Trying too hard in Mississippi

Glory Be, by Augusta Scattergood (2012)

I somehow read two middle grade books about Southern race relations right in a row, which may be why this one won’t get as good of a review.

It’s the summer of 1964, and Glory is anxiously awaiting awaiting her 12th birthday, which she plans to spend as she does every year: at a pool party with her family and friends. But this summer is different from summers past, because there are some new folks in town who are making certain people very nervous. The Freedom Fighters, as the new folks are called, are making a stand for racial equality and integration, and those who disagree with their views become defensive. Before Glory fully realizes what is happening, the town council has closed the pool in an effort to keep it from becoming integrated. And the changes keep going from there.

I have to tell you, this book didn’t do it for me. There were some good parts, but mostly, I felt like it was just trying too hard. Glory is too earnest, writing a powerful letter to the editor of the town paper about her disgust about racial segregation, when really her motivation seems almost entirely directed toward getting the pool reopened for her birthday party. Sometimes Scattergood writes her characters’ dialogue with elements of Southern speech, sometimes she doesn’t. Glory’s father is almost non-existent except for when he all of a sudden stands up for her in a moment of heartfelt pride. Glory’s friendship woes don’t seemreal. None of it did, to be honest.

Which is why I was surprised when I read the author’s note at the end, in which she explains that large parts of  the novel she pulled from her own personal history growing up in Mississippi. I’m wondering if this was the book’s downfall. Maybe  Scattergood had these memorable experiences of her childhood that she felt would make a good story and she just tried too hard to get all the parts to fit, rather than allowing the story (and its characters) to become its own.

One perk: since Scattergood herself is a former children’s librarian, the public library plays a pivotal role in the novel and the librarian is the only one who truly sticks to her guns in terms of what is right. Obviously, I’m a fan of this.

Fine, but not fully convincing: 1 star

Children’s fiction surprising me with American history, once again.

Crow, by Barbara Wright (2012)

It’s hard to know where to start with this book. Initially, as I was reading, I was coming up with a list of complaints I had that I would share with you in this post, but by the end… most of them seemed kind of petty. The last 90 pages of Crow are extremely powerful, and I’m feeling a little overwhelmed as I write this. So to have a chance to organize my thoughts, let’s start this off with a summary, shall we?

It’s 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina. Moses Thomas is a smart 11-year old boy living with his mother, Sadie, who is a housemaid in the home of a rich white family (a la The Help), his father, Jackson, newspaper man at the only black daily in the state and one of 10 town aldermen, and his grandmother, Boo Nanney, a former slave who freely shares her wisdom and folk remedies with all who care to listen. Moses’ father is a big proponent of education, giving Moses “challenge words” to research in the dictionary (great language arts tie-in!) and assuring him that with hard work and commitment, Moses can achieve anything.

But as elections for the state and federal government approach, things start to heat up in Wilmington. In the years since the Civil War, Wilmington, the largest city in North Carolina, had become a black-majority community with a rising middle class and a biracial local government (as represented by fictional Jackson Thomas). The state had even elected four black Congressmen to represent them in Washington (incidentally, another African American from North Carolina was not elected to U.S. Congress again until 1992). Because of this, Moses is seemingly unaware of the kind of racism possible, until a group of White Supremacists known as the Red Shirts arrive in town to keep blacks from voting. For days, Moses and his family and friends are kept in their homes for fear of leaving. Following the election, the fear and violence escalate, and even though the Red Shirts were successful at securing an all-white representation for the state and nation, they now demand an all-white local government as well (despite the municipal elections being slated for the following year). What unfolds is bloody chaos as the Red Shirts take over and the black families struggle for safety.

According to Wright’s historical note at the end of her book and the little research I did after finishing reading, the events depicted in Crow are pretty accurate to what happened in Wilmington on the day that is now called “The Wilmington Insurrection of 1898.” Although Moses and his family are fictional, most everything else is a result of careful research. Once again (like with Fever 1793) I found myself incredibly surprised by this event in our country’s history that I had heard nothing of before, an event that was pretty crucial to the shaping of race relations in the south for most of the 20th Century. Had this coup d’etat never happened, things may have progressed in North Carolina (and the rest of the south) in the way it seemed to be shaping–with more African Americans in leadership and government positions, with a growing middle class, and with Jim Crow laws being forgotten. But instead we had a century of oppression for those who weren’t white and equality still hasn’t been fully realized.

Moses’s naive view of the world made this book a great one for those just learning about race relations in the south, I’m thinking especially for communities that are fairly homogenous and may not know racism as well as others. With Moses, the reader’s eyes are slowly opened to the injustices that have accompanied having darker skin in America.

I loved the characters Wright gradually developed, particularly Boo Nanney, Moses’s father, and Tommy, a white kid Moses befriends. This is where Wright shines.

But it’s certainly not a perfect book, so finally, back to my complaints (although they are somewhat minor in retrospect): For the first 150 pages of this book, there is no plot. It kind of reminds me of Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963, in this way, with the many chapters of plateau to a sudden climax and conclusion. But at least with Watsons, each chapter has a story of its own. In Crow, the chapters seemed to be marked somewhat haphazardly. Hit 25 pages, and we’ll throw in a new chapter heading. And they draaaaggg on. I think it would take a persistent kid to commit to this book. That being said, I think it would work great as a book read with a class, either as part of a small group reading circle or as a full class. One thing to watch out for: the n-word is used pretty heavily in the second half of the book and the violence is pretty graphic. Keep an eye out for anxious parents. And when they do come, explain to them the incredibly valuable contributions this book has to make.

2 stars

(PS: This marks my second debut for the Debut Challenge! Note: Wright is not a brand new author, but her first two books Easy Money and Plain Language are for adult audiences.)

 

Who knew?

Who knew plucking one's eyebrows dated back to the 1700s?

Fever 1793, by Laurie Halse Anderson (2000)

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, by Jim Murphy (2003)

Okay. Jig’s up. Who knew about this? Because I certainly didn’t.

If you are like me and were completely unaware of the horrifying Yellow Fever epidemic that swept Philadelphia a little bit after the Revolutionary War, you should probably go ahead and grab one of these YA books and enlighten yourself.

This semester I’m taking Information Books & Resources for Youth and in a couple weeks we are discussing the unique relationship historical fiction can have with your more standard-fare non-fiction. This coupling was one of the pairs we will be reviewing. And while I’m pretty familiar with the idea of using historical fiction to bridge kids to non-fiction (or the other way around), I have never seen a pair of books that do this so seamlessly.

As you may know, I have a habit of reading lots of books simultaneously. I have my blow-drying book, my waiting-for-the-bus book, by bedtime book, and sometimes another one thrown in there for good measure. So, needless to say, I was reading both these books at the same time. And I found myself forgetting which one had already told me one thing or another. I would come across a character in Fever that I forgot I hadn’t met in the context of Mattie’s story yet, just in the non-fiction version I read while in the kitchen. (It got a bit confusing, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this concurrent reading approach for these two.)

The good thing this proved to me, however, is how extremely detailed and impressive the research was that went into both books. Anderson spins an exciting tale of teen Mattie as she and her family and friends (and the rest of the city) contract and fight the disease. As I mentioned, interwoven throughout Mattie’s fictional story are plenty of historical characters and astonishingly accurate details. Meanwhile, Murphy has a knack for making death and disaster particularly engaging, as he pulls together primary documents and quotes from all the major players of this catastrophic event. (I’m serious, though. Catastrophe. In our country. That I had never heard of. Likely over 5000 people dead due to this 3-month-long epidemic. Did I miss that day of American History class in 8th grade? Sorry, Mr. Owen.)

So I don’t care if you prefer fiction or non-fiction or are a teenager or a retiree. Either of these books are extremely well-prepared to inform you about this bleak time in our history.

PS: ALSO — Did you know that Yellow Fever has no known cure and that any day now the mosquitoes could decide to spread it all over again and we would be totally unprepared because no American company manufactures the vaccine? OH GREAT.

2 stars (Fever) / 1.5 stars (American Plague)
(This is a total personal preference of fiction over non-fiction. I have a deep-seated prejudice that books like Murphy’s are beginning to dislodge. The quality of Murphy’s book is definitely high.)

An epic family tale of gender curiosities

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)

I’ll be honest, the title for this post is a bit of a stretch. And the buzz around this book is too.

The first part is dead-on. It is an epic tale of the complexities of families that stretches three generations and the Atlantic Ocean. But the gender part of it, the part about the hermaphrodite, the part that was the only thing I’ve ever heard about this book, REALLY ISN’T THAT BIG A DEAL.

Let me start over. Yes. The book begins with the hot topic. In fact, the opening lines make you think you know exactly what the story is going to be about:

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petroskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

Intrigue.

Mystery.

And gender confusions.

There is definitely intrigue and mystery laced throughout the tale–one of the things I find enchanting about the book– and while the question of gender does come up now and then, it doesn’t really hit till the last few chapters. Really, most of it is about identity and the complications added to self-identification by immigration, family history, and (yes, finally) gender. Cal (once Calliope) is our narrator, and he directs us through his family’s history starting with his Greek grandparents in Smyrna (in Asia-minor…which is approximately Turkey… I think…) who evacuate their burning village to America.

But TWIST: The whole time Cal describes this situation in Smyrna, he refers to brother and sister Lefty and Desdemona…but the readers know that these are also the names of Cal’s paternal grandparents. Hmm….

And then we hear the story of Milton (Lefty and Desdemona’s son) and Tessie (L&D’s cousin’s daughter). Second cousins (Or is it first cousins once removed? I always get those confused). Who fall in love via the clarinet.

And finally we get the story of Calliope. Who finds herself different from other girls… flat-chested, tall, gangly, period-less, hairs on her upper lip, strong desire to touch her best friend’s stomach… And although she doesn’t know this at the time, the reader knows that her genitalia aren’t quite… female.

So yes. The book is about how the main character is a hermaphrodite due to his family’s strange, interrelated sexual history. But is the story really about gender? No. The story is really about how our identities are shaped by the actions and decisions of our parents and grandparents, by the social upheavals of the time, and most of all, by how we choose to define ourselves.

It’s a thick one, and it lost me for a bit in the second half, but stick with it for one final twist near the end.

2 stars

Seeing the world from someone else’s skin…

  To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960)

I. Loved. This. Book. Oh, gosh, it was so wonderful.

Most of you are probably like, Duh, Emily, it’s To Kill A Mockingbird, of course it’s wonderful. But I skipped the English course that read this book freshman year of high school, and just never got around to it. My bad.

For those of you in similar boats, do yourself a favor and go get one of the hundred copies probably at your library and check it out. But in the meantime, here’s a quick summary:

Scout and Jem Finch live with their lawyer father, Atticus, in small town Alabama in the 1930s. Always a tomboy, Scout spends the summers playing with Brother Jem and their quirky friend Dill. One of their favorite games (much to their father’s disappointment) is trying to make Boo Radley, the town recluse, come out of his house. Meanwhile, Atticus is busy preparing to represent Tom Robinson, a black man who has been accused of raping a white woman. Although Atticus is normally a well-respected member of society, his decision to represent Tom leads to rumbling among the townsfolk and taunts toward Scout and Jem from the local kids. The reader gets to watch the case unfold and the reactions from the racist village from Scout’s point of view, giving a fresh, innocent, often humorous perspective to the well-known struggle between black and white in our county’s history.

It’s nearly impossible to read this and not wish you were able to share the porch swing with young Scout, watching the fireflies, kicking your dusty bare feet, and contemplating the wild wonders of the world around you.

Charming & challenging…three stars.

Love and Hate in Jackson, Mississippi

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett (2009)

Get ready, folks, for this was my favorite book in a loooonnnng time.

Thanks to the “borrowing policy” of my recent employers, I was able to bypass the 42-person-wait at the local library to read the book that so many of my friends have urged me to.  “You will love it!” they said. And love it, I did.

The story opens in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi, with the voice of Aibileen, black housemaid to the white Leefolt family. Aibileen starts the novel off by summarizing the role of black housemaids: “Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning.” Her quote also represents the major reason why I devoured this book. Although I guess I don’t have the most valid standpoint when it comes to judging the authenticity of the voice of a southern black woman,  Stockett’s voice of Aibileen seems so natural and dead-on that I spent the first two chapters reading out loud. It’s not muddled with apostrophes or misspellings like some other authors use to represent southern speech, but seems to simply pour out of the character’s mouth onto the page. And then when Stockett switches to a different character’s voice, and then another’s a few chapters later,  they too have perfect pitch. You know when Aibileen’s speaking, you know when Minny’s speaking, and you know when Skeeter’s speaking, not because of the context, but because of their voices.

Skeeter, the only white narrator, is a young, ambitious, college graduate who yearns to be a real writer. When she comes home from school after four years away, she gets her first real taste of the color line, when her life-long maid (the woman who loved and raised her), has disappeared and no one will tell her why. Skeeter then begins to notice the other maids in town, as she sits with her friends Elizabeth and Hilly for bridge club, and Hilly brings up the initiative she’s starting to institute separate bathrooms in the garage for all maids, so as not to spread the diseases that black people inherently carry. As Aibileen (Elizabeth’s maid) silently listens to the discussion and pours them tea, Skeeter can’t help but think how humiliating it must be for her and she starts to wonder what she (and other maids) think about their white employers. And suddenly she has her first idea of something real to write about.

Skeeter’s dangerous undertaking provides the vehicle for Stockett to explore the contradictory relationship between southern black maids the the white families they wait on, filled with both unconditional love and extreme prejudice and hate.

Fascinating and a joy to read, three stars.

Templars and Archers and Assassins, oh my.

The Youngest Templar: Keeper of the Grail, by Michael Spradlin (2008)

The Youngest Templar: Trail of Fate, by Michael Spradlin (2009)

The first book in the Templar series was on my recommended reading list for Children’s Lit last semester because the author, Michael Spradlin, was coming to campus as part of our annual Children’s Literature Festival. We didn’t end up reading it in class, and I didn’t actually see Spradlin at the festival (I was off visiting with authors that I had read), and it wasn’t really high on my summer reading list. I mean, look at the cover. I will be the first to admit that I judge books by their covers ALL THE TIME. There are a lot of books out there. Why should I read the ugly ones? The children’s librarian I had been working with last semester had a similar reaction to it. But as the wonderful librarian that she is, she started it in hopes of encouraging her students to participate more actively in the Festival. And what did she find? She couldn’t put it down and immediately had to read the second one (the third has yet to be published, unfortunately). So I took her word for it. And her word was right.

Fifteen year old Tristan is an orphan who was dropped on the doorstop of St. Alban’s Abbey in England circa late 12th Century. Tristan’s life is changed forever when a group of Templar Knights show up in hopes of a resting place. Soon he becomes the squire to Sir Thomas of the Templars and is whisked away to Dover for battle training. Right from the beginning Tristan finds an enemy in Sir Hugh, a Templar who seems to have it out for Tristan for a reason that Tristan doesn’t understand. Also, he caught King Richard’s special guards following him without cause, leaving him to wonder what Sir Hugh and the King know about him that he doesn’t know.

After a few weeks of training, Tristan boards the ship with the rest of the Templars to head for the Holy Land as part of King Richard’s Crusade. Once in the Holy Land, Sir Thomas gives Tristan his most important task yet: to take the Christian relic, the Holy Grail, out of danger and back to England–and he is to let absolutely no one know that he has it. Yet, Sir Hugh seems to know Tristan’s burden, and the chase begins.

Along his journey, Tristan meets an archer from Sherwood Forest named Robard Hode (Robin Hood?), a deadly Hashshashin assassin named Maryam (Maid Marian?), and a young French princess named Celia (hmm…maybe I don’t know my Robin Hood trivia well enough, but I can’t come up with a connection for this one). Together, these capable youngsters seem to meet trouble at every turn with Sir Hugh constantly on their backs. If I say one thing for Michael Spradlin, it’s that he knows how to work a cliffhanger! Each chapter ends where you want to know more, and each book ends with a mysterious and aggravating “To be continued…” Unfortunately because of this, the books can’t really stand alone and I won’t have any sort of closure until the third book comes out in late October. Grr…

Another reason why I love reading YA books.

2 stars, both.