DUST GIRL impressively combines historical and fantasy elements. It's set in Kansas during the Dust Bowl, five years into the drought that's killed crops and forced established families to abandon their homes and seek better fortune elsewhere. Slow Run, where our heroine Callie was born and raised, has slowly turned from an agricultural center into a ghost town.
That's not all, of course. Callie's mother is a little crazy. Callie herself is dying of dust pneumonia, her lungs filling up with dirt that's slowly suffocating her. And she's a mixed-race child, with a white mother and a black father, during Segregation.
If you read the book blurb, you know this is a fairy story. That Callie's absent father is a fairy prince, making Callie a fairy princess. You might think that the fantasy elements would offer an escape from the grim, dry reality of the Kansas Dust Bowl. This is a middle-grade paranormal, after all - surely there will be iridescent wings and silk gowns and marble fountains somewhere along the line? But, no, Sarah Zettel defies expectations.
There's magic aplenty in DUST GIRL, but all of it is themed. Zettel takes up fairy lore that we all know (the Seelie/Unseelie court, the deadly potency of iron, etc.) and wraps it up with issues like race relations and poverty. For example: the "Unseelie" fairies are dark-skinned, making Callie appear to be mixed race, and one of the court's primary sources of magic is jazz music. DUST GIRL is, bizarrely, a fairy story that refuses to indulge even the smallest escapist tendency. All of the fantastical elements lead the reader deeper into the history.
My biggest problem with the book was Callie. I had no idea how old she was. The book is narrated from her point of view and sometimes her vocabulary would be very sophisticated but at others very simple. Sometimes her understanding of the world felt childlike, at other times more adult. She could have been anywhere from eight to fifteen, and I was never sure. I couldn't get a really solid bead on her personality, either. Sometimes she was meek and obedient. Sometimes she had gumption. I was never sure what sparked one side of her character to come out over the other and she ended up just plain not making any sense to me.
I think a lot of people are going to love this book. The worldbuilding is a feat in itself. I do recommend it to anyone who's thrilled at the prospect of a non-escapist book about a fairy princess. Personally, however...because the heroine never grabbed my heart, the book itself didn't either. I was impressed, but I didn't fall in love.