatures and grafted them seamlessly into the miasma that is American folklore. Rich in history, music, and references to the many blended cultures that make up this country, Dust Girl is truly an American fairy tale — more so than even the Wizard of Oz (which shows up in allusion).
Calliope LeRoux lives in a world that is dying as the Dust Bowl winds howl over the Kansas prairie. She and her mother are poor, though they still have food and shelter. But there is no future unless they leave for greener lands.
Callie has no father. Her mother put it about that Callie is the daughter of an Irish traveling salesman by the name of McGinty, but she tells Callie what the world can plainly see in Callie's features. Callie is the daughter of a Black man, Daniel LeRoux, a man that Callie's mother waits for even as their world crumbles to dust, even as it becomes apparent to everyone else that Daniel is never coming back despite his promises.
When an epic dust storm blows in — likely called into being by Callie, herself — Callie loses her mother at the same time that she discovers that her father is probably not a man at all. A mysterious stranger, an Indian, blows in on the dust and she feeds the stranger — because that's what you do. He is gifted with long sight. He tells her a tale of a prince of the fairy court who falls in love with a woman he can't have, betrothed as he is. So he fore-swears his blood and betrothal and goes to seek out his love, but he is captured and bound by the family of his betrothed — the Shining Ones. And his love, his woman, Callie's mother, she's taken captive as well. Both are held prisoner in the West; both will probably die if they are not rescued.
With the help of a Jewish drifter named Jack, Callie sets out to save her parents. She tentatively begins to embrace her powers, the ability to hear and grant hidden desires. A heavy burden in a time of want. Callie and Jack meet members of Callie's family, the Dark Court, and are persuaded to go seek the help of the fairy court in Kansas City. Pursued by the Shining Ones and a zombie railroad bull, they barely make it through alive. And Callie is betrayed by Jack who does not trust Callie's family any more than their pursuers.
This is a story of music and trains, racial tension and hunger, of endless dust-choked miles and cloudless skies, of all the majestic tapestry of Americans when we band together and all the pain and hate that keep us divided. All told in the strong voice of a girl who is a blend of all that and a bit more. Callie feels so real. You can feel her thirst, her fear, and the shame that people lay on her shoulders because her skin is a shade too dark. Even as she stretches her fairy wings, her words, her voice show you how grounded she is in her time, in her culture, and in this place.
Yes, this is truly an American fairy tale!