Off the Shelf: A Review of The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters

On the day that the news broke about the shooting in Orlando, I thought about the state of the world that we live in, and my heart wanted to break. I picked up The Steep and Thorny Way and delved into the last few chapters I had remaining. Usually, reading serves as an escape for me, a way to leave the horrors and tragedies of this world behind me just for awhile and run away to someplace new. But I didn’t pick up The Steep and Thorny Way to take me someplace new. It’s not that kind of book. This book is a reminder that atrocities such as racism and homophobia are not just an embarrassing part of our past that can be swept under the rug of history. The cruelty that stems from these ideas still exists, and our society must constantly combat them with beliefs rooted in equality and love. We’re making progress, but we still have so much further to go.

As usual, Cat Winters delivers a narrative that not only focuses on social injustices, but also transports the reader back in time to experience these issues through the eyes of the characters. The Steep and Thorny Way gives us Hanalee Denney, a biracial girl in Prohibition-era Oregon, who is trying to seek justice for her murdered father, Hank Denney, whose ghost now haunts the street where he was killed. Joe Adder, a teen boy convicted of accidentally killing Hank, also knows what it’s like to be “different” in their town of Elston. Joe claims that it wasn’t him that killed Hanalee’s father, and that the true criminal is now married to Hanalee’s mother. “Uncle Clyde” has plenty of secrets to hide, and when the story of Hank Denney’s death starts to unravel, Hanalee and Joe have to protect themselves from the prejudices propagated in their small town by the Ku Klux Klan.

Readers of Shakespeare’s Hamlet will be delighted to draw together all of the parallels in this retelling, but they will also find that this story has a unique twist and will keep you guessing until the very end. Certainly, writing about the kinds of prejudices faced by the characters in this book had to be tricky, but their story is one that needs told, especially in this day and age when hate is still prevalent. Winters does a masterful job and bestows upon her readers the ingredients for overcoming hate: bravery, hope, and love.


“Hate doesn’t even begin to describe what’s happening. (…) People in this state are controlling who can and can’t breed, Hanalee. They’re eradicating those of us who aren’t white, Protestant, American-born, or sexually normal in their eyes. They’re ‘purifying’ Oregon.”

Summary (via Goodreads)

Scene: Oregon, 1923.

Dramatis personae:

Hanalee Denney, daughter of a white woman and an African American man

Hank Denney, her father—a ghost

Greta Koning, Hanalee’s mother

Clyde Konig, doctor who treated Hank Denney the night he died, now Hanalee’s stepfather

Joe Adder, teenage boy convicted of accidentally killing Hank Denney

Members of the Ku Klux Klan

Townspeople of Elston, Oregon

Question: Was Hank Denney’s death an accident…or was it murder most foul?

A thrilling reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Steep and Thorny Way tells the story of a murder most foul and the mighty power of love and acceptance in a state gone terribly rotten.

1920s Oregon is not a welcoming place for Hanalee Denney, the daughter of a white woman and an African-American man. She has almost no rights by law, and the Ku Klux Klan breeds fear and hatred in even Hanalee’s oldest friendships. Plus, her father, Hank Denney, died a year ago, hit by a drunk-driving teenager. Now her father’s killer is out of jail and back in town, and he claims that Hanalee’s father wasn’t killed by the accident at all but, instead, was poisoned by the doctor who looked after him—who happens to be Hanalee’s new stepfather.

The only way for Hanalee to get the answers she needs is to ask Hank himself, a “haint” wandering the roads at night.

Things I Liked:

I did something with this book that I’ve never done before. Five pages into reading it, I sat the book down, picked up my phone, and texted all of my reader friends that THIS was a book that they needed to get their hands on. Seriously – five pages. That’s all it took, and I was hooked.

Everything about this book feels authentic, from the setting and the characters right down to the language. Cat Winters does make mention in her author’s note that she had to tread a delicate line when it came to authentic yet offensive terms and labels, but that she really wanted to reflect how people from the 1920’s would have actually described Hanalee and Joe. “There are some words, however, whose power to hurt and belittle goes beyond the need for historical accuracy,” she says, and those words are not included in The Steep and Thorny Way. I don’t think anyone should shy away from this book due to the offensive terms because if you or your child are uncomfortable with the terms used, then likely it’s because you don’t agree with the terminology and can therefore converse about why terms like that are considered offensive and shouldn’t be used.

Things I Didn’t Like:

You’re not going to find me complaining about anything here. This book is too important to nitpick at little details.

Overall Rating:

It’s a hard concept to comprehend – a person wanting to harm someone based simply on his/her skin color, religious beliefs, sexual preferences, etc. – if you’ve never been the victim of it yourself. The world can be a brutal, horrific, violent place for those that are deemed “different” from the norm. Hanalee provides the reader with a realistic outlook on the cruelty she and so many like her have experienced. I’m sure many of us would like to believe that this time period is vastly different from our own, but we still see so many crimes against humanity committed by those filled with evil and hate in their hearts. The Steep and Thorny Way will push readers out of their comfort zones, awaken a thirst for justice, and inspire the fight against discrimination. Prepare yourself to feel ENRAGED while reading. Take note of WHY you feel that way. Then, always remember Laurence’s words to Hanalee – “Don’t ever let them make you feel small.”

Cat Winters is masterful at her craft, blending history, mystery, and a dash of supernatural into every story. The Steep and Thorny Way will replay in your head long after you’ve closed the covers, and with a message as important as this one, that’s a good thing. This book receives a perfect score, 5/5, from me for being a beacon of hope in a really dark time. I hope I live to see a world that one day puts hate behind us and embraces equality for all.

Also, I look forward to shaking her hand and thanking Cat Winters for this book at this year’s Ohio River Festival of Books, the book festival presented by the Cabell County Public Library. Yet another reason why I love my job is getting to be involved in this fantastic event that highlights both national and local authors, and I’ve been ecstatic ever since I found out that I will get to meet the woman who has had such a profound impact on my love of both reading and writing young adult fiction.

“Do you hope to get married someday?” he asked.

“As long as I don’t fall in love with a man the wrong color.”

He exhaled a steady stream of air through his nostrils. “I think love and wrong are two deeply unrelated words that should never be thrown into the same sentence together. Like dessert and broccoli.”


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Check out my Waiting on Wednesday post for The Steep and Thorny Way prior to publication