Showing posts with label children's fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label children's fiction. Show all posts

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Some False and Broken Notes



The 1929 Newbery Medal Award Winner, The Trumpeter of Krakow, by Eric P. Kelly, which (as you would expect from the title) is set in Kraków, is based upon a centuries-old Kraków tradition, and an accompanying legend. In Kraków, beginning at the stroke of each hour, a trumpeter plays a 5-note tune called the Hejnal (you can hear it here) out of each of the four windows of the tallest tower in St-Mary's Church tower. It's also traditional to end the Hejnal on a broken note. Kelly claims in the prologue to his novel that this tradition was created after a 1241 invasion of Kraków, during which the trumpeter faithfully stayed at his post to play the Hejnal but was shot through by an arrow before he could finish. It's a colourful story, but there isn't any real evidence that it's true. Kelly's version of this legend was the first to be written down. According to Wikipedia, there is an 1861 account of invading Tatars and a sentry who sounded the alarm, but this account does not mention the sentry's death. One trumpeter is known to have died while on duty and the broken note tradition may have originally been a tribute to him, but that was in 1901 and the trumpeter died of natural causes. It's unclear whether Kelly was misinformed (at the time of writing The Trumpeter of Krakow he did not yet speak Polish well), whether he combined or confused the two stories, or whether he was simply the first to record an actual legend.

All this aside, The Trumpeter of Krakow, set in 1461, is the story of a young trumpeter, Joseph Charnetski, who used the Hejnal to sound another alarm. It isn't a bad story. It has a decent plot, seems to be reasonably well-researched as to its period detail, and is a rather entertaining adventure story about a family sworn to protect the (fictional) Great Tarnov Crystal, and the villain and the alchemist who are determined to get their hands on it. It also has a certain frustrating woodenness to its characters and dialogue that keep it from being an excellent book. The characters are sketched in a few simplistic lines, especially in the case of the female characters. Joseph's father is honourable and brave, his mother is pious and gentle (and isn't even given a name of her own), and Joseph is a less-self-assured version of his father. Elzbietka, a young friend of Joseph, is kind and in need of a mother. Joseph's mother obliging steps up for this role and the two of them rush improbably into each others' arms the minute they meet. I will give Kelly some credit for having given Elzbietka a part to play in the story's action and for also having her question why, if learning Latin (as Joseph does) is such an excellent thing, it is not for women as well as men.

Kelly also used his characters' looks to define their personalities in a way that was common in fiction until mid-twentieth century or so -- one often reads about a "noble" or "refined" features in old novels. The Charnetskis are described as having honest or pleasant faces, and this is how Kelly describes Peter, the book's villain:

It was the face, however, that betrayed the soul beneath. It was a dark, oval, wicked face--the eyes were greenish and narrow and the eyebrow line above them ran straight across the bridge of the nose, giving the effect of a monkey rather than a man. One cheek was marked with a buttonlike scar, the scar of the button plague that is so common in the lands east of the Volga, or even the Dnieper, and marks the bearer as a Tartar or a Cossack or a Mongal. The ears were low set and ugly. The mouth looked like a slit that the boys make in the pumpkins they carry on the eve of the Allhallows. Above the mouth was a cropped mustache which hung down at the ends and straggled into a scanty beard.

Subtle, huh? Using one's character's appearance as barometer to their level of refinement or morality is a literary trope that may have had its origin in the pseudoscience of phrenology, and that, thankfully, has fallen out of fashion now. It's a nonsensical notion, and there's surely enough lookism in the world without our having to go to the extent of considering anyone's looks indicative of goodness or evilness.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Riding Along with CJ


The 2016 Newbery Medal Winner, Last Stop on Market Street, written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson, is an atypical pick for the Newbery committee, which usually goes with a full-length novel rather than a storybook intended for very young readers. (This in turn might just mean that my corresponding review is also shorter than usual.) However, the Newbery committee wasn't alone in recognizing the book's merit, as Last Stop on Market Street was also a 2016 Caldecott Honor Book, a 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book, a New York Times Book Review Notable Children's Book of 2015, and a Wall Street Journal Best Children's Book of 2015. If it had any more award stickers on its cover one wouldn't be able to see the illustration.

Last Stop on Market Street is a simple tale of a little boy named CJ who boards the bus with his nana on a Sunday afternoon to go downtown and work a shift at the local soup kitchen, and more generally, is a book about living in the moment and connecting with others as opposed to comparing oneself to others and envying them. CJ looks enviously at his friends who drive away from church in a car and who don't have to go to the soup kitchen on Sunday afternoons, and his grandmother, who is awesome, gently redirects him towards finding value in his own Sunday afternoon experience. The text is very evocative and sensory as CJ sees and feels and hears everything about him: the rain, the diversity of the other passengers, the music made by one of the passengers on the bus. The illustrations are vivid and appealing with some fun details for children to discover on their own while they are being read to. I especially loved that CJ's nana, in her white bob, black dress, and green bead necklace and earrings, is a stylish-looking individual rather than a more clichéd frumpy grandmotherly type.

I must agree with those who chose to honour and award this book that it's a book worthy of praise, as it is delightful in both its appearance and content, so much so that I might just have to buy my three-year-old grandnephew a copy for Christmas.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The Neverending Pigeon Story


A Good Reads review written by Good Reads member Phil Jern says of Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon, by Dhan Gopal Mukerji, the Newbery Medal winner for 1928, "This book is a milestone in anyone's life as a reader. Before it, you are one of a multitude. After it, you are one of a select few who have heard about it, sought it out, picked it up, and persisted with it well past the point of enjoyment." This seems harsh. Unfortunately, I cannot disagree with a word of it.

Gay-Neck, like 1927's Newbery Medal winner Smoky the Cowhorse, is the story of a life of an animal told by a writer who clearly has a great love of and significant experience with the species, and again as in the case of Smoky the Cowhorse, the resulting book manages to be very dull anyway. Gay-Neck is at least mercifully free from the ugly racism and folksy affectations of Smoky the Cowhorse, though the titular name of its main character hasn't dated as well. The story's narrator is a young boy who raised Gay-Neck in pre-World War I Calcutta (now Kolkata). There are a few sections of the book in which Gay-Neck speaks for himself, but Gay-Neck's narrative "voice" reads as identical to that of the main narrator, which is not only confusing but a missed opportunity for adding to the literary quality and reader's enjoyment of the book. Anthropomorphized animal or object "voices" can be a lot of fun when properly done. (I have fond memories of an email correspondence that occurred between the problem mice in my house and a friend of mine years ago before I adopted my cat. The first email had the subject line "send cheees now" and in it the mice claimed to have "trapped the murderus human in her own trap ha ha ha send cheees now we like bree".)

Gay-Neck's story is based upon Mukerkji's own boyhood experiences, as he also grew up in India and kept pigeons. We learn next to nothing about the boy -- not even his name! -- or the Calcutta of the time, which seems a waste. There are tantalizing glimpses of India and its culture in the book's descriptions of Mount Everest and the jungle and some fragments of Buddhist thought, but in general the story's narrator is too busy telling us about the care and feeding of pigeons and advising us on how often to clean pigeon's nests to develop much of a setting for his story, much less any of the other qualities that make for good fiction. There's no character development and not much of a narrative arc, and the prose is flatly observational.

Then Gay-Neck serves as a messenger pigeon in World War I, and whatever the story gains in narrative interest during the war chapters it loses in authenticity, as Mukerji never trained pigeons for war service much less witnessed their use for such a purpose. He claims that the nictitating membrane or "third eye" that pigeons protected Gay-Neck from the effects of mustard gas. Pigeons did prove resistant to all but the most poisonous gases, but they were fitted with masks and provided with pigeon lofts especially designed to protect messenger pigeons from poisonous gas, and there's no mention of this in the battlefront scenes in Gay-Neck. I'm also skeptical that the narrator, who spends the book repeatedly losing and rediscovering his precious pigeon, not only gets Gay-Neck back after the war but also helps him make what must be the world's fastest-ever recovery from PTSD with some Buddhist monk magic, but at that point I was too relieved to have reached the end of the book to care very much.

After making most of my way through the Newbery Medal winners of the 1920s, I sometimes wonder if the librarians who were the Newbery committee members of the period actually secretly hated children.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Being Hitty


Years ago when the movie The Red Violin came out, I read a review of it in which the reviewer complained that an inanimate object doesn't inspire much interest or emotional investment. When, much later, I saw the movie, I disagreed. Following the titular red violin through four century chain of custody was very interesting and involving. But then I'm the sort of person who not only likes old things and is careful to preserve them but also sometimes wonders what their history has been and where they might end up. I'm the happy owner of a number of pieces of furniture that I found on someone's curb, brought home, and repaired and repainted/reupholstered/refinished. Where have these pieces been and what would their former owners say if they could see them now? ("Kick themselves for throwing them out," my friends assure me.) What would my great-grandmother have said if she could have foreseen when she bought her set of kitchen chairs circa 1900 that they would be sitting in her single, childless, and yoga-panted great-granddaughter's dining room in 2016? My guess is that Great Grandma would have found other aspects of my life circumstances more startling (starting with the yoga pants), but those chairs are as good a common thread as any if one were to craft a jointed narrative about the two of us.

This is all to say that though the Newbery winner for 1930, Rachel Field's Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, which is the story of a little wooden doll's first century of existence, has a number of online reader reviews which criticize it for being boring, I liked it. Hitty, a little doll carved from mountain ash in early nineteenth-century Maine, relates her adventures to us from her home in an antique shop in the late twenties. She had much more interesting experiences than my dining room chairs have probably had, in no small part because she's portable and lends herself much more easily to anthropomorphism. Hitty is, as one might expect of a doll of her early Victorian origin and many years of fraught existence, a prim and pragmatic character, though she isn't without her share of vanity as well as a liking for finery. Her tale begins with her travels in the care of the little daughter of a sea captain. After a shipwreck, she experiences life as "god to a tribe of savages" on an unnamed south sea island, and after being lost in India, as the tool of a an Indian snake charmer. Then she passes through the lives of missionaries, Philadelphia Quakers, a fashionable, wealthy New York family, and a poor, overworked, and tenement-dwelling New York family. She attends a Patti concert, has her daguerreotype taken, meets John Greenleaf Whittier and becomes the subject of one of his poems, and later meets Charles Dickens, though Dickens, less inspired by the sight of her plain, serene face, merely picks Hitty up off the floor where she has fallen and hands her back to her young custodian. Hitty becomes a prop for an artist who painted children's portraits, is dressed in an exquisite lace bridal gown and displayed in an Exposition, lives with a sharecropping family, and finally suffers the indignity of being traded for a painted soap dish and made into a pincushion before she ultimately achieves the status of an antique and passes into the hands of doll collectors and antique dealers. There are also times when the Hitty spends an undefined number of years abandoned in, respectively, an attic, a hayloft, and a dead letter office. I'm inclined to think the author used these intervals to keep the book a publishable length.

Besides The Red Violin, this book reminded me of another episodic movie called Being Human, in which Robin Williams plays a recurring character named Hector who appears in a variety of historical scenarios ranging from Roman times to the present day, and in each vignette he strives to survive, to protect and care for those he loves -- and to find shoes that fit. This book has a similar style and themes, and it isn't at all a bad way for a child to learn about the history of American childhood. The book presents us with such a wide variety of family dynamics, material circumstances, and child training philosophies, all playing out over a long time period, and a certain universality of childhood experience ties it all together. Every little girl who called Hitty hers chafes against the parental restrictions and material circumstances of her life, something all children can relate to. I even found something a little subversive in the fact that Hitty has some of her most interesting adventures because her current young mistress her did something she wasn't supposed to do. Don't those stolen moments of freedom often become some of the most important and enjoyable of an adult's childhood memories?

As is to be expected from a book over eighty years old, there are aspects of the book that have not dated well. I can only hope that Hitty learns less offensive ways of describing people who were other than American and white in her second century (the sharecropping family's dialogue was especially horrendous, all "gwines" and "dats"), and her classist attitude towards the poorer families she lives in is also quite problematic. Hitty spends considerably more verbiage detailing her life among the wealthy than the poor, and seems to regard life among the white and the at least comfortably well off as being her proper place in life and the only sphere in which she can be contented, while life among other kinds of people is merely a mishap to be passed over as quickly as possible. The little girls who own her are also described and assessed in terms of typically Victorian feminine virtues: their gentleness and good temper (or otherwise), and their sewing ability and industry. But then, again, this book only covers Hitty's first century. Perhaps someone will write a sequel covering Hitty's next one hundred years in which she belongs to a diverse selection of children -- boys and girls -- who are more fully realized, and in which Hitty wears stylish flapper outfits, the New Look, poodle skirts, groovy paisleys, dresses for success, grunge, etc.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Smoky the Cowhorse and Other Fictions



The inside jacket text of my library copy of the Newbery medalist for 1927, Will James's Smoky the Cowhorse, says that "A cowboy, son of a cowman, Will James was born in a covered wagon in Montana." Well, no, he wasn't. As a matter of fact, James was born Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault, in 1892 in Saint-Nazaire-d'Acton, Quebec, Canada. I do not know precisely where he was born, but covered wagons would have been extremely uncommon in Quebec even in 1892, so it seems safe to assume that this detail too was fictionalized. Dufault learned wrangling and other cowboy skills when he relocated to Saskatchewan as a young man, so it also seems likely his father wasn't a cowman, which like covered wagons would have been almost unknown in nineteenth century Quebec where cattle herds were too small to require specialized staff. Dufault changed his name to William Roderick James when he fled Saskatchewan for the States after being accused of cattle theft. After several years of drifting and working at this and that, he was arrested for cattle theft in Nevada and served 15 months in prison. Upon his release he spent some time working as a movie stuntman and then served a year in the U.S. army during World War I. When the war ended, he worked as a wrangler, and sold his first book, after which he made his living from writing and probably also with the various ranches he bought with the proceeds of his books, until his death from alcoholism in 1942.

The dust jacket quotes James as saying, "I write for everybody like I would talk to friends who are interested in what I have to say," and Smoky the Cowhorse is written in what is purportedly a written version of a cowboy's tall tale, but even before I finished the book and did the internet research that told me James was not who he claimed to be, I didn't buy it. Those who genuinely speak an authentic regional or cultural English dialect always write in standard English prose to the best of their abilities when it comes to putting words on paper, unless they are reproducing a dialect in a dialogue between characters, and even then it's best to use a light touch in terms of misspellings and grammatical errors so as not to make the text too unreadable or to make the character sound too caricatured or ignorant. To write an entire book in a cowboy's supposed semi-literate folksy vernacular is an irritating affectation, especially when said cowboy uses words like "eddication" or "crethure" but has no apparent difficulty with the correct spellings of "commotion", "functioning", and "superintendent". My subsequent discovery that James was actually French-Canadian did nothing to decrease my annoyance.

Like the 1926 Newbery medalist Shen of the Sea, Smoky the Cowhorse is another example of a regrettable faux exoticism that seems to have deceived and dazzled early Newbery selection committees again and again. To be fair, they weren't the only ones taken in by James's folksy act. In 1930, Will James wrote a fictionalized autobiography, Lone Cowboy, which became a bestselling Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and even my library copy of Smoky the Cowhorse which, as I've said, features James's fictional biographical information on its dust jacket, appears to have been published circa 1980, which means that his personae may have remained intact as late as that. It's astounding to think how much our contemporary easy access to information has changed such things.

There are occasional modern day cases of authors slipping fictionalized memoirs by their publishers, such as Norma Khouri's Forbidden Love, or James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, but these days such fabricators are rare and are generally caught out within a year or two of publication. Fabricated biographical details used to be much more common. It used to be standard practice for movie studios to demand that their contracted actors and actresses change their names, lie about their ages, and even pass their illegitimate children off as much younger siblings if not deny their existence completely, but now it's so easy for anyone with internet access to check IMDB that no one bothers. There is still quite a lot of lying among politicians, but it's usually promptly and gleefully called out by the likes of Jon Stewart or John Oliver. Unfortunately too many citizens continue to embrace the lies circulated by those too shameless, too dysfunctional, and too greedy and power-mad to ever admit that they've been lying no matter how high the evidence is stacked against them, but these days the truth is usually out there for anyone who cares to seek it, and human beings have long hated being lied to and have little respect for liars once they know the truth. I didn't hear too many people defending James Frey when he appeared on Oprah after his memoir's debunking and Oprah Winfrey all but turned him over her knee. A book written in a fake dialect would never be published by a traditional publisher now, much less selected for a major literary award.

That's not to say Smoky the Cowhorse is completely inauthentic. James did indeed work as a cowboy, he was a rancher, and he knew, and I suspect deeply loved, horses. Smoky the Cowhorse relates to us the life of a cowhorse from the time of his birth on the range through his training and work as a cowhorse, his subsequent theft, and his passing through the hands of various owners and change of names and work as he becomes by turn a rodeo bronco, a riding horse rented out by the day, and a broken down plow and cart horse destined for the knackers, before he is finally rescued by and reunited with Clint, the cowboy who originally broke him in and loved him. It's a narrative arc very similar to that of Black Beauty's, and though as a literary effort Smoky the Cowhorse is far inferior to Black Beauty (I pined for Black Beauty's perfect prose the entire time I was reading it), James's anger over the extent of the cruelty and neglect a horse could endure from its owner is as palpable as Anna Sewell's ever was.

The deliberately misspelled and ungrammatical prose of this book makes it a tedious chore to read, and the opening chapters that describe Smoky's early years running free on the range are very boring, but I haven't even gotten to the book's ugliest flaw: its racism. The horse thief who steals Smoky is described as "being a half breed of Mexican and other blood that's darker... a halfbreed from the bad side, not caring, and with no pride", and is referred to through the subsequent pages as "the breed". I don't even know where to start when it comes to deconstructing that appallingly racist characterization, and it only gets more disgusting when I consider James's own history as a cattle thief. And it gets worse. Because of his treatment at the hands of the horse thief, Smoky becomes a horse who hates all men of colour, or as James so delicately puts it, "his hate was plainest for the face that showed dark". I have no real experience with horses, but I am very, very skeptical that this would even happen.

Then, in a later incident, when Clint finds Smoky again and subjects his abusive owner, whom we have been given to understand is non-white, to a horse whipping, a sheriff approaches Clint, grins, and says, "Say, cowboy... don't scatter that hombre's remains too much; you know we got to keep record of that kind the same as if it was a white man, and I don't want to be looking all over the streets to find out who he was." Clint then proceeds to go "back to his victim and broke the butt end of the whip over his head" as the sheriff watches. Smoky's former owner goes to jail for animal cruelty, but Clint faces no consequences for assault. He gets to take Smoky home with him and then "spend the evening 'investigating' with the sheriff". His vigilante assault is considered to be not only just deserts but a joke, and he is elevated to the level of a de facto officer of the law who works with the sheriff as an equal. I don't believe for one minute that a native American or a Mexican who had attacked a white horse owner for animal cruelty would have escaped any consequences for his actions in the American west of the 1920s. While a white cowboy like Clint who attacked a "hombre" for his treatment of his horse may well have gotten away with it in that time and place, James's representation of it as a just and even satisfying turn of events is unacceptable.

Between the poor and affected quality of its prose, the dullness of its opening chapters, and the stunningly bigoted treatment of its non white characters, this is not a book that deserves to still be in print, but it is, because that is the power of the Newbery medal. Choose well, future Newbery committee members. You really do not want a Smoky the Cowhorse to be your legacy.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Chinoiserie and 1920s-Style Multiculturalism


The Newbery medal-winner for 1926, Shen of The Sea: Chinese Stories for Children, by Arthur Bowie Chrisman,is another Newbery winner that would never see the light of day had it been written in contemporary times, unless it were as one of those thousands of self-published opuses on Amazon that few ever read. The quality of the book itself isn't really the problem, at least not when judged strictly by literary terms. The sixteen tales in Shen of the Sea are written in competent if not fine prose and are even quite inventive and fun in spots. In true folktale tradition, the clever and good, or sometimes the merely simple and persistent, repeatedly and delightfully defeat the mighty and cruel. The plots are so standard for such tales that I hardly need worry about spoiling them for you: the simple beggar boy proves himself worthy to be the son of a king, powerful demons are tricked into a pickle bottle, and the exquisitely beautiful and virtuous young maiden escapes an unworthy bridegroom. We are also presented with some pourquoi tales for the invention of fireworks, china, printing, tea, chopsticks, the kite, and gunpowder.

Like the 1925 Newbery winner Tales from Silver Lands by Charles Finger, the U.S.-published Shen of the Sea is a collection of stories set in another land and culture from those belonging to its American author. However, unlike Finger, who collected the stories for his book on his travels through South America, Chrisman never even visited China. His stories may not have either. Chrisman studied Chinese literature and history as a hobby (one wonders just how many books and periodicals on the topic would have been available to a non-academic of very modest financial means in the 1920s), and the closest he seems to have gotten to experiencing Chinese culture himself was talking to a Chinese storekeeper he met while travelling in California. The storekeeper may have given Chrisman some of these stories, but it's equally possible that Chrisman made them up himself. These stories, far from being authentically Chinese, are actually a bit of chinoiserie, a cultural appropriation of Chinese culture by someone whose understanding and knowledge of it seems to have been slight and imperfect. Even the illustrations in Shen of the Sea are of a piece with Chrisman's faux Chinese efforts. The book contains 50 silhouettes by Danish artist Else Hasselriis. The silhouette style seems to have been chosen because it was meant to reference Chinese shadow play, but as you'll see from the Wikipedia article on shadow play, the silhouette art form does not look anything like Chinese shadow puppets, though it does look quite a lot like the French version of shadow puppets that arose after French missionaries who worked in China brought the art form back to France in 1767. The illustrations do have considerable charm, but, like the text, are a foreigner's conception of Chinese art rather than actual Chinese art.

In the 1920s, any effort to learn about and show appreciation another culture would have been progressive for the time, and I am sure the 1926 Newbery committee had nothing but good intentions and honestly considered this book to be broadening and educational for children. However, in the Age of Information, we do expect our information to be more reliable and authoritative than that provided by Chrisman (unless, of course, we subscribe to any Rupert Murdoch-owned news publications or channels). The bar for those writing about a culture not their own is much higher now, and rightfully so. We don't need misinformation and misrepresentations that purport to be truth clouding people's minds and self-perpetuating until they create generations of misguided citizens, especially when those who have absorbed misinformation about an issue tend to cling to their beliefs and refuse to entertain the possibility that what they believe to be true is not actually true after all, even when presented with evidence.

Not that I'm comparing Chrisman's book to, say, the anti-vaccination campaign launched by a certain few educationally challenged celebrities. I doubt that Shen of the Sea has done China's relations with the rest of the world any measurable level of harm. The book at least represents Chinese culture as being interesting and worthy of the attention of outsiders. I can't speak to the accuracy of the information about Chinese culture, though I will say I found Chrisman's use of Chinese names that read as jokes in English (i.e., Ah Mee, Ah Fun, Hai Lo) and certain other comic touches to be cringeworthy. There is also definitely a dearth of female characters. They are always supporting characters even when the tale is named for them, they seldom speak or do anything of note, and they all fit into one of a few archetypes: beautiful, desirable maiden or princess; nagging or silently suffering wife, or witch. To be fair, the same could be said of many old folktales.

But as careful as I've been to temper my criticisms of this book with mitigating factors, I doubt I'd ever give or recommend this book to a child. Shen of the Sea may have been the best English-language children's book about Chinese culture available in 1926 but, happily, these days we have better options.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Crispin, a Kid on a Quest. You Know, Like Many of the Other Newbery Medal Characters.


In the Newbery Medal winner for 2003, Crispin: The Cross of Lead, by Avilife for Crispin, a boy of thirteen living in England in 1376 A.D, is as it's often said of existence in medieval times: nasty, brutish, and short. He and his mother Asta are peasants, cottars without land of their own, who make a meager living working the Lord Furnival's fields in the little village of Stromford. Crispin has been told that his father died in the last widespread plague. The other village children shun and taunt him for reasons he can't fathom. Then Crispin's mother dies, upon which turn of events Crispin's circumstances become even more nasty and brutal and his life expectancy even more uncertain.

Lord Furnival's steward, John Ayecliffe, first shows up at Asta's funeral demanding that Crispin surrender his ox as death tax, which will mean starvation for Crispin. Then Crispin is seen observing a secret meeting between Ayecliffe and a cloaked stranger in the woods, after which Ayecliffe accuses Crispin of whatever crimes conveniently suggest themselves and puts a price on his head. Crispin receives some hints as to his family history from his few friends and, provided with a little bread and his mother's leaden cross, flees the village for the nearest city as his friends advise, though they aren't exactly sure where any of England's cities are because they’ve never seen them personally. Various adventures ensue, the first and most important of which is that Crispin meets Orson Hrothgar, otherwise known as Bear. Bear is a travelling performer who can sing and dance and juggle balls. He is also adept at smoke and mirror-style political intrigue, and at frightening the wits out of a particularly unsophisticated thirteen-year-old boy.

Haven't we already seen this book in the Newbery list? Let’s see, boy is thrown on his own resources by the death of his strong-willed, yet physically frail and poverty-stricken mother, and he has some keepsake left to him by his mother that turns out to have an unsuspected significance relating to his mysterious antecedents. Oh, and he's embroiled in larger political and military turmoil. No, wait, that's Johnny Tremain, the Newbery-winning book from 1944. And Bud, Not Buddy, the Newbery winner from 2000, which I have read but haven't reviewed yet.

Child on his or her own is a very common theme in children's literature. It's classic wish fulfillment, both a child's greatest fear and worst nightmare. Heaven knows a kid can't have spine-chilling adventures, much less embark on some very important quest, with a parent looking over his or her shoulder and saying it's bedtime or homework time or that it isn't safe to do this or that. And another common theme in kid lit is "mysterious parentage", which taps into another common childhood fantasy, that of belonging to another family, one more exciting and significant, or perhaps just less problematic, than one's own. Tie these themes together, put your adolescent hero or heroine in an exotic and/or historical setting, and it makes for an exciting book for a kid. Hell, I'm 38 and I read Crispin in two sittings on a single day.

Suspenseful as Crispin is, some of the plot twists are contrived to the point that they're an eye roller. I found Ayecliffe's vendetta against Crispin to be rather awkwardly developed. Crispin is a threat to Ayecliffe because of who he is, yet Ayecliffe only sets a price on Crispin's head once Crispin has seen him talking to another man in the woods, though Crispin has neither seen nor heard anything that is incriminating. The kind village priest who helps Crispin, Father Quinel, tells Crispin to hide in the woods for another day and then come back to the church for food and for some information about his mother and himself. Crispin asks why Father Quinel can't do the Big Reveal right then, and the priest tells him it's better and safer to learn such things just before he leaves the village for good. Of course fate in the form of an evil and power-hungry steward intervenes, and Crispin doesn't hear the revelations. Though we do eventually learn what Father Quinel had to tell Crispin, we never learn Father Quinel's reason for delaying the reveal. I suspect the motivations for the delay on both John Ayecliffe's and Father Quinel's parts are really Avi's and have to do with creating suspense. And of course this is an important element in an adventure novel, but so is devising a credible course of action for your characters so that they seem like actual people rather than marionettes whose strings show all too plainly. These trumped-up behaviours reminded me of Dave Barry's parody of The DaVinci Code:
Handsome yet unmarried historian Hugh Heckman stood in the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., squinting through the bulletproof glass at the U.S. Constitution. Suddenly, he made an amazing discovery. "My God!" he said, out loud. "This is incredible! Soon I will say what it is."

The character of Bear is quite well drawn. The man is an enigma and his repeated sleight-of-hand behaviours obscure both his motives and his actual beliefs, convincing not only Crispin but even the adult reader (er, this one, anyway). While Crispin is slower to catch on to Bear's misdirections than the reader is, Bear is a complex character who plays his cards close to his tunic and there's enough in play that I finished the book thinking there was still probably more to Bear than had been revealed. This is fortunate as there are two more Crispin books, Crispin: At the Edge of the Worldand Crispin: The End of Timeand Avi needed to save some plot twists for those books.

I did really enjoy that Orson Hrothgar’s nickname Bear is a clever classical allusion. The name Orson is derived from Latin and means "little bear". There is a fifteenth-century romance about twin brothers, Valentine and Orson, based on a fourteenth century chanson de geste which tells the tale of how Orson was raised from infancy by bears while Valentine is given a knight's upbringing at court. The Valentine and Orson story is not directly referenced, but it is a nice meta reference bonus for the adult reader who catches it. And Bear is indeed very much the wild man of the woods that his literary namesake was, as he is huge, loud, aggressive, and has cast aside many of the sociopolitical norms of his time to be what could only be considered a dangerous radical and freethinker by fourteenth-century terms.

The historical setting does seem to be well researched, and the psychology of the characters is probably about as authentic as is possible. Avi does as well as any author could in creating a medieval mindset with its implicit belief in God and the devil, fear of hell, reverence for the priesthood, and some truly creative religiously themed oaths, my favourite of which was, "By the bowels of Christ". Even the most dastardly character in the book is compelled to at least partially respect the binding effect of swearing a vow before God. Crispin does seem to be a little too concerned with his self-esteem in a way that I suspect isn't period appropriate, but then Avi had to make Crispin a boy contemporary readers could relate to.

Relatively minor nitpicks aside, I’d have to say that Crispin is definitely a quite solidly enjoyable book that is exciting, well-written, and rich in accurate period detail, if it does feel a little boilerplate as to its plot. But then I must remember that this is a book that is written primarily for kids, not for an adult who's gotten a little sated on "kid on a quest" books.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The Lesser Sibling and the Short End of the Stick


Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved has been sitting on my desk for quite some time, waiting for me to review it. I remember not liking it when I was a teenager. Even ten years later when I was collecting children’s and young adults’ literature and bought a thrift shop copy, I ended up getting rid of it again after a re-read. I found it unsettling. I've found it just as difficult to review as it was to read.

When the story opens, it’s 1941, and we meet 13-year-old Louise Bradshaw, who lives on a small island off the coast of Maryland, with her waterman father, her former schoolteacher mother, her half-senile and wholly nasty grandmother, and her musically gifted twin sister Caroline. We follow Louise through her coming of age to maturity and revisit her when she’s well settled into her adulthood.

Life on the island of Rass is limited and spartan. Almost all of the occupants get their living from the sea, which means that most people have to work very hard, the mortality rate is high, homes and boats are sometimes lost in severe storms, and no one has a high standard of living or much education. The annual Christmas concert put on by the 20-student high school is a major social highlight, and everyone depends on the radio, Time magazine, and the Baltimore Sun newspaper to keep them informed about the larger world. But change is in the air, even though the changes themselves are themselves are grim ones, and initially mean more deprivation and new battles to be fought — literally, because World War II breaks out and the young men of Rass leave to join the military. In a wrenchingly poignant touch, Rass itself is disappearing, the ocean claiming a little more of it every year.

Louise is an intelligent, capable girl with loving parents, but she is constantly chafing miserably against the limits of her life. Her reaction to her twin sister Caroline is the main conflict of the novel, as the title of it indicates. I’ve deliberately written “reaction to” rather than “relationship with”, because Louise’s problems with Caroline have very little to do with who Caroline actually is, and much more to do with Louise’s need to find her own level and role in life, and to be comfortable with who she is.

Caroline was born frail while Louise was a strong and healthy baby, and so Caroline got a great deal of special attention during the first few years of their lives. When the family narratives are told and retold about those first few hours of the twins’ lives are told, they always seem to be entirely concerned with Caroline. When Louise asks where she was while everyone was trying to save Caroline, her family members look blank. Then as the twins got older and Caroline outgrew all her medical problems, it was discovered that Caroline had a remarkable talent for music, necessitating expensive music lessons on the mainland and much more special attention and adulation from everyone in the twins’ lives.

The back jacket copy on my edition describes Caroline as “selfish”, but I disagree that she is. The most selfish thing Caroline does is casually help herself to Louise’s carefully hoarded hand lotion (and she doesn’t in the least understand Louise’s resulting outrage), and the most irritating thing she does is announce she’s going to start writing her memoirs in preparation for the time when she will be famous, but as sibling misbehaviours go, if those are the worst things Louise has to complain of, she can count herself lucky. Caroline is no more selfish or self-absorbed than any average teenager might be, and certainly no more so than Louise. Caroline is quite naturally very involved in her musical studies, but she repeatedly demonstrates an awareness of and a concern for others and their needs during the course of the novel. The radio broadcast about the bombing of Pearl Harbor affects Caroline as deeply as it does Louise, she is infuriated by their grandmother’s horrible insinuations about a friend, and on several different occasions when a neighbour has a problem she is ready with a creative solution and works to bring it to pass. What Caroline lacks, and this is not to her discredit, is the hypersensitivity towards Louise that Louise has for Caroline. Caroline is a naturally serene and confident person, has no issues with Louise, and consequently can’t understand what Louise’s problem is. (Nor does Louise make a concerted effort to communicate her problem to Caroline, except in noisy bursts of rage that merely leave Caroline bemused.) And what Caroline could have done about it if she had understood? She could hardly have given up her music or been less confident or pretty. However, the fact that Caroline doesn't understand and can't resolve Louise's problem does not mean that Louise's issues are any less real or important.

Paterson seems to like delving into grim realities, and family hierarchies with their painful gaps are definitely a grim reality. It’s not possible for parents to treat their children with perfect equality when their needs are inevitably disparate. One child may need more — or less — resources than the others, and sometimes kids just have to accept getting the short end of the stick, especially in cases where one child is extremely gifted or handicapped and there just isn’t enough money or parental attention to go around.

As I think and write about Louise and Caroline, I am reminded of a real-life pair of sisters who had a similar hierarchical gap and unhealthy dynamic: Florence and Parthenope Nightingale. Parthe Nightingale was exceptionally intelligent and talented in her own right, but she lived her entire life in her younger and genius sister Florence’s wake. Florence was so much Parthe’s superior in everything, in intellect, accomplishments, popularity, drive, looks, health, that Parthe could never begin to keep up. Their parents were aware that they needed to separate the girls for Parthe's sake, but Parthe’s poor health made it impossible for her to attend boarding school and no school could be found to undertake the education of Florence. Parthe was tormented by her inferiority in her youth, and by her teenaged years she had developed a neurotic and parasitical attachment to Florence. In early adulthood, Parthe tried to live through Florence and demanded that Florence live the conventionally successful life expected of an upper-class Victorian girl rather than reform the medical system (to be fair, their parents W.E.N. and Fanny Nightingale were of the same opinion as to what Florence should do with her life). It wasn’t until mid-life, when Parthe got married and wrote a number of books, that Parthe finally started to settle into her own sphere and be contented with it. But even then, her happiness was shadowed by the fact that Parthe’s husband was a man who had wanted Florence and, when he couldn't get her, settled for marrying Parthe so that he could have a place in Florence’s life.

Fortunately Louise doesn’t turn into a Parthe Nightingale and latch onto Caroline. Instead she tries to escape her sister’s long shadow, difficult as that is on their little shrinking island where, both literally and figuratively, there are so few places for Louise to go. Rass offers her few options and she gets little support or approbation for the choices she does make. If Louise had been born a boy, she likely would have become a waterman like her father and been perfectly happy with that life, but for a girl in the 1940s this was not possible. She uses her own skiff to crab and later works with her father on his boat, enjoys the work, and is proud of her skill and stamina and of her contribution to the family’s income. But even though everyone acknowledges the economic necessity of her work on the water during wartime her father tells her he cannot let her work on the boat once the war is over and Caroline complains that Louise stinks when she gets home (okay, that’s maddening and should probably have gone in the list of Caroline’s worst behaviours). Louise has a friend in a neighbour boy named McCall — that is, they spend time together because neither of them have other friends even though they don’t get along at all well. And she falls in love, secretly and hopelessly, with Hiram Wallace, who is an islander in his seventies. For the most part it seems to have been this aspect of the novel that made me so uncomfortable, though as I think about why I realize it’s probably mostly just a personal bias against this kind of age gap in romantic relationships, which I need to set aside for the purposes of writing this review.

Falling in love is generally part of the teenage experience, especially for a girl of Louise’s emotional intensity. In her case there was a dearth of eligible boys of her own age, and that river had to flow somewhere. And, so far as falling in love is a choice, Louise doesn’t choose so badly at that, as Hiram Wallace is wise, kind, generous, and truly lovable. But Louise knows full well she can never be with Hiram in the way she wants, and the knowledge eats at her. Her grandmother, who divines her secret, tortures her by constant remarks on the topic as well as with the purplest of Biblical quotes. Louise also has to “share” Hiram and MCall with Caroline as she does every other area and component of her life, and as always she feels, not without cause, that Caroline gets far more than her share. It doesn’t help that her Methodist upbringing has her convinced she’s hell-bound due to the feelings of hate and anger her frustration with her life engenders in her, nor that she feels bound to Rass and her family because she loves them both, problematic as they are.

In the end Louise does get to create a life that she is contented with, and thankfully it doesn’t involve taking one of Caroline’s rejected suitors à la Parthe Nightingale.

I marvel at the skill Paterson demonstrates in this book. Almost no young readers with access to this novel would have any idea of what it was like to live a life as circumscribed as that of a young girl on a tiny fishing island in 1941. But Paterson’s characterization of Louise and her struggle to find her own place is so real that many who already understand what is like to not fit into one’s own life, will be able to relate to Louise. And though they probably wouldn’t want to live the life that Louise chooses, they can readily grasp that the promises of adulthood, of being able to make choices, of having the world open up to them, of being able to cast aside some of the burdens of childhood as irrelevant and outgrown, will also hold true for them.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Sarah, Plain and Tall, and a Novel, Short and Sweet

Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall, the Newbery Medal winner for 1986, is set on a nineteenth-century prairie farm. Anna (who narrates the novel), her little brother Caleb, and their widowed father have advertised in the Eastern newspapers for a mail order stepmother and bride. They receive a letter of inquiry from a Sarah Wheatman, of Maine. Sarah has formerly kept house for her bachelor brother, who is a fisherman, but now that he is getting married Sarah feels she must make new living arrangements. The next spring Sarah arrives on Anna’s father’s farm to look over the situation and decide if she is willing to make her home with them. Anna, Caleb and their father are very taken with Sarah and hope that she will stay.

Sarah, Plain and Tall is a little story – just 58 pages long - about the delicate business of building a family. It reminded me of nothing so much as a courtship, and really that is what courtship is – the forging a new family out of strangers. And the process will be familiar to anyone who has ever courted either a new family member or a romantic partner: the sensitive explorations of each other, the wondering and guessing as to what the other party is thinking and feeling, and as security and confidence in each other grows, the beginnings of an independence within the context of the new bonds.

So Anna’s little family pores over Sarah’s letters, awaits her coming eagerly, and examines her every expression and action for signs that she is happy with them and will agree to marry Anna’s and Caleb’s father and stay on their farm. The tension caused by Sarah's insistence on driving into town by herself for a day is palpable.

I found it more than a little odd that although Sarah is quite explicit about her own need for a new home and her capacity for hard work, there is no corresponding recognition of the sheer practical necessity of a housekeeper for Anna’s family, nor any mention of how they have been managing without one. Anna’s age is not mentioned, but in the cover illustration she appears to be only twelve or so. Caleb’s age isn’t mentioned either, but he is old enough to read Sarah’s letters without help. Their mother died the day after Caleb was born, and it would have been impossible for nineteenth-century farmer to manage the housekeeping and care of a newborn and a little girl plus his farmwork. In those days, doing the week's laundry alone was a full day’s backbreaking work. And even though Anna might be old enough during the timeframe of the novel to bake bread and make stew and wash the dishes, I doubt that she and her little brother and father could manage all the housework between them and still be able to attend school as she and Caleb do. MacLachlan makes no provision for any of these matters. There’s no mention of the housekeepers Anna’s father surely must have had to hire, or of any help from neighbours. Instead Anna’s family’s only concern is whether Sarah sings, and whether she will like them enough to stay. When Sarah does come she seems to spend most of her days picking flowers, sliding down the haystack, singing, and teaching the children to swim in the cow pond. What work she does do is outdoor work such as fixing the roof or helping in the barn, and when a neighbour tells her she must have a garden, she only mentions growing flowers. It’s all very idyllic, but I kept thinking the family was in for a shock when the honeymoon was over, or even when fall arrived and they have no preserving or sewing done for the winter.

MacLachlan does do very well at conveying to us the sheer novelty Sarah has for Anna's family. Anna and Caleb – and probably their father - have lived lives more limited than any present-day North American can really understand. They would know little of the larger world. The only people they would ever meet would be their neighbours who, culturally and economically speaking, were just like them. They probably had very few books and newspapers, and were educated in a one-room schoolhouse. Caleb’s only knowledge of what having a mother would be like comes from Anna’s often-told stories of their mother. Any woman who travelled even a few hundred miles to live with them would seem exotic. And so Sarah, a plain and plainspoken woman from Maine, is something strange and wonderful, with her yellow sunbonnet, her ability to draw and swim, her new songs, her habit of drying flowers, and her regional idiom. But at the same time, that's love for you, as anyone who has ever watched a friend fall madly in love with someone completely unremarkable will recognize.

Sarah, Plain and Tall is really a novel about the beginnings of love, and love’s ability to glorify the ordinary and make one content with the losses a new life entails. Sarah misses the sea, and her brother, and the three aunts she left behind in Maine. A neighbour and fellow mail-order bride tells Sarah, “There are always things to miss. No matter where you are.” And, recognizing this, Sarah makes her decision of whether to stay or to go on the basis of what she loves, and will miss, the most.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

The Higher Power of Lucky and of Deplorable Words

Lucky Trimble, the main character of the 2007 Newbery Medal Winner, Susan Patron's The Higher Power of Lucky, is ten years old and one of the 43 occupants of Hard Pan, California. Lucky’s mother, Lucille, died when Lucky was eight. Lucky’s father, who never wanted a child and was never a part of Lucky’s life, calls upon his first wife, Brigitte Trimble, to come to the U.S. to take care of Lucky until she can be placed in foster care. Brigitte leaves France for what she initially assumed would be a short stay in California, and two years later is still living with Lucky in their trailer in Hard Pan. Lucky, with her passion for natural science, her dog HMS Beagle, her part-time job as cleaner-up of Hard Pan’s Found Object Wind Chime Museum and Visitor Center, and her friends Lincoln and Miles, is doing quite well in the custody of the loving and resourceful Brigitte. But Lucky has one great fear – that Brigitte will put her in an orphanage or foster care and return to France.

Self-sufficient Lucky, who carries a survival kit/backpack around with her at all times, can open a can of beans without a can opener, scare a snake out of a dryer, and remove a bug from her ear, and she sets out to solve this problem too. She eavesdrops on the 12-step meetings that take place in the Found Object Wind Chime Museum and puzzles over the concept of a Higher Power. All the people who testify in these meetings say they hit rock bottom, found their Higher Power and then got their lives all straightened out, so Lucky thinks if she could only figure out what her Higher Power is she could get control of her life too. Lucky never does figure out what her Higher Power is, but she devises a plan to make Brigitte realize that staying with Lucky is more important than going back to France, except that, with the added complications of a windstorm and the company of five-year-old Miles, her plan doesn’t work out quite as she expected.

The Higher Power of Lucky is, at 135 pages, a short book, but not a slight one. It’s definitely for younger readers without being exclusively so. It did leave me contemplating the likelihood of a first wife’s agreeing to drop everything, cross the Atlantic and take care of the motherless child of her ex-husband’s second marriage, but Patron has created characters that live their lives as they see fit without regard for any reviewer’s silly concepts of convention or reasonable behaviour. Brigitte is obviously an open, generous, and spontaneous sort of person. She no longer loves her ex-husband, but when she made an emergency trip to the U.S. (probably for the sake of a tragically bereaved little girl, possibly also in the spirit of adventure) and discovered she loved Lucky (and maybe California), her short visit became a new phase in her life. It does seem a sheer statistical improbability that there would be anonymous 12-step groups for alcoholics, overeaters, smokers AND gamblers in a community with a population of 43, but never mind – it’s possible if not likely that the members commute from other towns.

There’s hardly a false note in the characterization of the children – Lucky, Lincoln, and Miles. I especially loved the depiction of their various interests and obsessions. Lincoln is ambivalent about his mother’s conviction of his presidential destiny and is much more interested in being a contributing member of the International Guild of Knot Tyers and the knots he ties incessantly. He’s also concerned with adding some necessary punctuation to a “SLOW CHILDREN AT PLAY” road sign (and as an editor, I can only applaud this particular intellectual pursuit). Miles, who lives with his grandmother and is not clear on the whereabouts or regard of his mother, hugs a filthy copy of Are You My Mother and goes from house to house asking for cookies and readings of his book. Lucky collects bugs and, having been taught something of natural selection in science class, theorizes that she’s been dowered with sand-coloured hair, skin and eyes because they’re adapted to her environment. She’s plainly possessed of a full share of scientific curiosity and, besides her search for a Higher Power, speculates on the difference between her and Brigitte’s feet, the uses of parsley, and the meaning of the word scrotum.

Which leads me to the controversy concerning this book.

In the early months of this year, when I had just begun work on my Newbery review project and was on the alert for the announcement of the 2007 Newbery winner, the very first thing I heard about The Higher Power of Lucky was that there was a uproar over the book’s use of the word “scrotum”. This New York Times article on the controversy reports that a handful of states have banned the book and a number of school librarians are refusing to order it because of this issue. Andrea Koch, the librarian at French Road Elementary School in Brighton, New York, said in an interview, “I don’t think our teachers, or myself, want to do that vocabulary lesson”. Frederick Muller, a librarian at Halsted Middle School in Newton, New Jersey, said, “If I were a third- or fourth-grade teacher, I wouldn’t want to have to explain that.”

I can understand a teacher or librarian not wanting to have to explain to a class of nine-year-olds what a “scrotum” is. And perhaps teachers and librarians can understand why I didn’t want to have to manually input over 500 apostrophes into a file that had been accidentally stripped of the same by a data processing program at the publishing house where I work. But in both cases, not wanting to undertake a task is not a justification for refusing to do it. Surely children should know the correct names for the various portions of the human anatomy, and if teachers and librarians – and parents – will go to such lengths to avoid doing so, this begs the question of who is doing so.

I suppose there is an argument to be made that the presence of the word in this book will cause a certain derailment of a class reading. And yes, there’s no real need to read this particular excellent book out loud to a class of nine-year-olds, because there are many other excellent books available for that purpose. But there’s no excuse for refusing to add this book to a school or public library. Libarians and teachers who cannot deal with the prospect of children approaching them singly to ask the meaning of the word scrotum might do well to reconsider their career paths (and incidentally, Lucky does finally get an adult’s matter-of-fact explanation at the end of the book, so a child who read this book would not have to approach a squeamish teacher or librarian). Parents who would try to have this book banned from the school might remind themselves that the word scrotum is also in the dictionary and that we’ve no plans to remove those from schools. We don't need to be so afraid of words in books as this.

Patron is also criticized in the article for “a Howard Stern-type shock treatment just to see how far [she] could push the envelope, but [she] didn’t have the children in mind” by Dana Nilsson, a teacher and librarian in Durango, Colorado. I disagree that Patron is being deliberately provocative or that she didn’t consider her audience.

Here’s the context for the deplorable word. Lucky first hears the word scrotum when Short Sammy, one of the people in the AA meeting, designates his rock bottom experience as the time his dog Roy got bitten in the scrotum by a rattlesnake and Short Sammy was too drunk to go to the dog’s aid. Throughout the story Lucky ponders the possible meaning of the word:

Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green the comes up when you have the flu and cough too much. It sounded medical and secret, but also important, and Lucky was glad she was a girl and would never have such an aspect as a scrotum to her own body. Deep inside she thought she would be interested in seeing an actual scrotum. But at the same time – and this is where Lucky’s brain was very complicated – she definitely did not want to see one.

Patron claims to have put the word in partly for sheer love of word play, and partly because it’s simply a part of growing up, and both motives are good ones.

The very way the word is presented perfectly captures several important aspects of childhood experience. One such dimension to the childhood experience is the polarized force of sexual matters have for children – the simultaneous attraction and repulsion. Lucky intuits that a scrotum is something taboo, and both wants to know and doesn’t want to know more about it. Then too, Patron’s portrayal of this interest of Lucky’s, like Lucky’s other hobbies and intellectual pursuits, as well as those of Lincoln and Miles, is a terrific rendering of the way children pick up on things and become fascinated with them regardless of their intrinsic importance or whether those items are those adults would have chosen for them. Children, like adults, have to have room to create their own internal world and to follow their own interests, even if that means the adults around them don’t entirely approve of the child’s preoccupations.

And we adults also have to be adult enough to realize that children’s fiction – like any other fiction – is not written for the express purpose of making the reader’s friends, parents, or teachers comfortable.

Sunday, 15 July 2007

A Thimble Summer and the Winter of a Reviewer’s Discontent

Elizabeth Enright’s Newbery medal-winning Thimble Summer is very much a book of its time — but please don’t take this to mean that I think it any sort of literal or reliable picture of farm life in the thirties, or indeed of life anywhere, at any time. This book isn’t so much a reflection of its time as a reaction to it. It’s a simple, sunny book. A ten-year-old Wisconsin farm girl named Garnet Linden cavorts through a summer and some mild adventures on her family farm. Garnet finds a silver thimble while playing by the river. A short drought is broken by rainfall. Garnet visits her friend Citronella’s grandmother and hears her stories of olden times. A migrant orphan boy, Eric, appears on her farm and finds work and a home with the Lindens. Garnet and Citronella get locked in the town library overnight. The Lindens get a government loan or grant to build the new barn they need. Garnet runs away from the farm to go to a nearby town for the day. Garnet’s family attend the local fall fair, where Garnet exhibits her pet pig and eats a lot of ice cream. And Garnet sees the finding of the thimble as the catalyst of all this and claims that it’s magical.

I was going to complain about the utter lack of depth in this book, but then when I began to think about the era in which this book was published, read and lauded, the very simplicity and the facility of the plot, theme, and characterizations began to take on a new meaning. After all, Thimble Summer won the Newbery Medal in 1939, the same year as the premiere of The Wizard of Oz, a movie in which another ten-year-old farm girl (or as Hollywood would have it, a sixteen-year-old actress in a chest-flattening corset) has magical adventures. The thirties, as everyone knows, were a time of widespread unemployment, bankruptcies, drought, poverty, hunger, war, and escalating international tensions. The American film industry did very well in the thirties because everyone wanted to escape from their problems for a few hours. And then too, although grim social realism had become a considerable force in contemporary literature, it had not yet breached children’s books. Adults of the thirties may have been reading Of Mice and Men (published in 1937), or The Grapes of Wrath (published in 1940), but they were giving their children Thimble Summer, or at most Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series (published in the thirties and forties and five times named Newbery Honor books).

Thimble Summer, accordingly, might have seemed a very pleasant bit of escapism to a city child who never got enough to eat nor had any place to swim. To a child on an actual, drought-ridden farm the book might seem like something best dropped in the path of the nearest combine. All right, perhaps I am exaggerating. A farm child aware of the schism between this book and his or her own reality would not have dared risk damage to the family combine.

Elizabeth Enright’s “authenticity” was praised in reviews. The New York Times Book Review claimed the book had “the flavor of real life… expressed with charm and humor.” I will go so far as to say that the setting does have a certain naturalness and realism. The Linden family’s standard of living is somewhat true to what a successful farm family’s would have been in the thirties. Garnet more or less lives in a single pair of overalls chopped off above the knee, and her pleasures are very elemental ones. Enright includes descriptive details of weathered mailboxes that lean upon each other, and of 20–year-old Ford trucks that go 15 miles an hour, and sensual descriptions of rain and heat. The larger, grimmer reality is acknowledged only fleetingly. Eric, who has lived a knockabout life travelling in boxcars and supporting himself by whatever work he can find, tells the Lindens they don’t know what real drought is and that he wants to stay in fertile Wisconsin and someday buy his own farm there.

Everything works out for the best in Garnet’s little world. When the crops on her farm are badly in need of rain, they get it just in time to avoid failure. When her brother chastises her for causing an (easily correctable) mishap during threshing, she runs away for the afternoon to have fun by herself. When she accidentally spends her bus fare, she hitchhikes. When she hitchhikes she is picked up by kindly strangers. It’s not surprising that Enright should have had this idyllic, superficially realistic concept of farm life. She did spend her summers on a farm in Wisconsin, but the farm was owned by her uncle, Frank Lloyd Wright. Farming may have been a financially viable proposition for Lloyd Wright, but it certainly didn’t need to be.

Enright’s idealized notion of farm life is even evident in the illustrations, which Enright also drew. They are simple (and dismayingly amateurish for a professional illustrator who studied at New York’s Parsons School of Design) line drawings, and the coloured illustrations are in pastel and bright colours without shading or perspective. Garnet’s body is impossibly streamlined, and her little friend Citronella, who is described as fat, is only slightly more realistically curvy. In one picture which shows Garnet and her brother Jay running through a cabbage patch, their feet don’t appear to be touching the ground, and the cabbages look more like very large roses.

I’m certainly not saying that every novel should be grimly realistic, because that is one bleak prospect, especially for children’s books. Good books in the romantic tradition, and books that are just fun, are something to cherish. But this book is somehow not enjoyable enough to be really fun. It’s just… blandly pleasant and conventional in a way that is no longer admired in literature. There’s really nothing remarkable about it, and in trying to figure out how it could have been upgraded to stellar, I’ve settled on picking at its lack of depth and realism. L.M. Montgomery defended her romantic style of fiction by saying that rose gardens are just as real as pigsties, and she was perfectly right, but a novel that is too sweet and light is just as flawed as one that is too monotonously dreary. Enright could have learned a few things from Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter — and unacknowledged co-writer — Rose Wilder Lane. The Wilders fictionalized Laura’s childhood, and they had to take out some details that would have made the book too dark, but one of the best things about the Little House books is their sure balance between realistic portrayal of some extremely harsh situations and the positive aspects of Laura’s life. The books never gloss over the horrendous dangers and privations of frontier life, but the realism doesn’t weigh too heavily on the book. A child reading these books can enjoy Laura’s tilts with Nellie Oleson, and feel her pleasure in a new calico dress or ripe plums, and also her feel her fear of wolves or worry about Pa being missing during a blizzard. An adult reading the series can enjoy these things as well, but also has a deeper awareness of narrowness of the margin of survival for the Ingalls family. When you’re a child it sounds like fun to wake up with a foot of snow on your bed. When you’re over 30, not so much. An adult has a much better appreciation of what it would have meant for Charles Ingalls to leave his wife and children with little money and food and walk several hundred miles in worn-out boots to search for work, and of the courage Caroline Ingalls showed when she spent a three-day blizzard playing games with her little daughters knowing full well that her husband (and sole economic support) could be lying dead out in the storm.

I still enjoy the Little House books almost as much (if in a different way) as I did as a child. I probably would have enjoyed Thimble Summer if I’d read it when I was seven or eight and hadn’t grown up on a farm. But this kind of limited appeal is the hallmark of a limited book, not of a good one.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

A Bridge Between Children and Adults

At one point after the movie My Girl came out, I heard a radio announcer quip that for him the movie was just so much more enjoyable after Macaulay Culkin’s character died. I don’t think anyone who reads Katherine Paterson’s novel Bridge to Terebithia, which won the Newbery Medal in 1978, will be inclined to say that of the death of a child character in the book. I’ve read Bridge to Terebithia twice, and the second reading was almost harder to bear because even pre-tragedy I felt such a sick dread of the passages that lay ahead. Paterson wrote the book after her son David's eight-year-old friend Lisa was struck and killed by lighting. David Paterson is now an adult and married with children of his own, but still finds Bridge to Terebithia difficult to read. I am not surprised. Bridge to Terebithia will never become one of the books I read and reread because it tears me up — and all my childhood friends are alive and kicking and posting to Facebook.com.

The main character, Jess Aarons, is a ten-year-old farm boy who feels, and indeed really is, something of a thwarted misfit in his own life. He has a passion for drawing and painting and dislikes sports, which doesn’t exactly win him a lot of respect among the other boys at his rural school. There seems to be no art instruction whatsoever at his school (was this really ever the case in public schools during the seventies?) and the only teacher who doesn’t discourage him by telling him not to waste time or paper is the music teacher, with whom Jess is secretly in love.

At home Jess is the only boy of five children. One of best things about Bridge to Terebithia is the Aarons family dynamic. Jess’s four sisters are especially well drawn. We can completely understand and sympathize with Jess’s irritation with his sisters, and with how they make him feel marginalized in his own family, but at the same time see that they seem like perfectly ordinary girls with both good and bad qualities. Jess’s older sisters, the high-school-aged Ellie and Rhonda, fuss a lot about wanting clothes and makeup, shirk their share of the chores, and complain about Jess being smelly. Four-year-old Joyce Ann throws a lot of tantrums as a way of holding her own with her much older siblings. Jess likes six-year-old May Belle, who adores him and shows promise of developing into a good companion for him a few years down the road, but in the meantime he doesn’t always want her tagging around after him.

Jess’s mother and father are trying to raise too many children on too little money. Under the stress of this his mother becomes sharp and quick-tempered, and his father’s long work hours mean he is absent much of the time, and absent-minded when physically present. They’re too overworked to have much time or energy to cater to Jess’s non-physical needs, and on many days their efforts to communicate with him consist of their asking if he’s done the milking yet. Jess must draw in spare moments, and in his room, with the door shut, because his mother considers it a waste of time and his father doesn’t think it a suitably masculine activity for his only son.

In an effort to carve out a better place for himself in his world, Jess spends all the early morning hours of the summer between fourth and fifth grade in the cow pasture, training himself to run. He dreams of winning the lunchtime races at school and thinks if he can become the fastest runner he can win the liking and respect of the other kids and of his family. And then on the first day of school his new neighbour, Leslie Burke, shows up and wins all the races easily. But Jess soon gets over this disappointment because something better arrives on its heels.

Leslie Burke is another especially well-done element in this novel. Paterson has managed to create a little girl who is intelligent and imaginative without being precious. I don’t think Paterson did quite as well with Leslie’s parents. Judy and Bill Burke are successful and well-to-do writers who have moved to a ramshackle farmhouse in the country to “reassess their value structure”. Yes, they use those words. Their daughter calls them by their first names, and they have “a lot of hair”, stacks of records and books but no television set, speak French and talk a lot about world issues and drive a small, dusty yet expensive car. In thinking over Paterson’s characterization of the Burkes I thought the only thing missing was the yogurt, and then while paging through the book I came across the fact that Leslie had yogurt in her lunchbox for her first day at school. But then I’m reminded of someone I knew who used to criticize her sister for “being cliché” because her sister wore her hair long and parted in the middle, scorned makeup, sported tie-dyed clothing, ate health food, and visited a naturopath, as though owning a house in the suburbs, wearing sweaters with cats on them, and doing counted cross stitch projects were any more original, or as though anyone’s life is. By the same token Jess’ family, with their double negatives, double names and beaten-up pick up truck are just as cliché as the Burkes in superficial terms, but we see more of them and get to observe the inner workings of their family in a much more intimate way, and so they transcend the material features of their lives and seem much more real. We don’t see enough of the Burkes, and they seem too idealized, to come across as convincing.

But the same cannot be said of Leslie, though we don’t get to know her nearly as well as Jess. Leslie’s parents treat her more as a companion than as a child, and this combined with her own considerable natural aptitude has made her very advanced intellectually. She does brilliant schoolwork, and is a gifted athlete, and in general is the kind of child adults cherish. But we get to see how these very qualities make her an outcast at school, where the other children show the intolerance of difference that is usual in homogenous kid culture. The boys at school might have come to accept that a girl wants to run in their recess races, but they can’t adjust to the fact that she wins every race so easily that it takes all the suspense out of it. The girls don’t care for the fact that Leslie wears tank tops and cut-offs and looks like a boy. And the Burkes’ lack of a TV demolishes whatever social prospects Leslie might have had left.

Jess and Leslie become friends partly through proximity and self-preservation, but their friendship soon becomes more about their natural affinity. Leslie and Jess create a magical imaginary kingdom called Terebithia, and build a “castle stronghold” (which to adult eyes is a lean-to) in the woods, and stock it with water, nails and elastics, and crackers and dried fruit in case of siege. Together they are king and queen, rulers of Terebithia, and Jess discovers both the transforming and sustaining powers of friendship and imagination. Leslie, being quite a well-balanced girl, has no inclination to stay in Terebithia all the time, and draws Jess out by talking to him about current events, concocting and enacting a diabolically elegant plan of revenge for a mean seventh grade girl who steals May Belle’s Twinkies – and by later showing compassion for the seventh grader. Jess’s friendship with Leslie does so much for him he doesn’t care what anyone at school or home says about him hanging around with a girl. I find it more than a bit of a stretch that a 10-year-old farm boy would say that he can’t capture “the poetry of the trees” in his drawings, but at the same time it was just the kind of thing he could say to Leslie knowing that she would understand. And when tragedy strikes, Jess, with all his grief, finds his friendship with Leslie has given him what he needs to go on. The adults of his world prove that they are perfectly capable of being sensitive to his needs when roused from their own concerns, and Jess is able to respond to them, and to begin to see that May Belle needs his friendship as much as he ever needed Leslie’s.

I’ve read two of Katherine Paterson’s other novels: The Great Gilly Hopkins (which was a Newbery Honor Book in 1979), and Jacob Have I Loved (for which I have very mixed feelings, but which I’ll be reviewing sooner or later because it won the Newbery in 1981). Although all involve significant character growth, I wouldn’t call any of them coming-of-age novels. In all these three books Paterson’s characters grapple with very grim and rather grown-up issues. The problems they deal with and the emotions they feel are not those which they will laugh at in 20 years’ time. When Jess’s father says to his grieving son, “Hell, ain’t it?” he is relating to him not as father to child but as one human being to another, and his few words contain the recognition that such things keep happening to you and tearing you up all your life, and that they cannot be fixed, only endured. Paterson has made her books about universal human experience rather than about definitively childhood experience, and has laced her work with the kind of rock-bottom honesty that is the best ground on which to meet grief. And it is exactly these qualities that makes her novels both so difficult and so powerful to read.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

A Good Song Among Many

The 1983 Newbery Medal Winner Cynthia Voigt’s Dicey’s Song, like Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, is one of the Newbery award winners I have read and re-read it until my copy of the book is much the worse for the wear. I’ve loved and collected Voigt’s work for nearly twenty years, and she is not only one of my favourite young adult writers but also the one who most inspires me. As I work on the manuscript of my own young adult novel I often think of her, and aspire to her level of excellence, measuring my work against the standard set by hers. That the very fruitlessness of this aspiration leaves me ready to pound my head repeatedly against my keyboard is neither here nor there.

It speaks volumes about the quality of Voigt’s work that Dicey’s Song, though it is certainly very good, is not even what I would call the best of Voigt’s 30 books. Voigt is a consistently excellent writer and a number of her other books are comparable achievements: Homecoming, The Runner, A Solitary Blue, Tell Me if the Lovers Are Losers, and especially David and Jonathan are all at least as good if not better. A Solitary Blue in particular is one of Voigt’s books I love most. A Solitary Blue was a Newbery Honor Book in 1984, but lost the medal to Beverley Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw. I haven’t read Dear Mr. Henshaw yet, but it had better be damn good.

Dicey’s Song is the second of what became the Tillerman Cycle novels, a series of six novels about a family named the Tillermans. There are four books that involve Dicey and her three siblings James, Maybeth, and Sammy, one book about Dicey’s uncle, and two more focusing on the lives of two of Dicey’s friends. In Homecoming, 13-year-old Dicey and her three younger siblings are abandoned by their mother, Liza Tillerman. The four children spend a summer making their way (mostly on foot and without adult assistance or money) from Provincetown, Massachusetts to the grandmother they have never met in Maryland. Of course this is plot enough for two novels and so Dicey’s Song is much less eventful. The four children gradually settle into life at their grandmother’s farm and try to cope with their grief for their mother, who lies in a catatonic state in a Massachusetts hospital mental ward. They also deal with the usual strains and pains of growing up and their own individual problems: James’s suppression of his superior academic abilities so that he will be liked by his classmates, Maybeth’s difficulties in learning to read, and Sammy’s pitched battles with other boys at school.

Cynthia Voigt has said that Dicey is the child she wishes she had been and that Dicey’s grandmother, Abigail Tillerman, is the old lady she hopes to become. And indeed the two characters really do seem like older and younger versions of each other, with their fierce independence and intelligence. It’s to Voigt’s credit that these idealized versions of herself became their own selves and are so realistically and unsentimentally drawn. Dicey especially is an accomplishment. Growing up is an inherently a sporadic and uneven process, and although Dicey may have a more than adult level of determination and self-reliance, she is also very much just a kid, and even a backward one, in some other ways.

I’m trying to decide what I think about the fact that although Dicey, who is bored with school, is an excellent student in every class but home economics, where she refuses to make a more than minimal effort. Dicey thinks Miss Eversleigh isn’t “teaching anything Dicey needed to know, or wanted to know. Who wanted to memorize food groups or talk about seasonal buying or how to store food while conserving energy? Not Dicey.” Are we to believe that Dicey, who is (and has to be) very practical, does a fair share of the housework required for a family of five people and seems to love to work with her hands, truly would not see the value in knowing how to make nutritious meals or sew on buttons? This seems like a contrived conflict. Surely if Voigt wanted to have Dicey learn that there is value in a field of knowledge she’d scorned, another less practical subject would have been a better choice.

I did really like the way Voigt portrays the dynamics of the classroom and the hurly burly of the school hallways and playground (these are always unmistakably authentic in Voigt’s books, perhaps unsurprisingly, as she is a former teacher). Voigt also does quite well with her rendering of the Tillermans’ poverty. Abigail Tillerman had only made a subsistence living from her farm and in order to be able to keep the four children, she must apply for welfare benefits, and even then be careful with every penny. Between the Tillermans’ love for one another and their financial straits, this is a family that could have come perilously close to resembling the Waltons’. My rereading of the book for this review reminded me of both George H.W. Bush’s declaration that “America needs more family like the Waltons”, and Jay Leno’s surprisingly sharp rejoinder that “America already has too many families like the Waltons. They live in shacks and have no jobs and no health care.”

No, the Tillermans don’t scratch and hustle around and show a steel-spined independence and ingenuity and manage to stay off welfare. If anything, Dicey and Abigail learn that self-reliance and pride can be carried too far, and that reaching out to other people can involve having to learn to accept kindness in the form of material assistance. They take the government benefits as well as some tactful gifts from their friends, and though this outrages Abigail’s pride the children only care that it upsets her. Then they all scratch and hustle around to make and save a few dollars here and there to put food on the table and the fewest possible items of clothing on their backs, as well as those few luxuries that are really necessities: piano lessons for musically talented, shy Maybeth who is humiliated by her slowness in school, and a quietly beautiful dress for Dicey who hates that is she is physically maturing into a woman. Their poverty may circumscribe what they can do and how they must live, but only in the same way bad weather would. It doesn’t inform who they are or how they relate to one another. It’s simply an incidental fact of life to be dealt with so they can get on with doing the things they need and want to do, and there are definitely no ridiculously systematic good nights called along the hallways of their Chesapeake Bay farmhouse.

Voigt’s depiction of the eventual tragic fate of Liza Tillerman and of Dicey and her family’s resulting grief is one of the most heartbreaking passages I can think of in children’s or young adult’s fiction. The Tillermans, as always, get on with the business of life, but Voigt skilfully weaves their emotions into everything they do – into Dicey’s Christmas shopping, into Dicey and Abigail’s train ride home from the hospital in Massachusett’s, into Maybeth’s choice of music, into Sammy’s unintentionally and poignantly funny comments, into Abigail’s showing the children old family photographs for the first time - until we know just how deep and far reaching their loss is.

And much the same thing can be said of Voigt’s entire body of work. Her characters are always too proud and active and intellectually curious to merely emote or wallow. They keep moving through their lives, doing mostly ordinary things, but always learning a little more, doing a little more, becoming something slightly more. And because Voigt’s sensitive, moving work always feels so real, her readers get to feel they have done the same.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Tales as Beautiful As They Are Good, Though They Are Neither One

The 1925 Newbery winner, Charles J. Finger’s Tales From Silver Lands, is a collection of nineteen folktales, gathered by Finger during his travels in South America. And, I might as well say this up front – I found these stories so uninteresting that I’m having difficulty finding anything to say about them.

I adored fairy and folk tales as a child and read all I could find. I loved finding stories from different countries, and comparing, say, the French Cinderella to her sisters of the hearth elsewhere in the world. Witches in especial fascinated me and I could never get enough of the Russian Baba Yaga. Now that I’m nominally a grownup, my tastes favour the grown-up version of the fairy tale. I love the fleshed-out retellings which feature actual character development instead of lines such as “she was as beautiful as she was good”, plots which have been beefed up to something far beyond the usual skeletal heroic quests and courtings, and the kind of sensory detail that makes fiction truly come to life. Some of my favourites are those written by Robin McKinley, who has done novel-length versions of "Sleeping Beauty", "Donkeyskin", and "Beauty and the Beast" (twice) as well as several short-story versions of a number of other well-known fairy tales; or Gregory Maguire’s sophisticated (and, for a pre9/11 novel, amazingly prescient) allegory of political terrorism Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Incidentally, if you like this kind of grownup fairy tale, you might like to check out this Ask Metafilter thread for titles to check out and add to your reading list.

When I read Tales from Silver Lands I wondered if the stories were really as dull and wooden as they seemed to me or if I were simply too old and blasé to enjoy them. Discovering “The Hungry Old Witch” in the collection helped settle the question, because I did read that story as a child and never cared for it. I distinctly remember rooting for the witch rather than “Stout Heart” and his “maiden full of winning grace”. To my considerable irritation Stout Heart won the day, and his fair maiden became his wife, who was supposedly loved by all the people of his land “as the fairest woman among them”. (Riiiiight.)

There’s something annoyingly didactic about these stories. Liars are always punished, the lazy meet with some disastrous consequences, the brave always win the day, those who eat too much are destroyed in some spectacular way by their sheer consequences of their own gluttony. The Hungry Old Witch drowns because of the weight of the turtles she has eaten. El-Enano, a sort of monstrous wild child who demands an unending supply of food from a village, dies because he mistakes hot coals for hot baked potatoes. In the “Bad Wishers” a childless woman is punished for wishing to have a strong boy and a girl with keen eyes when she gives birth to a blind, strong boy and a crippled, far-sighted girl. In “The Tale of the Lazy People” a tribe is overrun by magical carved wooden figures with long tails who do their work for them, and who eventually become monkeys who spend the rest of their existence laughing at mankind. In “A Tale of Three Tails”, the rat, the deer and the rabbit lose the beautiful long plumed tails they originally had for acts of treachery. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in the creation myths humankind has invented over the past millenniums physical characteristics and laws of nature are so often set as they are for punishment? Not only do we humans need reasons for why things are the way they are, we also seem to be wired with the need to believe the reasons are just.

I suppose the Tales from Silver Lands are the kind of stories that a group of well-meaning librarians thought would teach children the value of love and loyalty, bravery, hard work, and kindness, but instead they impress me more as a pill of questionable medicinal value in some very inferior jam. I’m sceptical that such overtly moralistic fiction has ever improved anyone’s character – at least, I question if it does more for the development of character and virtue than non-preachy fiction. And certainly there is little that is character-building about equating beauty with virtue and worth and making ugliness synonymous with evil, which these stories, like most folk and fairy tales, also continually do.

Perhaps Charles Finger simply didn’t manage to carry off the transposition of these stories from oral tellings to the written form. Stories that would probably be quite entertaining when told by one of Finger’s picturesquely described cigar-smoking old ladies at a communal fireside won’t play as well when dutifully typed word for word on paper. Folktales that have been told verbally for a century or more have a certain economy of language; they employ broad sweeping descriptions rather than fine detail, and rely on crowd-pleasing action and fast moving plots to give interest. There are limits to the human memory, and also to the time allowed before one’s audience wants the storyteller to wrap it up so they can go to bed. Literature, on the other hand, is for a different kind of audience, one that is putting a more concerted effort and time into the story and therefore expects more from it, such as the more contemplative pleasures of character development, inner conflict, and complexity of theme.

I wondered too if there might be some sort of cultural divide, and if Charles Finger should have also provided more societal context for his stories in order to make them more intelligible to North American readers, but I think not, despite Finger's cringeworthy references to the "worthy and simple people" he met in his travels (people are never simple to anyone but a condescending ass). After all, I have a Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm in one of my bookcases and have never read more than a third of its 727 pages for much the same reasons. These are elemental stories of the human experience and can be understood by anyone from any culture. And that’s a good thing. But they are also too elemental and simplistic to be interesting or to capture and engage the imagination, and this is not a good thing.