Showing posts with label Newbery Medal. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Newbery Medal. 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.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

An Uninvincible Biography



The Newbery medalist for 1934, Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women, by Cornelia Meigs, hasn't aged well. But then biographies don't tend to. Continued historical research efforts into a subject of interest and scientific advances as well as the greater ease of access made possible by computerization and the rise of the internet means that the amount of biographical information available tends to grow rather than decrease, and very often an old biography proves to be not only incomplete but incorrect. Then too, the standpoint from which we view and analyze a historical subject can change radically.

Such is the case with Invincible Louisa. I wasn't far into my re-read of this book (I first read it as a teenager) before I decided I'd have to track down and read a more modern biography in order to assess the accuracy and worth of Invincible Louisa. These days there are many books available which treat not only Louisa May Alcott's life but also the other members of her exceptionally talented and accomplished family, but the one I chose was Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen, which from what I can tell seems solidly researched and written, though I will say I was taken aback by the several errors Reisen makes in her references to the text of Little Women (i.e., she writes that Beth March was sixteen when she died when Beth actually would have been twenty or twenty-one, and she refers to the twins Daisy and Demi Brooke as Jo's children when they were Meg's). I expected better accuracy from someone who describes herself as a passionate Alcott fan, especially when these textual references were so easy to verify. However, I am here to review Invicible Louisa rather than Reisen's book.

As I wrote above, Invincible Louisa, while it would have been solidly researched and written for its time, has been supplanted in its usefulness by more modern biographies. Thanks to relaxed social morés, modern biographers can write more freely on questions such as whether Alcott was a lesbian, and they also have much better access to documentation than Meigs would have had: more Alcott family correspondence and other writings as well as newspapers and city records, and more records of interviews with those who knew Alcott personally, as well as a great deal of Alcott's own fiction that was unknown in the thirties and has been rediscovered since, and the result is a fuller, more nuanced picture of who Alcott was and what her life and circumstances were. Meigs paints a portrait of the Alcotts as a family that lived on love and intellectual stimulation and took poverty in its cheerful stride. In Reisen's account, Reisen goes into much greater detail about Alcott's family background and her parents' early lives and marriage, and then relates how Bronson and Abba Alcott spent so irresponsibly and were so cavalier about debt that at one point they owed their various creditors the astounding sum of $6,000. (According to an online calculator I consulted, $6000 in 1850 dollars is the equivalent of $177,777.89 in 2015 dollars.) Bronson and Abba Alcott not only had no expectation or hope of ever repaying their debts but were none too concerned about it. Abba's well-to-do relatives became unwilling to lend them money outright and instead would take steps to safeguard any gifts of money by such measures as arranging a line of credit at the grocer's, and Abba was outraged by the terms of her father's will, which tied up her inheritance in an effort to keep the Alcotts from wasting it. This picture is a far cry from the kind of noble privation Meigs writes about, and it gets even darker when one considers Reisen's suggestion that Bronson Alcott may have been unable to earn a decent living for his family due to his suffering from some form of unrecognized and untreated mental illness. More sobering as Reisen's account may be, I much prefer it to Meigs' prettified version. It's far more interesting, for one thing. It's always better to know the truth of a matter, and the sentimentalization and oversimplification of poverty, with the accompanying claim that poverty's solution lies in rugged individualism, is a long-standing pernicious myth in North American society that can't be deconstructed often enough.

Speaking of pernicious forces, I can say the same of Meigs' sickly sweet portrayal of Louisa May Alcott herself as the dutiful, self-sacrificing daughter who never thought of herself and died just two days after her father, with her life's primary mission accomplished. Here are the closing sentences of Invincible Louisa:

When she died, she did not know that Bronson Alcott had gone just before her. What she did know was that she had taken care of him to the very last of his needing her, that she had been able to guard and protect and watch over the entire family. That, indeed, was happy ending; that was the whole of what she had wanted from life -- just to take care of them all.

You'll have to excuse me while I unroll my eyes. Meigs is asking us to believe that Louisa May Alcott, an ambitious, driven, passionate, moody, impatient, complex, talented, sophisticated, and intelligent woman, asked nothing more from life than to care for her family, and that's not a proposition that makes any sense even on its face. Reisen's account, which is supported by her references to historical documentation, is again a less simplistic view. Alcott was generous, she did love her family, and she did greatly enjoy providing them with the kind of easy, comfortable lifestyle she wanted them to have. But she was no saint, nor simple-minded, and there were other motives and emotions at play. She sometimes feared she was more loved as a moneymaker than as a daughter. She adored her young sister May (the counterpart of Amy March), but Alcott felt some resentment over the fact that her sister had an easier life than herself thanks partly to Alcott's efforts and partly to May's sunnier gifts: her more admired golden-haired looks, her gracious personality, and her even temperament. Alcott complained that May "always had the cream of things". As in Little Women where Amy is invited to go on a European tour with her aunt and cousin while Jo remains at home, the Alcotts' wealthy and well-connected relatives were quicker to be generous with the gentle, grateful May than the sharp-tongued, independent Louisa. Then too, Alcott's generosity wasn't without an ulterior motive: supporting those she loved kept them more closely bound to her.

Alcott also definitely wanted more out of life than simply to take care of her family. She loved her writing for its own sake and strove for literary excellence. She could be quite political and campaigned for the abolition of slavery, complete racial equality, and women's suffrage. She enjoyed social life and cultural attractions such as plays, lectures, and concerts (as long as they didn't take too much time away from her writing), and she wasn't above enjoying her wealth herself once she had it. I was glad to read that she indulged in silk dresses made by the best dressmakers and a European tour, and hired a household staff rather than subscribe to her father's view of housework as being good for the character. She had many friends, both male and female, some intense relationships with men (most notably with a certain Ladislas Wisniewski, a Polish expatriate twelve years her junior who became the model for Laurie Laurence of the Little Women series), and some marriage proposals, though she accepted none of them. She was not a woman who was so emotionally wrapped up in her birth family that she didn't wish to marry, but rather a passionate woman who never happened to meet a man she considered a satisfactory counterpart, and who consequently wisely embraced the freedom and independence of single life despite its loneliness rather than settle for any of the substandard marital partnerships that were open to her. Again, the true story is the one I would rather read. I don't care to see the Victorian mythic ideal of woman as a selfless and single-minded caretaker perpetuated.

Another myth that Reisen corrects is the theory that the poor health that plagued Alcott from her late twenties until her death in her fifties was due to her having been treated with mercury when she contracted typhoid pneumonia while working as Civil War nurse. This was Alcott's own view (it was a comfort to her to feel that she had lost her health for a noble cause), and was commonly believed by Alcott scholars until 2001, but it is not true. The mercury would have been eradicated from Alcott's system within a year, and it is now thought that her chronic health problems and early death were probably caused by lupus (though her extremely poor childhood nutrition certainly didn't help), as indicated by her symptoms as described in historical documents and by a telltale butterfly facial rash that appears in the only portrait ever painted of her.

I'm not faulting Cornelia Meigs for not writing a better biography. She did the best she could with the material and the knowledge she had available to her in the thirties. But I wouldn't recommend Meigs' biography to anyone but an avid Alcott fan who is determined to glean every nugget of information possible about Alcott by reading every book ever written about her. If you have a milder sort of interest in Louisa May Alcott and are only prepared to read one or two books on the subject of her life, go with Harriet Reisen's biography and/or some of the other more contemporary Alcott treatises. We have better options now.

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.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

A Graphic Novel Before Its Time

Kate Seredy's 1938 Newbery winner The White Stag tells the mythic story of the Huns and their journey from their former barren lands in Asia where they were starving to what would become their homeland and modern-day Hungary. Beginning with the Huns' leader Nimrod's appeal for direction to his god Hadur during a time of hardship, it continues with the journey of the brothers Hunor and Magyar and their people, through the leadership of Hunar's son, Bendeguz, and culminates with the battles of Bendeguz's son Attila, who led his people to the conquest of their new land. The mystical White Stag appears at key moments and shows the Huns the way.

Seredy based The White Stag on Hungarian myths related to her by her father in her childhood, and I think she made the mistake Charles J. Finger made in writing his Tales From Silver Lands; she wrote down traditional oral myths that have been passed down through countless generations without fleshing them out enough to really adapt them to their new medium.

The prose of The White Stag is spare and lyrical, if uncertainly punctuated. (I saw a number of comma splices.) The White Stag is just 94 pages long, and covers three generations' worth of action. This will tell you how sparing it is of the kind of details that make it possible for a reader to enter into the world of the story. The story itself comes across as somewhat overwrought and faintly ridiculous — it's rather like a Cecil B. DeMille Biblical epic with its wooden characterizations and sometimes laughable dialogue. There are certainly echoes of the Bible in The White Stag: faith moving mountains, the search for the promised land, the evolving division of one people into conflicting tribes. The quest of the Huns and Magyars is much like the Old Testament journeys of the Israelites with Attila as Charlton Heston-style Moses, and unfortunately Attila's character is no more nuanced or believable than Heston's acting. I don't know how anyone can relate to characters who aren't recognizably human. Attila, who “learned not to cry when he was but a few days old”, is seemingly a sociopath with a conviction of his own destiny. Seredy also glosses over the battles as though they were successful rugby matches — another tribe of people slaughtered or enslaved and another victorious moment for the Huns!

Perhaps the problem is that no story could be worthy of the beautiful illustrations in this book. Seredy was certainly an extremely gifted and successful illustrator. She considered herself an illustrator first and foremost, saying that she “thought in pictures”, and she illustrated Newbery Medal winner Caddie Woodlanw, and her own Newbery Honor Books The Good Master and The Singing Tree, as well as Newbery honor books Winterbound by Margery Bianco, The Wonderful Year by Nancy Barnes, and Young Walter Scott by Elizabeth Janet Gray. The illustrations in The White Stag are therefore very fine (you can see some of them here if you're willing to brace yourself for a high-volume recording of the Hungarian national anthem). The drawings feature idealized, muscular, hairless bodies in an Olympic-athlete state of fitness, wearing classical tunics, cloaks and robes and spike-top helmets with birds' wings adorning the sides. They look, in short, like a precursor of comic-book heroes minus the spandex. Perhaps if Seredy had been born ninety years later, The White Stag would have been a very good graphic novel.

I can accept that not all fiction needs to be character-driven and that a novel can simply be a grand epic of adventure and conquest, but it's difficult to cheer on characters who are so stylized and so ruthless. And I kept wistfully imagining what Robin McKinley would have done with this material. McKinley understands that you can make your characters the stuff of legend and send them off to have thrilling adventures, but only after you have first made them come alive.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Eager Readers!

The Newbery winner for 2008, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village came into being because its author, Laura Amy Schlitz, who is a librarian at the Park School in Baltimore, had a group of students who were studying the Middle Ages. The students were building model castles, growing herbs, and illuminating manuscripts, but to round out their educational experience Schlitz wanted to give them some material they could perform. And since she didn't think it possible to write a play for seventeen characters and give them all equal time, she wrote nineteen monologues and two dialogues, so that “for three minutes at least, every child could be a star”.

I wish Schlitz had worked at my grade school. I remember how it felt to be one of only two people in my sixth-grade play whose “roles” did not involve a single line of dialogue and whose part in the action consisted of walking onto and off of the stage twice. And, more importantly, the play, written by our sixth grade teacher, was execrable.

Schlitz may mention excrement (as well as fleas, lice and other historically accurate if unsavoury facts of daily life in medieval times) in her monologues, but other than this her work is not to be compared to that sixth-grade play. Good Masters! Sweet Ladies is an excellent piece of work. In each of Schlitz's twenty-one vignettes, a character from medieval times tells us a simple story about some facet of his or her existence, gives us the sense of what life was like in those times, and in the process lays bare the essence of his or her personality. By the end of a few pages we know what the characters love, fear and desire most, what their probable fates will be, and how they cope with the hardships of their lives. Interspersed with the monologues are footnotes, sidenotes, and occasional full-length background notes explaining aspects of life in medieval times.

The historical notes are not only informative, revealing the depth of Schlitz's historical research, but often very witty. One comments that the logic of the assignment of saints to a type of work is macabre: Saint Bartholomew, the patron saint of tanners, was skinned to death; and Saint Lawrence, the patron saint of cooks, was roasted alive. Schlitz adds, tantalizingly, that “we won't even talk about what happened to Saint Erasmus — it's too disgusting.”

The illustrations in the book are woodcut-like pen-and-ink drawings by Robert Byrd. According to the book's jacket flap, Byrd took “inspiration from an illuminated thirteenth-century manuscript”. I would have preferred something tapestry-inspired, but then sometimes in writing these Newbery reviews I really must remind myself that these books are intended for kids, not for me. Byrd's drawings are undeniably cute, expressive, and period-appropriate.

The vignettes are wonderfully varied, and yet so elemental to human experience, regardless of one's place on the timeline of our existence. The lord's nephew faces a boar, and his fear of it, while hunting. The blacksmith's daughter finds that her size, looks and social status don't determine whom she can love. A plow boy takes pride in carrying on with his father's backbreaking work and responsibilities. “Crookbacked” Constance, a pilgrim, speaks of her despair over her deformity and her hope that she will be healed on her journey. A miller's son tells us how he is hated by the other village boys because his father adulterates the flour with chalk, but in his bitterness resolves to be the same kind of miller himself. A knight's son dreams of being a knight, but knows he must be a monk because his father has been bankrupted by war. The lord's daughter knows those who slung mud at her would take and enjoy her privileges if they could get them; the one who slung the mud knows the lord's daughter will not get through life without pain and worry. Pask, the runaway, tells us of his hopes that he has escaped his peasant's life and can become a skilled tradesman (but a historical note tells us he will probably not be able to do so). Maud and Mariot, the glassblower's daughters, know that one of them must marry their father's apprentice, and in a dialogue each comes to a decision about whether she can. A tanner's apprentice knows he is despised for the stinking processes he uses to make leather, but also knows that same people who despise him would not be willing to do without their shoes and saddles. And so it goes.

Schlitz makes each character come alive by giving us points of connection. Few people who read this book will have shod a horse, but most will have known what it is like to feel the lighting bolt of sudden, strong attraction to someone we can never be with. Almost none of this book's readers will have blown glass; all will know what it's like to do something for the first time and get lacklustre results, to feel a sense of accomplishment in having made a beginning, and to be all the more ready to try again.

In a foreword, Schlitz writes of how, as a student, she found that history as it was taught in the classroom was “about dead men who had done dull things”. It was only by reading historical novels that she learned that history was about survival, and could be very dramatic and fascinating. It was this exciting, living view of history, the stories of real people and the lives that they led, that she wanted to impart to her students. So she has, marrying fact with imagination and producing characters that seem to breathe. Not to mention that the material seems wonderfully actable.

And look up the fate of Saint Erasmus if you dare.

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, 29 July 2007

Johnny Tremain and the Irresistible Drumbeat of War

The Newbery medallist for 1944, Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain, is a historical novel about a young apprentice silversmith and is set in a Boston on the eve of the American Revolution. Forbes’ biography Paul Revere and the World He Lived In had won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for history, and well, way to make the most of your obviously thorough research, Ms. Forbes.

At 14, the orphaned Johnny Tremain is a self-assured and driven boy. Before his mother died, she managed to teach him to read and write, arrange for his apprenticeship with a Mr. Lapham, silversmith, and also give him a silver cup with the Lyte family crest, telling him that if he were ever in dire straits to go to the Lytes for help.

Mr. Lapham was once a fine craftsman, but is becoming too feeble and too interested in preparing to meet his Maker to really be in effective charge of his workshop. The other two apprentices besides Johnny don’t really have the ability for, or interest in, their work. Johnny, therefore, has all the insufferable cockiness of a kid who is economically invaluable and more able than everyone around him and knows it. Mr. Lapham’s widowed daughter-in-law has proposed that Johnny will eventually marry one of her four daughters in order to keep the shop in the family, and Johnny has no objection to marrying the third daughter, Cilla, who is clever, companionable, and his own age. Thus provided with insurance, skills, the opportunity to do work he loves, and the prospect of a bride and the ownership of an established business, Johnny is in a fair way to do well in life.

Then comes a tragic accident, and Johnny, who can no longer hope to be a silversmith, has nothing left but his pride and drive, and little food for either them or himself. The Laphams consider him a useless burden, and when he appeals to the Lytes, they accuse him of being a thief. After a long period of near despair and casting about for some worthwhile work that he can do, he does find some work as messenger and delivery boy for a newspaper. He learns to ride on a very difficult horse. He finds a friend in the newspaper’s typesetter Rab Silsbee, whom he looks up to and loves like a brother in a way only possible for those who don’t have any actual brothers, but more importantly, he finds a cause – the American Revolution.

This book – and the fact that I just previously reread L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside - got me thinking about the depiction of war in fiction. Doris Lessing, in her CBC Massey lecture “When in the Future They Look Back on Us” (as printed in Prisons We Choose to Live Inside), wrote:

In my time I have sat through many many hours listening to people talking about the war, the prevention of war, the awfulness of war, with it never once being mentioned that for large numbers of people the idea of war is exciting, and that when a war is over they may say it was the best time in their lives…. People who have lived through a war know that as it approaches, an at first secret, unacknowledged, elation begins, as if an almost inaudible drum is beating… an awful, illicit, violent excitement is abroad. Then the elation becomes too strong to be ignored or overlooked: then everyone is possessed by it.

Neither Forbes nor Montgomery shut their eyes to the excitement war generates. The stirring drumbeat of war is strong in both books. In Rilla of Ingleside, the little Glen community is energized and mobilized by the war. The characters in Rilla would have described themselves as primarily motivated by patriotism and duty, but they repeatedly marvel at their transformation from a people only interested in the gossip of their village to armchair military strategists. They work tirelessly and enthusiastically to “save and serve” by knitting socks, cutting back on sugar, and fundraising, and as Germany and Austria sue for peace near the end of the novel, one character wonders “if things won’t seem a little flat and insipid when peace really comes”.

In Johnny Tremain we find descriptions like “[a]ll over Boston was a feeling of excitement”, of men looking radiant and elated at the prospect of a fight, and of cheering crowds at the Boston Tea Party. But Forbes’ concept of war is far more nuanced and complex than L.M. Montgomery’s.

L.M. Montgomery, despite being an intelligent and well-read woman, was no less susceptible to propaganda than many people much less so and was sincerely convinced that World War I was a holy war. Again and again her characters describe themselves as fighting for an “idea” and against evil, to keep Canada safe and free from invaders, for a new world. They honestly believed that the Germans bayoneted babies and that Kitchener was some sort of military genius. The one man in their village who is anti-war and pacifist is also generally ignorant and a comic valentine, and is much persecuted. So many of these beliefs were so ridiculous, and even laughable, and it’s very telling that Montgomery never tells us what this “idea” is. We now know that WWI, far from being a righteous war, was simply a case of one imperialistic country picking a fight with another imperialistic country, and then a number of other countries jumping quite heedlessly into the fray. The Germans never had any notion of invading Canada, and never bayoneted babies. The pig-headed and inept Kitchener, who sent out many regiments of cavalry against tanks and was probably answerable for more Allied deaths than any single German officer, should have been court-martialled, not revered. And as for the new world, well, if it were ever in the offing it’s been very slow to arrive.

Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain isn’t anti-war. I doubt Forbes could have even got away with such a strain in her novel given that she wrote and published it during World War II. But being the historian she was, and writing from a distance of over 150 years (Rilla of Ingleside was published in 1920), and probably being of a less romantic, idealistic cast of mind, Forbes achieved a least some of the balance and perspective Montgomery totally lacked.

Johnny is fired up by the speechmaking of revolutionary groups and believes, rightly or wrongly, that he is fighting for freedom, so that “a man can stand up”. It’s a seemingly inevitable part of the American creed to believe this in every struggle, to the point where in a movie such as Independence Day there’s a lot of rhetoric about American freedom and independence and the characters seem to be idiotically blind and deaf to the fact that real issue seems to be one of mere survival for the entire human race. Johnny believes that he must join in the Revolution so that a man may stand up. Of course the issue of freedom for the slaves in the United States is not addressed – it would have thrown a significant curve into the fine sounding talk of freedom. And in fairness to Forbes, it’s only realistic that she should depict the American Revolutionaries this way. I do question whether it was really necessary for the Americans to battle the British for independence given that Canada and Australia have become autonomous without bloodshed, but never mind. Not every novel needs to address every moral question. And then too, sometimes, as Doris Lessing points out, we do need to acknowledge the attraction and benefits of war has for us if we’re ever to learn how to avoid it more often.

So perhaps it’s enough that Johnny may find his redemption in and be a believer in the Revolution, but is not a true believer. He gets to know some of the British officers and can’t help admiring and respecting some of them, and he’s all too miserably aware of the fact that though he himself is only a generation removed from England, that most Revolutionary-era Americans and the British are one people ethnically, and that though individually the British soldiers will be kind and decent to him, collectively they are his sworn enemies. He hears a street fight outside the door of the print shop where he works, and though he doesn’t lift a finger to help, he is sickened by the sounds of a number of Whigs beating a Tory who bravely tried to prevent them from attaching a placard to his shop. He is heartsick at the sight of both British and American wounded. Forbes does point out that the American newspapers were allowed to print whatever they wanted until the outbreak of war and that the tea tax amounted to very little, and she is honest about the twisted morality and human costs of war.

Johnny Tremain is excellent both in terms of being an adventure novel and one which traces the development and coming of age of a young boy, and it acknowledges both the bad and good things that can come of war and crippling injuries and a best friend’s attentions to a girlfriend formerly taken for granted. And I have to concede that’s probably enough ground for one book to cover.

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.