Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Little Jewel

I'm a sucker for bargain books. When I found The Matchlock Gun by Walter D. Edmonds as a bargain book, I picked it up for the kids, knowing nothing about it but that it was a Newberry winner. I'm so glad I did. I'm also glad that one of the kids "forgot" to put it back on the bookshelf so that it was lying on the kitchen table last Saturday while I was eating my lunch. I idly opened to the first page and was quickly enthralled.

This is a retelling of a true story from the pioneer days of New York State, when there was no "United States." The French and Indians are sweeping down into the frontier settlements, burning homes and killing settlers in the outlying areas. The book begins when Teunis Van Alstyne is leaving home for militia duty because of rumors of more raids. He leaves his wife, Gertrude, and their two young children home alone with reassurances that the militia will stop the Indians before they could threaten the Van Alstyne home.

He's wrong. Fortunately, one of the militia men is able to warn Gertrude that Indians are near, and the rest of the book relates the story of the plan Gertrude makes to protect her family using the only weapon they had available -- an antique Spanish gun that none of them are strong enough to hold.

I was impressed as I read it by the ingenuity and courage that Gertrude showed, and by the discipline and courage 10-year-old Edward showed. If either of them had failed, the entire family would no doubt have been murdered. But they don't fail, and the story lived on, handed down generation to generation until Walter Edmonds came across it and wrote it in a book.

I like this kind of story. It gives me new appreciation for what the pioneers did. Sure, we look back on it now and judge it as ethically wrong to push the Native Americans off their land. But you've got to admire the individuals who stuck with it through hardship for the dream of a better life for their families.

Something else I think is funny in this story -- Gertrude refused to go to her mother-in-law's brick house. She says it's because she thinks they'll be just as safe at their own home, but I can read between the lines -- there's no love lost between those two women. Gertrude would rather face the Indians alone than knuckle under to her mother-in-law!

Like A Box of Saltine Crackers

I just spent the last month working my way through Broken Bonds: The First Book of the Trevu Trilogy by FJ Warren. And like a box of saltine crackers, this book gave me something to chew on, but not a lot of the "nutrition" and flavor I'd like to get from my reading.

This book is the beginning of one of those sprawling "family" sagas that go through the experiences of several generations. In this case, the family is that of Captain Redvers Trevarthen, a mining magnate in Cornwall at the turn of the nineteenth century. This part of the saga picks up when Redvers' illegitimate son has been dropped on his doorstep. To make things interesting, the baby is mulatto, the result of Redvers' long-standing affair with an independent black woman in the nearby town. Despite the fact the baby was born in adultery, Redvers' wife insists that they keep him. The book then follows the developments of young Paul Trevarthen's life to the point where he becomes the master of Trevu (the family estate). This novel strongly reminds me of some of the "gothic" novels I read while growing up -- there's plenty of hob-nobbing in society, titillating action, illicit unions, forbidden love, and family secrets.

But maybe there's too much! You know you can choke on crackers if you shove too many in your mouth at once. The plot seems to meander along at times, with periods of intense action followed by equally-long description of the less exciting times of Paul's life. There's also a secondary plot concerning a young smuggler that is a little confusing because there's not a clear designation when the story switches from one plotline to the other. Clearly, this story is a setup for the rest of the trilogy in which events will be played out to a dramatic conclusion. I guess I'm wondering if it might have all fit in two books if some of the more mundane plot points had been left out. Maybe I'm becoming a child of the "instant gratification" society, but why should I have to munch through the whole box of dry cereal to get to the prize at the bottom of the box? (sorry for switching my analogy)

I wasn't really that enthralled with the main character, Paul; I thought he was spoiled and whiny. The smuggler, Joey Bolitho, was much more compelling to me. I found myself sort of attracted to him in a perverse way, despite the fact that he kills men with his bare hands. He's got a really interesting psyche, does Joey, but he doesn't get much time on the field in this story. I suppose he'll play a bigger role in the rest of the trilogy (because there are some pretty heavy-handed hints at the end of the story that Joey is more than he seems).

This book is Paul's story, though. I thought there was a missed opportunity to discuss the social consequences of being mulatto in the early 19th century. When Paul is a child, he faces discrimination for being dark-skinned; however, once he comes into young adulthood and is rich and good-looking, suddenly everyone (except the villain) seems to forget about it. I'm not so sure that's realistic. People might have been nice to him to his face, but I bet there would at least be some nasty remarks behind the closed doors of "withdrawing rooms." The same is true of his mother. At the time of Paul's birth, she is shunned by everyone in town (except Redvers' saintly wife). However, when Paul is grown, she comes back into his life as a respected and rich business owner. Everyone in town now treats her like anyone else. That just seems unrealistic to me. Then again, this book is not meaty social commentary; it is a family saga meant for entertainment and snacking.

I have to admit, one thing that made the book seem as dry to me as crackers was the "tell, not show" style in which it was written. Let me give an example. There is a scene where poor Joey is proposing to the woman he loves. Here's how it plays out in the book:

"Sitting quietly at the table with his beloved, he began to relate to her his wish to give up the smuggling, for he knew she detested it so. She made a favorable reply so he took a deep breath and proceeded to tell her that his circumstances were about to undergo a change. Explaining that if he accepted Barney's offer he would have to move away, he delicately informed her that he understood full well that she would not wish to leave her family during her father's sickness, but he would be quite prepared to wait for her until such time as it would be appropriate for her to do so."

No, no, no! I don't want you to tell me about that moment! I want to be able to experience it! I want to hear the words Joey says, to see his posture and the look on his face, to feel the earnestness with which he's making his plea. This is a very dramatic moment in the subplot -- play it up!

In all fairness to the author, there is another scene where Joey's beloved is once again turning down his marriage proposal, and it does a much better job of showing the action and allowing us to feel sympathy for both characters.

So, anyway, the box of crackers is finally all gone, and I'm ready to move on to something with a little more flavor and staying power.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Entry for October 21, 2007 - Why Didn't I Love This Book?

The book in question is The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw. You may notice that it's been two months since I posted any reading responses. Part of that is because school started again and the workload picked up considerably, part of that is because I've been obsessed with editing my own work, but part of the problem is I could not get into reading The Moorchild. It took me six weeks to read the book, honest, when I read the latest Harry Potter book (four times the size) in a matter of hours.

Why? I was absolutely captured by the first chapter -- thought it was the best first chapter I'd ever read. That chapter establishes character, time period, and tone, and draws the reader into a mystery -- is the baby a changeling or not? But after such promise early on, the book quickly settled into one of those bogs on the moor that McGraw describes -- I felt my mental feet being sucked into goo and had to forcefully pull them out.

I don't want to give the impression that I disliked the book -- I didn't. But I didn't fall in love with it, and that sort of surprises me. It had a very likeable protagonist -- Moql/Saaski, the changeling who doesn't know she is one, only that she is very different from all the other children in the village. Saaski's journey of self-discovery is mildly interesting, as she begins to put together the clues that tell her she is one of the Folk. She has an enchanting friend, Tam, who treats her well when all the other kids are just cruel to her. And the relationship between Saaski and the couple who think they are her parents is touching, especially the relationship with her da'. When Saaski is finally revealed to be Folk, I felt myself nearly tearing up at the loyalty and kindness Yanno shows to her.

Note I said nearly tearing up. Why did this book leave me sort of cold? I'm not really sure. Maybe the premise was a little too thin to be drawn out over so many chapters?? Maybe it had more flowery description than I personally care for?? I just don't know. Maybe the book is like Saaski herself -- able to detect emotion because of her human side, but unable to experience or revel in it because of her Folk side.

I'm not sorry I read it, but I feel a huge sense of relief that I'm finally through!

Entry for August 20, 2007 - I Don't Think I'll Ever Look at Books Quite the Same Way Again ...

(This has spoilers -- not "action" spoilers, but "idea" spoilers -- don't read this if you want to have the thrill of discovery for yourself.)

The premise of The Great Good Thing by Roderick Townley is a little hard to describe. It's a story about the characters in a book. The characters live inside the book, lounging around somewhere in the description or an illustration until the book is opened, at which time they rush to their places and begin to tell/act out the story for the Reader. That concept in itself is enough to endear this book to me; I can just imagine all the beloved characters I've encountered in my reading life waiting around for someone to crack the book open so they can spring into action.

But Townley is a poet, so this book isn't just a little fantasy about the hidden lives of book characters. It ends up becoming an exploration of dreams and thought and memory, of change and death, all viewed from the perspective of an unchanging storybook princess. This particular princess has an adventurous streak, so she crosses the margin of the book into the dreams of the little girl who is the latest Reader. It's fortunate that she does, because the Reader's pyromaniac of a brother ruins the book, and the only way the characters survive is by crossing into the Reader's mind.

That's when things get a little weird. At first, the characters are called "on stage" to perform in the little girl's dreams, which is difficult for some of them since they have to improvise. But as the Reader grows up, the characters are called to the stage less and less often, and finally, they set off to live in the mountains of her memory. But Readers, unlike book characters, have a limited lifespan, and once again, the princess has to take a risk to keep her friends and family from dying along with the Reader.

This book made me ponder the way memory functions -- in the book, once a person had encountered someone or something, whether in real life or through a book, an imprint (or something like that -- I'm not even sure what the right word would be) of that someone or something exists in the person's mind until he/she dies. Some never come to the person's conscious mind again, and they eventually rust away -- it was sort of ambiguous to me whether the memory/imprint disappears when they get too much rust on them. Other memories/imprints are pulled back out of the mountains in the back of our brains when something triggers the person to recall that memory. Sort of complicated -- yeah, this is a kid's book!

It's fun, though, to think of all the people and places and things that occupy my mind after 40-something years of experiences. Reading this book and thinking about its ideas got me to blow the rust off a few of those memory/imprints -- some, like my sixth-grade teacher, that I'm glad to think of again, and some, like that feckless guy I had a crush on my freshmen year of college, that I wouldn't mind to leave back in the dark recesses! (oh, the embarrassment, even now, ha ha!) And I'm aware of how many new people I've added to my brain this year through this reading resolution -- serious, dark-haired Will and simple, strong Suzanna; Beetle/Alyce, finding her own place in the world; Cassie Taylor and TJ Avery, dealing with terrible racism; heck, even Alex Rider, suave teenage spy. I like the idea of them all milling together in my brain like people at some really strange but interesting party (in a rosy pink dorm room like the one I had the first summer I went to the University of Kansas!). I like it a lot. I'm going to keep cramming more people into that party until it has to move somewhere with more room, like that quiet cove in the Smoky Mountains with the orange and purple sunset.

My sister, who is a very perceptive person, sent me a news article after I'd told her about this book. It said 25% of the population in the U.S. didn't read a single book last year. Just think of all the characters lounging against adjectives, waiting for Readers who never come.

Entry for August 17, 2007 - Rubber-necking at a Car Wreck

Pam Conrad's story of Nebraska pioneers, Prairie Songs, has a title that alludes (to me) to images of meadowlarks and wind in the grass, a peaceful scene. I think the title is misleading in that way -- though don't get me wrong -- I wouldn't change the title. After some thinking, the title seems right -- but only after some thinking.

The story starts with the arrival of a young doctor and his pregnant wife from New York City (I think -- the book doesn't give some details. It's like the narrator assumes we know them or that they don't matter.) to pioneer on the plains of Nebraska. The narrator of the story is a young girl whose family lives three miles away from the new arrivals, apparently their closest neighbors. The doctor, though citified with his waxed mustache, seems to adjust pretty well. His wife, Emmaline, is the problem. She is a beautiful and refined lady who makes the young narrator see her mother as a plain, brown walnut. Emmaline wears violet dresses with hoopskirts and perfume. She has trunk after trunk of books she has brought from the East. She abhors the fact she will be living in a sod house and burning cow chips, but she accepts it at first, not cheerfully, I suppose, but with a sort of resigned grace. It doesn't take too long, though, for the reader to know she's not going to make it. And from that point on, I read the book with the sort of grostesque fascination that people driving by a car wreck feel -- you don't really want to see the horrible details, yet you can't keep from looking.

I won't give away what happens to her in the end, but I will say I was surprised by the "weapon" that brought her final destruction. It's very appropriate, though.

The story really isn't about what happens to Emmaline, though. It's about what happens to Louisa (the girl who narrates the story). At first, Louisa is sort of ashamed of her mother in comparison to the beautiful Emmaline, but at the end, she "realized she didn't look at all like a walnut . . . . My momma was truly a beautiful lady . . . . Not beautiful, maybe, like Mrs. Berryman had been, but beautiful in a way that made me feel good inside."

That started me thinking about what it would take to be a woman on the frontier, and about why some women were able to survive or even thrive, and why some women collapsed under the strain. Didn't the doctor realize when he was planning to come to the West that Emmaline was unsuited for pioneer life? I suppose we all fool ourselves that people will "get used to the situation." One of the things that I sort of wish had been developed a little more in the book was the backstory for Louisa's Momma. There are hints that she may have had a hard adjustment to make when they first came to Nebraska, but just what kind of struggles she may have had or how she overcame them is never part of the story. I think that might have strengthened the theme (what I thought was the theme, anyway).

I guess it comes down to something the guy on that Discovery Channel show Man vs. Wild said about surviving in one episode (can't quote it directly) -- it's all in a person's outlook. If you have a positive outlook and believe you are going to make it, that you have to make it, the odds are much better that you will make it. Emmaline never believed it, not for a minute, and that's the tragedy of her story.

Entry for August 4, 2007 - I've Met My Nemesis...

. . . . and it is a Christian romance novel called Celebrating the American Woman: Theodosia by Meredith Bean McMath. I can't read this book. I've gotten through the first two chapters, and maybe I'm a snob, but I just don't want to read any more of it. I bought it at a used book store for $1 on a rainy afternoon while waiting to go pick up my kids from some activity. It caught my eye because it's historical fiction (and we know how much I love that!) about a period of time I am quite interested in (the nineteenth century before the American Civil War). I'm not a romance novel reader (I've actually only made it through one in my entire life, probably for the same reasons I can't make it through this one!), but I'm not averse to a romantic story. But it takes more than the romance to satisfy the reader in me.

This story seems to have promise -- a young American woman is spending the summer with her aunt in England to learn social graces and be introduced to the "people who matter" (my phrase, not one in the book). The book opens when she is at tea with the most influential people in town, finds the father's will by accident in the library, and mistakes their youngest son for a servant. The book cover promises that she "stumbles upon a dark family secret" -- normally, my naturally abundant curiosity would kick in, but I skimmed around enough in the last chapter this morning after I decided to quit reading the book to guess the "dark secret" is not really that interesting. The two main characters seem likeable enough. So why don't I like this book?

It's not written very well!!! (Sorry, Meredith McMath, if you're reading this!) (as if, ha ha) The thing that finally turned me off this morning happened while the young hero had stolen to Theodosia's window to apologize for allowing her to go on thinking he was a servant, which led to her humiliation in front of his parents. A nice enough scene to build character. But then OUT OF NOWHERE, the author inserted a lengthy section on Theodosia's relationship with her father and how he never seemed quite pleased with her and how that hurt her. HUH???? I'm no published author, but it seems to me that when you have your heroine and hero together, you squeeze every bit of possibility out of that moment and keep your readers focused on that relationship and wondering how it will turn out. I think it's incredibly disorienting to have the reader's "eyes" focused on one scene and then without warning and without reason to suddenly throw another, totally unrelated scene in front of him/her.

Another thing that bothers me is that there is a bit of a "mostly tell, a little show" style to the storytelling. I like to think I'm an intelligent person. You don't have to tell me Theodosia is insecure in this strange setting and explain in detail why that is so. Show her doing something, and I bet I'm smart enough to pick up by what she does and what she says that she's insecure. I can't take credit for that particular line of thinking -- I've seen that advice in different "how to write" manuals, and as I pay attention to the way something is written, it seems to be good advice. Speaking from my own experience of writing, it takes a lot of discipline from the writer and a certain amount of giving some control to your reader. You have to share the characters and let the readers experience the events of the story rather than keeping all the control for yourself. It's not easy to share, especially when those characters mean so much to you and you want to be sure people understand and love them just as you do. But if you don't let go a little, the readers will never get close enough to the characters to care -- and they'll quit reading.

I feel a bit arrogant to be passing judgment on Mrs. McMath's writing -- after all, she is, according to the back cover, "a gifted novelist" with more than this book published. And who am I? Just another wishful writer, nursing along my own first little historical novel whenever I get the time, insecure that anyone would even want to read it in an environment saturated by "chick lit" and fantasy stories, not even sure I actually WANT to show it to someone else and have to give away my beloved characters. I hope I don't have a beam in my own eye when I'm picking at the speck in hers.

But I'm still not going to read that book.

Entry for July 30, 2007 -- Rich on So Many Levels

I've had a few days now to think about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling. The more I think about it, the more there is to think about. For this blog entry, I'm just going to go through some random issues related to the book, not try to give any kind of coherent "review."

Where to start????

First of all, it was a great adventure story. There were several times when I found myself so tense as I was reading about the situations the "trio" got themselves into, I had to laugh at myself. My arms would actually be weak after I put the book down, ha ha! At various times during this whole series I've found the "old fogey" in me scolding Harry for getting into situations that put him in so much danger -- in this book, though, the danger and the situations are a natural culmination of the earlier action -- this book is about a war. It's thrilling and fun to read.

I guess now I'll talk about what I see as the overall message of the book, although as I try to come up with that message I think the book is sort of like the Mirror of Erised -- a person sees what he/she desires to see -- or is predisposed to see. To me, this book is about faith. SPOILER ALERT!! This theme struck me most clearly when I was reading Harry's thoughts as he is trying to decide whether to follow the task Dumbledore set out for him or to pursue the new angle he's sure Voldemort is up to. "He felt that he was still groping in the dark; he had chosen his path but kept looking back, wondering whether he had misread the signs, whether he should not have taken the other way. " He's angry and disappointed that Dumbledore didn't spell it out for him so that he knew what he should do. In the end, he must trust that Dumbledore has told him enough, and he has to act on that faith. Isn't that an appropriate allegory for the Christian life? How many times in my own life have I wondered if I'm doing the right thing, wishing God would put an unambiguous message in neon letters in the sky so I could know? But if we know, it's not faith, is it? The power of faith is acting on the basis of trust -- to give up our own need to know and see how everything fits together, and to follow the path the Master has set our feet on. We have to trust that the Master has given us enough of whatever it is we need to do what He asks of us.

I have loved the character of Harry since the first book. Over the series, it's been fun to watch his growth both as a "normal human being" and as "the Chosen One." In the climatic chapter of Deathly Hallows, it is touching to see how he deals with being both of those when the roles are mutually exclusive. I've seen articles since the book came out that compare Harry to Christ, and I don't know about that -- I'm not really comfortable with that comparison. But that chapter did relate to something I've thought about lately, and that is, what was Jesus thinking about as He went to the cross and while He was on the cross? Maybe there were some parallels to Harry's thinking as he walked into the forest to meet Voldemort. I have wondered lately if the cry "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" was not so much a cry of despair as it was the beginning of a recitation of Psalm 22 (which begins with those very words), a clinging to something that gave strength and comfort, just as Harry's --- well, don't want to give away TOO much!!

(If you're wondering why I said that about Psalm 22, it's because the last section of the psalm describes the Lord's -- and thus the Lamb's -- victory. I believe Jesus would have been well-versed in the scriptures, to the point of having much of it committed to memory. He would know the psalm that began with despair ends in triumph. But I digress too far!)

There's also a really interesting discussion-starter for students of ethics. Was Dumbledore right or wrong to treat Harry the way he did? His behavior is a good example of utilitarian ethics, and generally, I think, we would argue he's right. But seeing it from the viewpoint of the one chosen to suffer for the many is interesting.

The only thing I was disappointed in about the book was that Rowling didn't bring the four houses together in the end in a rejection of evil. The Slytherins still didn't join in. I read one posting on HPfGU (Harry Potter for Grownups) that explicated the book as confirming the power of labels and of underscoring the notion that some people are just "good," while others are just "bad," and that can't be changed. Yeah, I kind of wish there had been some change of heart for at least some of the Slytherins.

I also did not care for the epilogue, but that's because the wrong people ended up together -- in my opinion, anyway! And I despise Mrs. Weasley!! I can't really understand why -- I try to intellectualize it, but I can't seem to do that. I just have a gut reaction of truly disliking that character. I hope it's not as people say -- the things we despise most in others are the faults in ourselves, ha ha.

Oh, there's much, much more to think about and talk about. But I think I'll let this post go at this point. I'm sure there's a limit to people's tolerance!!!But I'm left with one burning question: Was Dolores Umbridge an agent of Voldemort, or was she just a bully?

Entry for July 3, 2007 - Making History Live

I took a bit of a break from children's/young adult's fiction to read a book written for adults, Where the Road Begins by Nancy Dane. I have a distant connection to Nancy, sort of a "friend of a friend of a friend," so I thought I should read her book, her first to be published. The story centers around a 15-year-old boy in the Ozark Mountains and the hardships the Civil War brought on him and his family. At first, I thought I was not going to be able to get very far. For the first six chapters, I was just trudging along with her by the force of will. The plot wasn't going anywhere -- it was more like a "manual" on how people used to live. That's ok if I'm reading nonfiction, but I guess I expect a story to move. I also was overwhelmed by the number of characters introduced in those first chapters -- I felt like I needed a chart to keep them straight. I had almost written the book off as one of those "homemade" stories, as my mother calls them.

However, things finally started to move when Elijah was "conscripted" (read "kidnapped") into the Confederate Army and was marching toward the battle of Pea Ridge. From that point on, I was intrigued to know how his story would turn out, and in fact, toward the end, didn't put the book down until I was finished (that's always a good sign).

I had the good fortune a couple of days later to actually visit the Pea Ridge National Military Park, and the experience of the book and the experience of seeing the site of the battle came together in my mind in a most satisfying way. I don't know about you, but when I studied history in high school and even in college, it was just a collection of dry facts -- dates, battles, leaders. But standing and looking out on the battlefield where General McCulloch was shot and killed, I had a sense of those events happening to people. Those little red and blue lines in the diagrams in the textbooks were made up of real men, cold and hungry, away from their families, marching because their generals told them to march, having no idea of the big picture of the battle, shooting when they saw "the enemy," hiding behind trees to avoid being shot themselves. The arrogance of General Van Dorn becomes more tragic, a flaw that cost thousands of lives instead of just a tactical error that caused him to lose the "biggest battle west of the Mississippi." It's a thrilling way to look at history, and I think it's a shame that viewpoint doesn't find its way into the classroom more often. (Of course, I think there's a strong possibility I am a true geek about this -- the other day, I was doing some historical research for a project I'm working on, and I was looking at the actual manuscript of a journal from 1822. I got such a thrill from holding that browned paper in my hands and thinking that nearly 200 years ago, the Rev. Alfred Finney -- a real person with his own agenda and motivations -- sat down to write those words. Yes, a thrill, ha ha!)

So, what I thought was going to be a tedious read actually turned out to be something I will probably read again someday. But, at the risk of seeming too picky, there were a few things I didn't like. 1) There were spelling errors -- not just regular words, either, but names. Within two pages, I once found the name of the editor of the Arkansas Gazette spelled three different ways. That's just sloppy editing. If it was some fictional character, I might be more forgiving, but when you can go to the historical documents and find the right way to spell the name with just a little trouble, you ought to do it. 2) I really didn't like any of the female characters (except one who was a minor character and quickly disappeared). They just weren't sympathetic to me. I couldn't see why Elijah was so crazy about Cindy -- she seemed like a real spoiled brat. His mother, too. But the author seems to hold them up as the peak of "delicate womanhood." Bleah. 3) I thought Elijah matured WAY too fast. Of course, I suppose war does that, but I'm talking physically too. At the beginning of the book (which would have been September 1861? I think), Dane described Elijah as barely needing to shave. After the battle of Pea Ridge (March 1862) --6 months later -- he had a full beard. Hmmmmm . . . . something's not right there. . . . guess it was the Army coffee, ha ha. That's the kind of thing that takes me out of the flow of a story and sort of ruins my "suspension of disbelief" -- but maybe I'm just too picky.

Entry for June 30, 2007 - Has the World Really Changed THAT Much???

As I noted in an earlier post, one reason I'm doing this particular resolution this year is because I want to keep in touch with what my children are reading and to revisit some of the books I remember from my own childhood. I recently finished one of the books I truly treasured when I was a little girl -- Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden. It's a story about finding your place. Nona, the little girl who was uprooted from her home in India and sent to live with cousins in England, finds her place by caring for two little Japanese dolls who are also a long way from home. She forgets her own loneliness by trying to make the dolls as much at home as possible, working with her cousin Tom to build them an authentic Japanese house and with a classmate from school to furnish it with appropriate furniture. The story also has a side plot with the youngest cousin, a little girl named Belinda, who learns something about jealousy and letting someone else be the center of attention for a change. The story didn't have quite the hold on me that it once had, but that was 35 years ago, ha ha!

I suggested it to my daughter for summer reading, and she started it on a trip to camp. That was two weeks ago, and she hasn't picked it up since. It's not too hard for her -- she was reading it out loud (as she always does), and she didn't miss any words. I'm sure if I asked her if she likes it, she would say it's ok. But it just doesn't grab her, and I can't say exactly why unless it is that she lives in a different world as a child than I did. A kind, gentle story about a girl building a house for dolls seems to have trouble competing in an environment that includes Captain Underpants (whom I hate), Harry Potter (whom I love), and the Baudelaire orphans (my daughter is reading the first book in the Series of Unfortunate Events instead of finishing the doll book).

This is even more of a problem with my son -- we had a MAJOR battle over Johnny Tremain. Well, to call it a "major" battle is hyperbole -- but suffice it to say, I strongly suggested it to fulfill his historical fiction requirement for school this year, and he pretended to read it but couldn't answer specific questions about important plot points. When I asked him why, he said it was boring. I couldn't understand -- I loved Johnny when I was my son's age. I read the first couple of chapters after this battle with my son, and it still captures my imagination just like it did when I was 12. But I asked a couple of other young friends (ages 15-22) about it; most of them had never read it, and the one who had didn't like it.

It makes me wonder what makes a "classic." We hear that term batted around all the time. I suppose my definition would be "a work that has something important to say, with well-developed characters that the reader cares about." But is something REALLY a classic if no one reads it?

At least one "classic" from my childhood is still holding up -- my daughter really liked the first two Laura Ingalls Wilder books.

No sooner had I finished posting this entry than I go into the living room and find my son reading Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. I said, "Do you like it?" and he gave sort of a noncommital shrug and nodded. Go figure . . . .

Entry for June 7, 2007 - Just What IS "Moral," Anyway?

First, I have to sadly confess that I failed to keep my resolution. During May, I didn't read. Well, I read a lot of student papers and a lot of tests, but that's a lame excuse. The real reason is that I got so involved with a writing project I have going that I didn't do anything else (other than tossing food at my family three times a day and making sure they had at least one pair of clean underwear, lol). I'm disappointed in myself -- I thought I was on a real roll with this resolution. Ah, well.

But I think maybe I redeemed myself today. I had to kill a little time while my son was at basketball camp, so I went to the local library. I browsed the "teen" section looking for a particular book I want to find and read, and instead picked up The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman. I commandeered the comfy rocking chair in the little kid's section and I finished the book in an hour and a half (and still got back in time to see my son get "camper of the day"!).

When I got home, I perused a few online reviews for the book (I like to see what other people say) and I found one that bothered me. The writer of this review had given the book one star (out of 5), which is ok -- everybody has an opinion. But I thought the argument this person gave for the low rating missed the whole point of the novel. As a result, this entry is going to serve as a rebuttal to that misguided (from my viewpoint) review.

The review called the novel "vulgar" and "very inappropriate." It complained about cruelty to animals and a lack of "good, moral characters," citing specifically the scene when the midwife believes a baby is going to die before birth and so leaves the mother to go attend another birth -- and manage to be paid for both. The review ended by saying "this is a book that should be avoided" as young people try to establish healthy self-concepts and relationships.

I couldn't disagree more! I think that reviewer fails to understand the irony of this novel. Brat/Beetle/Alyce is the lowest of the low in human society, a nameless, homeless beggar, and yet she shows a compassion and humilty that make her stand in direct contrast to the hypocrisy of the "regular" folk. She doesn't overtly condemn them, and maybe that's what the reviewer doesn't like, but I think her observations allow us to condemn them instead, so that we are the ones making the moral decisions, not just listening to someone else preach them to us. A good example is what happens while Alyce is working at the inn. We find out that she is learning to work sawdust into the pie crust to make it stretch farther and other practices that Alyce accepts as part of the way things are, but that we know are cheating and just plain wrong. Cushman has made the moral judgments subtle, and I guess we have to have a base in good morals already to recognize that subtlety. Looks like to me it would make a great basis for discussion of moral behavior with young people who are at the point in life where they are establishing their own ethical parameters.

As for the charge of being "vulgar," I'm not entirely sure what the reviewer refers to -- I suppose he/she doesn't like the discussions of childbirth, maybe the opening scene when Beetle is sleeping in a pile of dung, maybe the language (I think I saw "piss" in there once - I don't remember if there was anything else that might have been objectionable). Guilty as charged. But -- what does "vulgar" mean? I checked my dictionary -- "vulgar" is "1)of or associated with the great masses of people as distinguished from the educated or cultivated classes; common; 2) deficient in taste, delicacy, or refinement; 3) ill-bred, boorish, crude; 4) obscene or indecent; offensive, coarse or bawdy. (There are others, but these seemed most relevant.) I checked also the definition of "obscene" and found that it "strongly suggests lewdness or indecency, particularly in reference to accepted standards of morality." I can't think of anything in the book that could be considered lewd or as possibly inciting lust, so that can't be the intended meaning for "vulgar." I'm going to assume the reviewer is basing use of this term on the second and third definitions above. Yes, sleeping in a pile of dung is crude and deficient in delicacy. But Beetle is not Pollyanna -- Beetle is a product of a cruel society that would allow a young girl to grow up having to fend for herself and take warmth where she can find it. The childbirth scenes are filled with screaming and writhing and slippery babies, yes, but you know what? Childbirth hurts, and babies don't come out clean the way they do on TV. Actually, there's not a lot of graphic detail in those scenes -- most of the emphasis is on what the midwife tries to do in terms of potions and other remedies to ease the birth. People in the book take baths in the river; they get caught "cuddling" in the barn; men try to get Alyce to give them a kiss. Yeah, that's all vulgar -- but this is a book of the common people. And people do those things -- it's part of human nature (well, ok, I don't know the last time anyone I know took a bath in the river, ha ha). Personally, I appreciate that Cushman puts in the warts instead of giving medieval English society a bit of plastic surgery to make it more palpable to our more delicate and refined modern tastes (although we still have problems with adultery and sexual harassment!).

The reviewer said the book is not worth the paper it's printed on. He/she is entitled to that opinion. I think, however, there is much about ethics and morality that can be gleaned from the book. In fact, I think the entire book is about ethics!! I certainly don't think young people should avoid the book. Some of them may be able to pick up on the ethical/moral implications on their own, while some may need the guidance of an adult to see the issues, but either way, I think it can be an asset in helping their ethical reasoning mature.

Oh, and as a communication teacher, I have to say I really appreciated the part where she names herself and then refuses to let others label her anymore.

Entry for April 30, 2007 - This Is for My Son

My son, age 11, is a big fan of fantasy stories of all kinds. During the past year, he discovered the Alex Rider adventure series, and somehow, the two of us made a deal -- I would read one of the Alex Rider books that he wanted me to read if he would read some historical fiction I want him to read.

Well, it took me about a whole month, but I finally finished Skeleton Key by Anthony Horowitz, the third book in the series, I guess. I must say, I'm not much of a fan of the "action" genre, but the book wasn't as poorly written as I honestly had expected it to be. I can see why it appeals to young boys. Alex is a 14-year-old schoolboy who is a spy for MI6, complete with cool gadgets, really evil adversaries, pretty girls (but not too much kissing!), exotic locations, and action, action, action. I was a little alarmed at first by the violence (several people die), but I realized it's "cartoon violence" (or "action genre violence," I suppose).


I might have been content to say, ok, I've read your action book, now you owe me Johnny Tremain. But all that changed today when I read Soldier's Heart by Gary Paulsen. It's a very short book (I was able to finish it in one day and still maintain my job duties, lol) that I had checked out of the university library, hoping my son might use it to fulfill the reading requirement for historical fiction for his language arts class. He never acted interested in it, so I was about to return it today, opened it, read the first few pages, and had to finish.

It struck me as I was finishing Soldier's Heart that it is a perfect foil to Skeleton Key. (may be spoilers ahead!) Both of the main characters are young boys -- Alex Rider in Skeleton Key is 14, Charley Goddard in Soldier's Heart is 15. Both end up in very violent situations -- Alex has to save the world from a madman with a nuclear bomb, while Charley is fighting the Civil War. Both of them end up with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder -- although that's not what either book calls it, of course (although Gary Paulsen talks about PTSD as a phenomenon in wars in his forward to the book). What is different is how the reader is led to experience the character's experience of the PTSD.

In Alex Rider's story, the awful things that happen to him are cartoonish, as I said earlier, and he always deals with them skillfully. Early in the story, he's surfing on a rare huge wave off the coast of Cornwall when a member of a Chinese gang chases him down on a jet-ski. Think about it -- this is a 14-year-old boy this is happening to. He does a skateboard-style flip, makes a "perfect landing" behind the jet-ski. But the gangster has a gun, and Alex has to jump on the jet-ski and throttle the guy's throat before the jet-ski goes out of control and they both are under the wave. (Fortunately for Alex, his pretty friend is there to pull him out and give him the "kiss of life.")

In Charley Goddard's story, his first battle makes him wet his pants. It's not pleasant to read, meaning Paulsen has done a good job of portraying the horror of seeing the head of the guy next to you severed by cannon fire, and the confusion of being in a storm of bullets, frozen and unable to remember anything you learned in training, dropping to the ground and using the bodies of your fellow soldiers to shield you from the bullets. And to me, the worst part is that Charley realizes there is no "out" -- when the commanders say to form a line and walk into oncoming fire, you do it, even if it is totally senseless.

Both Alex and Charley are affected by their experiences. At the end of Skeleton Key, Horowitz describes Alex's experience of PTSD: "Everything had worked out all right. He was a hero! So why did he feel like this? And how exactly did he feel? Depressed? Exhausted? He was both of those things, but worse still, he felt empty . . . Life was all around him, but he wasn't a part of it." I can't help thinking as I read that passage that this is the "cool" way for a spy to be -- detached from life, a la James Bond. No one can get to him, because his emotions are so suppressed, and that makes him the perfect tool for a spy agency. I don't especially feel for Alex, because it seems like part of the job.

But it feels more personal with Charley, even though the end result is the same -- isolation. Here's how Paulsen describes it: "He had waited with them, of course, and had settled into camp life and even marching life, but he still believed in the inevitability of battle and most of all believed in the absolute certainty of his own death. He could not live. Many others would die with him and many would live but he knew one thing: He would die. In the next battle or the one after that or the one after that he would die."

There is another scene in which Charley goes "battle crazy" and chases after the retreating Rebels until an officer stops him. And the impression I got (although it's not explicitly in the text) is that the officer is amused and thinks "now there's what we need -- fighters like that!" The irony of it -- to me -- is that an army does need fighters like that, soldiers who have been "ruined" as human beings (sorry if that sounds rough) so they can do the inhumane things soldiers have to do. I don't want to offend anyone with the "ruined" comment, but I do think war changes a person's life drastically. We talk about veterans who die as making a sacrifice, but I think anyone who goes into a battle situation has made a sacrifice. Even if he (or she) is not wounded, the things that he/she sees and has to do cannot leave that person untouched. The life he/she would have had before going to war will never be -- there will only be the life as shaped by the battles.

So --- it's very depressing to me. We give boys heroes like Alex Rider so they think "action" is cool. But the action people are facing in Iraq is not cool. You can't do a backflip and avoid the suicide bomber. As a mother, I pray my son will never have to be in Charley Goddard's shoes -- and I pray for the sons who are there now.

Entry for April 9, 2007 - I Hope the Movie Is Better

My son has been asking to go to the movie Bridge to Terabithia, so I thought I would read the book first. Usually, movie adaptations of books are too overdone, in my opinion (like that ridiculous scene when Harry falls out of the flying car in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets). But after reading Bridge to Terabithia (by Katherine Paterson), I hope the movie can fill in some of the richness I so longed for while reading.

I'm beginning to think I have something against Newberry Award winners, because I haven't really liked either of the ones I've read so far this year. Bridge to Terabithia is the story of a poor boy (Jess) with an artistic, sensitive soul who befriends the new girl in school (Leslie), who is shunned by everyone else because she is too different (for one thing, her family doesn't have a TV). Their friendship centers around the imaginary kingdom of Terabithia, which they create in a forest and enter via a rope swing over a stream.

(SPOILER ALERT!)

While Jess is visiting museums in Washington with his favorite teacher, Leslie tries to cross to Terabithia and falls when the rope swing breaks, killing her. The story then deals with the emotions Jess feels as he tries to cope with her death and his feelings of guilt for not inviting her on the trip with him.

I think this is fine subject matter for a children's book, but I kept having the weird feeling that I was missing something, like I had skipped over a couple of really important paragraphs that kept me from completely "getting" the story. For example, I wanted more explanation of Terabithia. All I know about it is that the friends built a little shack from scrap lumber but turned it into a castle for a kingdom by using their imaginations. Paterson hints to us about the kinds of adventures Jess and Leslie have in their imaginary kingdom, but I guess I wanted it more fleshed out so I could better identify with the characters.

Overall, the whole story seemed to be a Cliff Notes version of itself. I thought there were several times when characters did things that were not well-motivated (for example, why does his teacher call him up out of the blue and invite him to Washington? She had not been in the book for several chapters. AND what 20-something teacher in her right mind would invite a 10-year-old boy on a "field trip" without talking to his parents herself???!!!) . And Jess' father goes from basically ignoring him to being sensitive and supportive when Leslie dies, which could happen, I guess, but just feels contrived (to me). I've read other books in the "kid dealing with death" genre (like A Taste of Blackberries a LONG time ago, and others), and this one doesn't seem to have a convincing ring to it.

I want to like these characters, and I want to be a "participant" in Terabithia. But this book just seems to have an emotional distance that keeps me at arm's length, like it's afraid of me getting too close, and so I can't really be friends with it.

Entry for March 20, 2007 - At Long Last, Satisfaction

(Note: This will contain spoilers!)

Ok, I'm being a little snarky with that title. Forged in the Fire is the sequel to No Shame, No Fear (see my entry for January 19). The romance between Susanna and Will that begins in No Shame picks up again -- after three years of letter-writing between Susanna (still in Hemsbury) and Will, who has gone to London to try to find work after being disowned by his father. And I must admit -- Will and Susanna aren't the only ones who come away from this story satisfied; when I finished it last night (after devouring it in less than 24 hours), I felt that it was just right -- a delightful historical romance, worthy of sitting on the same shelf with something like The Witch of Blackbird Pond.

I thought No Shame, No Fear was Susanna's story, even though Will tells half of it and much of the plot centers around the conflict with his father that Will faces after deciding he will be a Quaker. Forged in the Fire is Will's story, at least for the first half of the book. He is in London, which in 1665 is on the verge of major historical events. Turnbull does very well in winding her plot through those events, making them personal through Will. He suffers brutal treatment in prison for being a "Dissenter"; he loses his employment (and therefore his prospects for providing for Susanna as his wife) because of plague; a year later, his home and livelihood are burned to the ground in the Great Fire of London.

Against these momentous events, the relationship between Will and Susanna plays out, more important in their perspective than anything else that happens -- and isn't that realistic? Despite what's going on in the world, the thing that most concerns us is what's going on in our own small lives. They've been corresponding for three years through letters that take weeks to travel from one to the other, staying faithful to their promise to be true to each other, planning their marriage as soon as Will is set up well enough to provide a suitable home. All that is thrown into question when Susanna unexpectedly comes to London and sees Will in a situation that makes her doubt their relationship can actually work. They are estranged for some weeks, only to be reconciled by a noble and unselfish act on the part of their common friend, Nat Lacon. (More about him in a minute.)

The only thing that disappointed me a little was a lost opportunity. Turnbull did such a good job in No Shame of portraying Susanna's "moment of faith" -- the point at which she realized she did have the strength to be true to her faith and to do the right thing, even if it was painful. It was one of my favorite parts of the book. Turnbull sets Will up for something similar -- and then doesn't deliver, because of the demands of the romance, I guess. But here's what I wish she had done: when Will is sent to prison (not for the first time, by the way), he admits the gate of the prison "always filled me with dread." He suffers horribly in the prison, and he knows he's not "made of the stuff of martyrs." He nearly dies, but a wealthy Friend rescues him and nurses him back to health. This man just happens to have a lovely daughter near Will's age, a daughter who is not yet committed to being Quaker. She has just been to visit cousins who are still Anglican, and she says going to church is "easier" than being a Quaker. I think here would have been a good opportunity to have Will face the temptation of an easier life, one free from persecution and fear -- but -- it's the author's choice. And I'm not dissatisfied with her choice.

I do feel sort of bad for poor Nat, though. He's that secondary character who gets stuck in the role of making things work out for others. Oh, Turnbull sort of throws him a bone at the end, but that's exactly what it seemed like -- a convenient "let's make sure Nat has someone, too." I feel like he deserved better.

Can you tell these characters came to life on the page for me??

I want to add these additional thoughts about this book that came from a discussion I had with someone in a different context (I was recommending the book for a teen reader):

I recently read a pair of books by Ann Turnbull set in 17th century London -- No Shame, No Fear and Forged in the Fire. The story is set in England, and the historical element is the persecution of Quakers and then the dramatic events of 1665-66 in London (the plague and the Great Fire). The main story, however, focuses on the relationship between an Anglican boy and a Quaker girl. The first book, I thought, did very well with portraying infatuation -- in the end, however, the characters make a mature decision to postpone a quick marriage. The second book picks up after three years of waiting for each other and keeping their relationship alive by letters. There is a brief "coming together" scene that I thought was handled tastefully and that is followed immediately by the young man's determination to carry out his responsibility to provide for his wife-to-be. Although the physical element of their attraction to each other is a part of the story, the characters always view that element in relationship to other parts of life, like religion and economics, and I think that is a good example for young people. After all, sex is part of life, but it doesn't rule life -- which is not the message teens get from so many media sources.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Entry for March 15, 2007 - You've Come a Long Way, Baby!

My first book for March was a little historical novel called The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker by Cynthia DeFelice. It has good reviews, and I thought it might be one I could suggest for my son, since he has to read some historical fiction for his language arts class. I don't know that I liked it quite as much as the reviewers did, but certainly I didn't see anything that I didn't like. It was just a nice, solid, little story, maybe a little simpler than what I am in the mood to read right now.

The novel takes place in New England, 1849, and is the story of a young boy who has lost his entire family to "consumption." A neighbor tells him of a "cure" that involves exhuming the first member of the family to die of the disease; however, by this time, everyone in Lucas' family is dead. Racked with guilt, Lucas wanders into a town, where he becomes an apprentice to a man who is the town's doctor/dentist/barber/undertaker. The rest of the story focuses on the struggle between superstition and knowledge that must have been a defining characteristic of the practice of medicine in the 19th century.

DeFelice does a good job of working three approaches to early medical care into her story. On the one hand, there are the superstitious townspeople who are so desperate for a cure to save their remaining family members that they will do gruesome things to the corpses of other loved ones from their family on the authority of rumors and promises that the "cure" worked in far-off places. A couple of incidents show the nearly-ridiculous lengths these people are willing to go to because of their need to have faith in something -- ANYTHING -- in the face of a terminal diagnosis.

Then there is the half-Indian woman Lucas spends some time with. She is amused by the superstitions of the townspeople, and yet some of her methods would seem just as silly to us today (like cobwebs for bleeding). She is the character that represents what I guess I would call "practical" medicine -- she knows all the herbs that can be made into teas or poultices, and most of them probably did have some actual medical effect. But she is an outcast among the townspeople, who consider her a witch.

Finally, there is the doctor that Lucas is apprenticed to. He keeps meticulous records of the weather and of his patients, looking for any patterns that might emerge to indicate a cause-effect relationship. His sister (who lives with him as housekeeper) insists on hygiene. The doctor has sympathy for the families who believe in the "cure," but he makes it clear to Lucas that it is mere superstition that makes them do what they are doing. However, he also admits that he doesn't have any answer and that there's nothing he can do for the patients with consumption. At the end of the book, he has acquired a microscope, and he and Lucas are being introduced to the world of "animacules."

I read a non-fiction book several years ago about medicine in the 19th century. It's shocking to think how little they knew of what we take for granted today -- how disease is transmitted, how to prevent that transmission, the role that clean drinking water plays in health (that book emphasized the terrible cholera epidemics of the 19th century), even basic cleaniness. I think DeFelice's little book is probably a pretty good way to help kids be aware that things weren't always the way they are now and that people routinely died from diseases that we don't even take that seriously anymore.

Oh, one last thing -- the book has enough of a "gross" factor that I think my son will get into it. Usually I like to read while I'm having my lunch at work -- not this book!! There are rather graphic descriptions of graverobbing and an amputation scene (with no anesthesia, of course) that would have turned my stomach if I let myself think about it too much. It's not that DeFelice goes out of her way to be gross; grossness just seems to go with the territory of 19th-century life, particularly that of a doctor!

Postscript: My son actually did NOT like the book, precisely because of the gross factor! He read five chapters, then quit. Oh, well, shows what I know!

Entry for February 28, 2007 - In Which She Reflects on Race Relations

I cut it close, but I did manage to finish my book for this month -- here on the last day.

I knew there were kid/young adult books written by African American authors that have had good reviews, so I thought I would read one this month. I selected Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor. It's a Newberry Award winner, so I expected it to be exceptionally good. However, I was disappointed, especially at first-- in fact, I considered just dropping the book and moving on to something like Bud, Not Buddy. The book moves very slowly in the beginning -- VERY slowly. Taylor likes to use description -- the "slow the story down to a crawl" type of description, and the characters don't really seem to ring true to me. The "good" characters are totally good, and the "bad" characters are totally bad with no redeeming qualities. It seemed like a sort of cardboard morality story.

(Note: This entry is going to contain spoilers, because I can't say what I want to without revealing important plot action.)

The narrator of the story is 9-year-old Cassie Logan, who lives with her 3 brothers, her parents, and her grandmother in the Mississippi delta in 1933. The story goes through most of a year with the Logan family, who are different than the other black families in the area because the Logans own their land instead of sharecropping for the wealthy descendants of the pre-Civil War plantation owners. The family has managed to keep the land for about 50 years, though the father has to go to Louisiana to work on the railroad to get money to pay for the mortgage and taxes.

The story describes the persecution the blacks in the area suffer, starting with an incident (which the Logan children only hear about) in which three men are burned alive for supposedly making advances to a white woman. The children have to bear up under the indignity of having school books that are discards from the white schools and the taunts of the white children on the school bus that passes them every day. Over the course of the story, the persecution escalates after Cassie's parents organize a boycott of the local storekeeper, who was responsible for the burning incident. Cassie's mother loses her job as a teacher, and her father is attacked on his way home from getting supplies from a store in Vicksburg. Cassie herself is the subject of harassment when she accidentally bumps into a white girl and is forced to apologize and to refer to the girl as "Miss" Lillian Jean. But all the tension between the blacks and the whites in the area comes to a crisis point when TJ Avery, one of Cassie's oldest brother's friends, gets involved in a robbery gone bad with two white boys, who put all the blame on him. Cassie and her brothers observe the "night men" come and haul the entire Avery family out of their house, and only a fire that threatens one of the plantations keeps the vigilantes from lynching TJ.

The climax of the book must be why it was a Newberry winner, because all those things I complained about above are no longer true at that point. The scene is vivid, to the point that it is painful to read it and to know that scenes like that really happened to people. But as painful as it is to look, we can't afford to look away. It's part of the truth of the American South of the early 20th century, and recognizing and remembering the brutality of race relations at that time is important. The ending of the book was especially poignant -- "What had happened to TJ in the night I did not understand, but I knew it would not pass. And I cried for those things which had happened in the night and would not pass."

But that brings me to the thing that bothered me about this book. The message seems to be that things between blacks and whites won't get any better. Of course, we see the brutality and the harsh use of power by the whites in the story. But the blacks also do things that keep the relationship negative. Cassie's older brother Stacy engineers revenge on the busload of white kids who have splashed him and his siblings with mud earlier in the day. Cassie herself masquerades for a month in "Uncle Tom" style so she can get a chance to get back at "Miss" Lillian Jean. And it doesn't matter to her that Lillian Jean doesn't understand why Cassie turns on her -- Cassie is satisfied with the revenge.

The saddest part, to me, is the relationship between the Logans and a poor, "white trash" boy named Jeremy. Jeremy keeps reaching out in an effort to be friends with the Logan kids. He walks part of the way to school with them every day. At Christmas, he brings Stacy a present. He comes over to their house in the summer just to talk and he invites them to come see the bedroom he built for himself up in a tree. But they rebuff all his attempts at friendship. As Mr. Logan explained it after Jeremy brought the Christmas gift, "Far as I'm concerned, friendship between white and black don't mean that much 'cause it usually ain't on a equal basis. Right now you and Jeremy might get along fine, but in a few years he'll think of himself as a man but you'll probably still be a boy to him. And if he feels that way, he'll turn on you in a minute . . . . white folks mean trouble. You see blacks hanging 'round with whites, they're headed for trouble. Maybe one day whites and blacks can be real friends . . . . the trouble is, down here in Mississippi, it costs too much to find out."

I have to take a little side trip here for a minute. The other day, I was talking to a friend about this book (before I'd finished it and when these thoughts were first coming together in my head). He said he's reading a book about the Crow and Sioux Indians and the way they dealt with the occupation of whites and being forced onto the reservation. He said the book says the leader of the Crow had a dream about a chickadee, which he took as a sign that the Crow should be like the bird -- smart and adaptable and able to learn from those around them. So they began to raise cattle rather than hunt buffalo, and they prospered as ranchers. The Sioux, on the other hand, followed Sitting Bull's vision of the ghost dance, which reinforced their past identity as great warriors of the plains -- and we know what the ultimate outcome was there. My friend said the book said the Sioux had a "thin" identity that limited their world and their options to the point that there couldn't have been a different outcome.

I think the view of race relationships in Roll of Thunder is a similar "thin" identity. Just about everyone in the book -- black and white -- has a view of others that is based only on skin color. It doesn't matter that Jeremy acts more like a friend than TJ does (he's always trying to use Stacy to get the answers to tests for school, he cheats Stacy out of a good wool coat, he gets Mrs. Logan fired from her teaching job); when it comes down to it, the Logans stick with TJ because he's black and they reject Jeremy because he's white. If we identify the "other" as the enemy based on outside appearance rather than trying to get past that appearance to find out who the person is, of course racism and prejudice "w[ill] not pass."

Maybe I'm naive. Maybe it's easy for me to say that because I'm white, and I've never had to face a lynch mob or be dragged out of my house in the middle of the night. But it seems to me there's a element of risk in any relationship. Anyone -- white or black -- can turn on you. But if we allow ourselves to have relationships only with those people who are "safe" because they belong in the same category we do, or if we treat others who are different as if only that "skin" is the reality, the world becomes a small, tight straitjacket. The only way we can achieve Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream world -- a world of "thick" relationships with possibilities -- is by opening ourselves up to the risk of getting to know the person behind the skin.

Entry for February 6, 2007 - This One Is for My Daughter

My daughter is what I would call a "developing" reader, meaning she's just starting to take on chapter books. That transition from picture books to real chapter books is sort of a mystery to me. I got a book by Beverly Cleary for her in the fall, only to find out that it is a fifth-grade level book on the Accelerated Reader list -- two levels above her "zone" (or whatever. I may have to rant about Accelerated Reader some time). Anyway, she tried reading the first couple of pages and now it's lying on the top of her bookcase, in the same spot where she put it down that day. So what do "developing" readers read?

In my daughter's case, the "Magic Tree House" books by Mary Pope Osborne. She's crazy about them. So I decided I would read one to see what they are like. I read #17 (they all have a number), which was Tonight on the Titanic (they apparently all have an alliterative title, too), and I was pleased. My son never really got into the MTH books -- I think they came along after he had already "developed" as a reader. Instead, he read Junie B. Jones, which I find rather annoying after a while. I get tired of the cutesy "kid" talk and the immature social skills -- who needs to read that in a book when you can look out and see it sitting at your dinner table?

Back to Tonight on the Titanic. The overall premise of the MTH books is that a brother and sister (Jack and Annie) discovered a magic tree house that will take them anywhere they point to in a book. (That's already a plus for me -- I remember wishing I could do that when I was a kid.) To add some plot (and sell more books, I do believe), there is a "mission" that Jack and Annie have to fulfill that will last for 3 or 4 books. For example, in ToT, they have to retrieve four items to free a little dog from a spell. In this case, it is a gift from an "unsinkable ship." So they go back in time to the Titanic, help a little boy and his sister get to the lifeboats, get the gift they need, and come back home in the tree house just in time.

I can see the story would appeal to "developing" readers. I mean, even though it was a very simple plot, I (as an adult) was interested in how it would turn out. Characterization of Jack and Annie was decent -- at the end, after they are back home and safe, there is sort of a nice little section where they are thinking about the people who died when the ship went down. It's not maudlin, but it also doesn't try to ignore the reality of what happened, which I think is a good lesson for young kids. Mary Pope Osborne wrote in the forward that she wasn't sure she wanted to write about such a sad event, but that she decided that if she could show something good that happened, it would be worthwhile. And I think she succeeded -- Jack and Annie do something that is believable and kind and brave.

One thing I really liked was that this is a way to sneak in some history on kids. My daughter will say, "This part is in dark print - that means it's real." See, Jack has to put together "clues" to help them accomplish their mission, and those clues are usually historical facts. Another thing my daughter likes is "when the kids have on different clothes." Osborne sneaks in a little social/cultural history by having the characters' clothes magically change to those of the time period. Ha! Clever, Mary Pope Osborne!So, thumbs up! My "developing" reader has something good to read. She'll eventually be ready for that Beverly Cleary book, but for now, I'm happy she's crazy about something that actually teaches her something instead of something that simply entertains her.

Entry for January 19, 2007 - In Which She Questions Her Moral Strength (and Reflects on Young Love)

The first book I've read this year is No Shame, No Fear by Ann Turnbull. It's the story of a young Quaker girl, Susanna, living in 1660s England when persecution of the Quakers has started to gain momentum. When her father is jailed for refusing to pay tithes, Susanna moves from her home in the country to a nearby town to be a servant in another Quaker's print shop to help support the family. There she meets and falls in love with Will, the son of a wealthy and powerful merchant in town. Will is questioning his own faith and is drawn to the simplicity of the Quaker meetings, which puts him at odds with his father, who of course attends the state-sanctioned Anglican church. During the months that pass in the story, the persecution of the Quakers intensifies, and Susanna's own faith and strength of character are put to the test -- in more ways than one.

I don't know much about Quakers, and I had no idea there had been such violent persecution in England (and in the colonies -- the book mentions that four Friends were hanged in Massachusetts). So I felt like I learned something, which is always nice. Reading about it also made me wonder (as Susanna did) whether I would be able to stand up to persecution if the time came. I belong to a small and stubborn religious group that has been labeled a "cult" by mainstream denominations -- of course, we have religious freedom in this time and place that weren't part of 1660s England. But still . . . . my son was called an "atheist" at school the other day because he won't go to the "Christian Student Union" meeting that is supposed to be non-demoninational but isn't. That's not exactly the same as being put in the stocks, but still . . .

Susanna has a lot to deal with for a 15-year-old girl, especially after most of the adults in her life are herded off to prison indefinitely for daring to meet for worship. She has a lot of doubt about whether her faith is as strong as theirs, but she just keeps doing what she thinks would be the thing she should do, and I think she ends up being heroic in her own way. Some of the time, though, I think she's selfish -- she knows Will is giving up practically everything about his life to be with her and to follow his new faith, but she doesn't really seem to care. She wants him, and she knows that because she's from the lower classes (and Quaker), she'll never be accepted in his world. So he'll just have to come to hers.

I felt for Will. I thought the book did a believable job developing the rift between Will and his father that becomes a gulf. Although the father is the one who becomes most agitated and violent, there are lots of times when Will's immaturity (he's only 17) leads to the conflict. He had other choices that could have made the situation a little less volatile. That seemed pretty realistic. But besides losing the relationship with his family, Will also loses opportunity. He had a chance for a plum apprenticeship and gives it up -- and I think that had more to do with Susanna than with becoming Quaker. As I read this, I wondered how much of Will's decisions were being made by his mind & faith, and how much by his . . . . loins. But again, that rings pretty true. I very nearly moved to Baton Rouge once -- away from my family and a good job -- just to follow "the love of my life." (I'm really glad I didn't.)

That brings me to the last thing I want to say about this book -- it was a satisfying romance. Hmmmm . . . maybe "satisfying" is not the right word, because things don't turn out in the end the way you want them to. But things turn out the way they ought to turn out. Turnbull did a great job of evoking those emotions of first love -- without being sleazy. Reading this, I can remember that awkwardness two people feel when they first become aware that they are attracted to each other, and the way every sense is intensified when your beloved is near. I was really impressed. The only thing I wish had been a little different is that Susanna's "voice" in the story and Will's "voice" are so similar it's not easy to tell them apart sometimes. The book is written in alternating chapters -- first she tells part of the story, then he tells the next part. That didn't get confusing, but I don't know . . . . I just thought they sounded a little too much alike. Not a fatal flaw, though.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Blogging Refugee Moves On

This is my third attempt to find a place my musings can rest. The original site for my blog is undergoing some changes to make it more like MySpace - not what I'm interested in, so I packed up my musings and left. Not being a very sophisticated traveler in cyberspace, I set myself down at Live Journal. But after a couple of weeks there and facing the pressure to make "friends," I think I'm ready to move on. I guess what I want is a diary -- you know, I pour my thoughts into it, and it doesn't expect anything in return. Why not keep one on paper? Laziness, I guess. I type just about everything now - can't seem to be as creative without the convenience of the "backspace" key (those scribbled-out spots on paper taunt me). Also, the last thing I need in my writing space is another notebook. It's nice to have a storage spot for my musings that doesn't collect dust!

A brief introduction to these musings: When it was time to make a New Year's Resolution, I decided mine for the year would be to read at least one book for pleasure each month. I've always loved to read, but lately it seems the only things I have time to read are textbooks I scan to prepare for classes or student papers I'm grading. I decided whatever I read couldn't be anything connected to work -- it had to be simply for the joy of reading. And for me, part of the pleasure of reading something is talking about it, even if I'm talking to myself. So the blog began as a way to keep a record of what I'd read during the year and the things I thought about and learned from my reading.

Anyone looking through the refugee posts will notice that mostly what I've read this year are children's or young adult's books. While I was doing last year's Christmas shopping for my kids, I went sort of book-crazy. I kept seeing good books I remembered from my childhood, or books that had good reviews, or Newberry winners. I must have bought 15 books for two kids! As I was wrapping the books, I sort of wistfully flipped through the first few pages of a couple of them, and the resolution was born. I chose to read children's books for a couple of different reasons. First, I would like to read some of the things my kids are reading so we can talk about them. Second, I just don't like reading about murder or explicit sex -- or kinky, explicit sex that leads to murder -- or celebrities, or, actually, most of the topics current, popular books for adults seem to be about. Finally just because a book is written for young people doesn't mean it doesn't hit on some very important ideas.

Over the next couple of days, I'll be unpacking my refugee posts here. I hope I've found a home.