Sunday, June 14, 2009

Disappointment Is Even More Bitter When Promise Is Great...

Did you ever have a package for your birthday or Christmas that looked and sounded like the most fantastic gift ever? You just knew it was Just What You Always Wanted. You quivered with the anticipation of the moment you would be able to pry open the lid of the box and behold the wonderful gift. When the time finally came, you held the gift in your hands for a moment before opening it, enjoying that last bit of anticipation before you opened the box and discovered......socks. Or something like socks, servicable and entirely practical.

That's just how I felt shortly after reading the first couple of chapters of Red Moon at Sharpsburg by Rosemary Wells. It's been a long time since I've had the chance to read any historical fiction for young adults, especially historical fiction about American history. I picked up this book at a school book fair, but had other reading obligations that kept me from being able to read Wells' book until recently. It was with great anticipation that I opened the book and read the first page.

The first chapter was fine, and in fact, it set up a nice mystery for the rest of the book: "All else that followed during the war came of those three promises, two kept and one broken, made the week before I was born." But beginning with the second chapter, Wells shifted to using the present tense ("When you first see me, it is July 30, 1861."), and I felt a little itch of irritation start in the back of my mind. I really dislike present-tense narratives. Really dislike. In my opinion, present tense gives a book the tone of a book written for very young children. That tone simply wasn't appropriate for the mature ideas and events with which India has to wrestle in this book.

That brings me to another problem: the character of India was inconsistent. Some of the time, she is this tough, confident girl who holds the family together when her father is off in the war. Other times, she seemed to have more in common with my 10-year-old daughter, carrying a doll around. (Actually, even my 10-year-old daughter doesn't carry a doll around anymore.)

Actually, the characters in this book all seemed to have problems of development and consistency. To tell the truth, there was no one in the book I came to care about. There was no one that I identified with and was pulling for. They all seemed sort of like paper dolls acting out a story, but with no emotional depth - when the story was rife with opportunity for emotion! For example, India falls in love (I guess) with her tutor, Emory Trimble. There are scenes in which they are working together on science experiments and recording data, but I don't really see that they are coming to have any feelings for each other until Wells has India tell us they do. Here is the description of their first kiss: "Emory's kiss stays for only the drawing in and letting out of a single breath, but it is warm and steady, as I have pictured it so many times when no one can read my unchaste thoughts." And that's it. I'd like to get to feel that moment. That was my biggest disappointment - that I wasn't able to immerse myself into the characters and their lives.

Wells does have some nice historical details included in the book, and the plot has some interesting twists. Wells also tried to "open our eyes" to the poor medical practices in the Civil War and to the very circumscribed role of women of that time. Actually, I thought she was rather heavy-handed in doing that for both issues. I might write some more about that in a different post.

I'm not sorry I read the book. I'm just really disappointed that it fell so far short of its potential. I'm sorry that it is probably one of those books that I will forget rather quickly, stuck in the "sock drawer" of my mind.

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