How fully can an author inhabit an addict’s world and still spin a story coherent enough to engage the teen reader?
Margaret K. McElderry Books
(Simon & Schuster Books), 2004
In the 1970′s, kids might have turned to the anonymously penned Go Ask Alice (1971), which was billed as an actual diary, but was actually fiction.
Or Hubert Selby Jr’s Requiem for a Dream (1978), which considers a broader spectrum of addiction.
Twenty years later, readers could try on that life via Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993) or Melvin Burgess’ Smack (1996), which was titled Junk in some countries.
Another couple of decades afterwards and Ellen Hopkins’ trilogy (which launched in 2004) is the go-to series on the subject.
Stylistically, the books have solved the problem of verisimilitude by adopting the brevity and untraditional style of Selby Jr’s work and combining it with the intimacy of a diary in the form of the narrator’s poetry.
Yup, that’s right: a series of books about substance abuse written in verse.
Unexpected, perhaps. And, yet, it makes sense.
Kristina’s poetry provides a shape to the story of her coming-of-age and addiction which uniquely suits it.
In this form, raw emotions are stated clearly and succinctly, in a way which might have seemed wooden and blunt in straight prose.
And the restlessness and disjointedness, which might have distanced readers from the narrator in a full-length prose work on this subject, is presented in smaller portions.
Readers can absorb Kristina’s experiences at whatever pace is comfortable for them. At times, a hundred pages of this story reads like a dozen pages; at other times, readers will want to read only a dozen pages at one sitting.
The author speaks about her own experience, which led to her writing these books, here. ”The story was bigger than my family and my daughter.”
And, ultimately, her motive in writing is to connect with readers who share in this struggle. “No matter what they’re experiencing, they’re not alone in these issues.”
One aspect of the verse which counteracts the heavily emotive content of the story is the occasional use of concrete verse (or shape poems).
The way that specific words and concepts align or intersect offers a distraction in some cases (which might not be every reader’s response, depending on their emotional involvement in the story) and directs emphasis in others.
For the most part, however, the verse falls down the pages in uneven columns, holding the same ragged shape whether it considers the details of Kristina’s shifts at the convenience store or her latest high.
“How, no matter
fought her, Bree
was stronger, brighter,
better equipped to deal
with a world where
everything moved at light
speed, everyone mired
in ego. Where ‘everyday’
Margaret K. McElderry Books
(Simon & Schuster Books), 2007
for making love with
The verses are titled, but they usually stem directly from the content so there is no sense of disruption, as with “Leigh Has Put On a Few Pounds
And it suits her almost
as much as shedding several
suits me. (You’d be surprised
how much weight you can
lose in two weeks when you
barely eat enough to keep
a very small rodent alive.)”
Readers are solidly in Kristina’s/Bree’s perspective here:
“I don’t see myself that way at all.
Open-minded, yes. A druggie, sometimes.
An unwed teen mother, for sure. But
a sleep-around? No way. Never.”
And this continues throughout the second volume in the series, Glass. (There are no quotes drawn from the second novel, so that there are no spoilers either.)
Sometimes this is overwhelming, but the language is unsentimental.
“That phrase again. Everyone
cares for me. They just don’t
know how to love me.”
The form lends itself to the highly dramatic content.
“Don’t you get it, Mom? I really don’t
give a shit if I die. What,
exactly is there to live for?”
In the third volume of the series, however, there are three narrative voices: Hunter Seth Haskins,
Autumn Rose Shepherd, and Summer Lily Kenwood.
Each of these characters has a relationship with addiction as well.
(Warning: do not go looking for information about this book if you do not want to encounter spoilers for the series.)
Margaret K. McElderry Books
(Simon & Schuster Books), 2010
As one narrator observes:
“It’s just so hard to feel good,
you know? I do know. And
more than that, it’s just
so incredibly hard to feel.”
Even in a different voice, addiction remains a monster:
“They don’t call it
the monster for
nothing. It chews
people up, spits ‘em
out, often unsalvageable.”
It alters people beyond recognition:
captured there, staring back at me,
is someone I don’t recognize.”
And tough questions loom that much larger when additions cloud the waters.
Once again, shape poems make the odd appearance. In one poem shaped like question mark, for instance, a cluster of words which forms the period says:
“Who are you really,
and do I love
that person too?”
Although the series begins and continues solidly in Kristina’s voice for more than a thousand pages, there is enough of a secondary cast that many themes can be included even beyond Kristina’s direct experience.
Sexuality, family conflict, rape, teen pregnancy, divorce, abuse and betrayal (whether within or alongside the matter of addiction): Ellen Hopkins’ trilogy doesn’t sidle up to serious subjects, it heads straight for them at a run.
Have you read either her YA novels or her adult fiction? Or, do you plan to?
At the beginning of the novel, where an epigraph might appear, is a note from the author, explaing that Uglies was shaped by a series of email exchanges between Scott Westerfeld and author Ted Chiang about his story “Liking What You See: A Documentary”.
At the end of Ted Chiang’s collection Stories of Your Life, the author explains that he was inspired by a study conducted by psychologists, who “left” a college application in an airport and discovered that people were more likely to mail in the “forgotten” application if the photo included was of an attractive person.
One story inspired by another; one story nests within another.
This is true not only when it comes to the reasons that authors write, but readers experience a similar sense of weaving with Westerfeld’s series.
It has swelled to four volumes (as well as two graphic novels, a handbook, and a book of essays), and introduces an assembly cast which sprawls and burrows as readers turn the pages.
Simon & Schuster – Simon Pulse, 2011
The actual epigraph to the first part of Uglies is from Yang Yuan” “Is it not good to make society full of beautiful people?”
This is not a new question. In Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam series, Glenn is startled by the faces he sees when Crake takes him out of the Compounds for the first time:
“Asymmmetries, deformities: the faces here were a far cry from the regularity of the Compounds. There were even bad teeth. He was gawking.”
In Uglies (2005), Tally explains it like this, as she looks out at New Pretty Town:
“There was a certain kind of beauty, a prettiness that everyone could see. Big eyes and full lips like a kid’s; smooth, clear skin; symmetrical features; and a thousand other little clues. Somewhere in the backs of their minds, people were always looking for these markers. No one could help seeing them, no matter how they were brought up. A million years of evolution had made it part of the human brain.”
But people are not born pretty; they are made pretty. And there are not only pretties, but new pretties, middle pretties and late pretties. (As well as uglies and littlies.)
“Tally thought of Peris, and tried to remember the way he used to look back when he was Nose. Somehow, she couldn’t recall his ugly face anymore. As if those few minutes of seeing him pretty had wiped out a lifetime of memories. All she could see now was pretty Peris, those eyes, that smile.”
And as readers might expect, questions arise. And the question of the motivation for and the mechanics of maintaining this pretty world leads to still more questions.
“’I wonder why they never come back,’ Shay said. ‘Just to visit.’
Tally swallowed. ‘Because we’re so ugly, Skinny, that’s why.’”
And those questions lead to conflict, internal and external, from the series’ opening pages; the pacing of these books is relentless.
“Tally had spent the last four years staring at the skyline of New Pretty Town, thinking it was the most beautiful sight in the world, but she didn’t think so anymore.”
Plot-wise, read in one-go, this series takes a toll on readers who are accustomed to peaks and valleys in fiction.
From the moment Tally takes to her hoverboard, the pace of this series is set to high-speed, which is sure to appeal to younger readers who might otherwise find books of this length a challenge.
But what makes this series appealing for adult readers who enjoy a good story are the complex characterizations.
(My step-daughter and I agreed that there was no single character we felt we were meant to adopt as a favourite, and when we tried to predict what the author intended to do in later books in the series, we found we could make arguments in favour of contradictory possibilities, largely because characters’ motivations were in flux with circumstances changing quickly for them.)
The heart of the conflict is consistent throughout the series, but the cast and settings shift as the story unfolds.
As readers might expect, the second volume, Pretties (2005), takes us inside the pretties’ perspective.
(But to avoid spoilers, all the quotes which follow will be limited to pronouns rather than names, so that the shifts in narrative voice remain unclear: in a world like this, inherently divisive, not every character will survive.)
“Like her old sweater, she’d remembered ugliness all wrong: [his] face was much worse than her mental image of the Smokies. His crooked smile, his dull eyes, the way his sweating skin carried angry red marks where the mask had pressed against it….”
Identity, belonging, security: thematically, Scott Westerfeld’s page-turners take on some serious subjects.
“With everything so perfect, reality seemed somehow fragile, as if the slightest interruption could imperil her pretty future. The bed beneath her, Komachi Mansion, and even the city around her – all of it felt as tenuous as a soap bubble, shivering and empty.”
Tension is inherent, at the individual level as the narrative inhabits a variety of experiences, and at the societal level, as understanding grows.
“It felt as if every time she took a step forward into her new life, something sucked her back toward ugly days.”
And even the tension is not straight-forward. In Specials (2006), the story grows even more complex.
Characters with whom some readers will have developed sympathies in earlier books now live very different lives.
Simon & Schuster – Simon Pulse, 2011
“She could see her future now, a clear path with no more reversals or confusions. She’d fought being ugly and she’d fought being pretty, but that was all over – she just wanted to be special from now on.”
And readers are beginning to piece together the ways in which this imagined world might fit with the world readers currently inhabit. (Diego and Londinium: some of the settings offer clues, but no clear answers.)
“Biological warfare had been one of the Rusties’ more brilliant ideas: engineering bacteria and viruses to kill each other. It was about the stupidest kind of weapon you could make, because once the bugs were finished with your enemies, they usually came for you. In fact, the whole Rusty culture had been undone by one artificial oil-eating bacterium.”
The epigraph to part three of Specials is from Pearl S. Buck, introducing a segment titled “Unmaking War”: “One faces the future with one’s past.”
In wartime, the action intensifies and broadens in this volume; characters resurface unexpectedly and some alliances are severed while others begin anew.
But while this continues in Extras (2007), the focus there shifts to a perspective which recasts some of the major events and relationships in the previous novels.
The earlier books contain romantic entanglements and triangles, intact and fractured friendships, but the final book concentrates more on one individual’s experience and one specific relationship.
“She wondered if that was why [he] had come up with Radical Honesty. If you never lied, you’d never feel this trickle of dread in your stomach, the worry of being unmasked.”
Ambition and peer pressure (and honour and betrayal) play out in personal and political arenas, and the hover-board action continues.
“Sometimes it’s fun to change yourself. But I wanted to see what it was like without lies. How a relationship works when you can’t hide anything.”
Readers who want to slow the pace have the option of dwelling on philosophical matters.
“Once you’d told yourself a story enough times, it was so easy to keep on believing it.”
Having spent almost a year on the New York Times bestseller list, and now translated into twenty-seven languages, Scott Westerfeld’s series obviously holds tremendous appeal for a wide variety of readers.
But it does not only reside in backpacks and on bedside tables, it makes an appearance in school classrooms as well; Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series entertains, but it also raises unanswerable questions and invites readers of all ages to take them seriously.
Have you read any of Scott Westerfeld’s books?
The word ‘goodish’ entered my vocabulary thanks to an observation that Carol Shields makes of two female friends in The Republic of Love. (General increased usage of -ish also ensued.)
“They love the word ‘goodish,’ as in goodish sunsets, goodish travel bargains, goodish men.”
The title and cover of Suzanne Sutherland’s When We Were Good brought that to mind immediately. I’m not sure that was intentional, but certainly the handholding brings bonds between young women to mind.
Sumach Press – Three O’Clock Press, 2013
And readers are intended to reflect upon the Bloor Street Viaduct, which features in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, a novel which Katherine is studying at school.
(It not only appears in class discussions but as part of the Toronto landscape in which Suzanne Sutherland’s novel unfolds.)
The simple bookishness of this debut novel is one reason readers will respond immediately. For instance, when Katherine’s grandmother dies, she finds comfort in reading her grandmother’s favourite stories.
“In four days I read almost everything Alice Munro had ever written. She was Grandma’s favourite; her short stories were these perfect little pearl worlds that lured me out of my own head for the few hours that I gave myself over to them completely. I fell asleep more than once face down in Grandma’s old hardcover copy of Munro’s Selected Stories, long after the words had stopped making sense.”
But Katherine does not only find comfort in books, connection and a sense of safety. She also finds herself there. “The book was an amulet, it was my protector. It was sacred, it was holy.”
Though not exclusively in books, also in music (and how this took me back to those years). Katherine experiences music profoundly in a solitary context.
“I shut off every part of me but my ears, trying to let the pure sound take me over. The hairs on my arms stood on end. That kind of radical honesty, the ability to completely be yourself through your art, was something I knew I’d never be capable of. I cried until the album was over.”
But when she meets Marie, she is introduced to new bands and begins to attend live shows regularly, and those experiences are terrifically exciting and overwhelming for a variety of reasons.
The intensity of her teenage years is depicted authentically and unsentimentally. Nonetheless, Katherine is clearly having a tough year. “I was starting to wonder if I’d already run through my tear quota for the year. And it was only the beginning of February.”
But the story is not unremittingly bleak, far from it. The credible dialogue, the pacing of the prose, the variety of characters, the light-touch on heavy-subjects: all of this invites readers to spend time with the story.
And, oh, I want to avoid spoiler territory, but can’t help but say that there is a most wonderfully satisfying ending. Quintessential goodishness.
That is true, too, of Elizabeth Stewart’s Blue Gold, although the subject matter is markedly different; questions of identity and complications uniquely rooted in girls’ coming-of-age are also prominent in the three narratives herein.
Annick Press, 2014
The focus shifts from North America and Fiona, to Africa and Sylvie, to Asia and Laiping.
In Laiping’s narrative, chronicling her experience of being a “factory girl” in Shenzeng, the question of being “good” is overtly addressed.
“A good daughter obeys her parents. You must stay and learn to tolerate the work,” she is told.
And Laiping – like the other girls in these stories – does strive to be “good”.
“She lifted her knees higher than usual during marching exercises, and worked with extra concentration—ignoring Bohai at her side—so grateful was she to Miss Lau and Miss Jang, and to Steve Chen.”
But the challenges she faces are overwhelming. She cannot fit everybody’s expectations of a “good” girl.
Each of the girl’s must cope with the idea of failing to conform with these expectations, even when the circumstances eliminate the possibility that they can be “good”.
“In a way, it was funny. But then her heart sank. What if her parents found out? She wished she could be the type of girl who didn’t care, but she wasn’t—and [Fiona] did.”
And although the penalties for being “bad” are different for each girl, the constant threat and vulnerability is something that they share and each struggles to respond to situations in which they feel powerless.
Slyvie’s experiences after fleeing the Democratic Republic of the Congo, inhabiting a refugee camp, are most egregious. This is presented in vague terms initially.
“But nobody talked about what tragedies they had endured there. It was taken for granted that everyone in the camp had lost someone they loved—a child, a spouse, sometimes a whole family. Talking about it was too painful. It seemed to Sylvie that everyone here was waiting for pain to end and for life to begin again.”
But Sylvie shares more of her story when an aid worker gains her trust and in time readers hear those details too. This is difficult to read about, but readers are shielded because neither Sylvie nor her listener dare to delve too deeply into the young girl’s memories at that time (and, indeed, there are aspects of Sylvie’s experience which are not disclosed until near the end of the novel).
Sylvie’s narrative is vitally important because it provides the anchor for the other girls’ stories.
Her homeland is the region which is being mined for “the blue-black nuggets of columbite-tantalite ore that was plentiful in the high-lands surrounding their valley…blue gold”.
The coltan is shipped to factories like the one in which Laiping works and is a vital component in the cell phones which play a significant role in fuelling the cyber-bullying which Fiona faces.
The link between the narratives is evident within a few chapters of the novel, but the threads are not overtly tied until specific plot events unfold and, even then, the web is not tightly drawn.
This is appropriate because although the connections are undeniably true, these are not ties which are immediately evident. (A short video here sketches the connections.)
Certainly cell-phone users in Canada do not generally contemplate the fact that the current methods of production of mobile devices is wrecking havoc with human rights and environmental stewardship; the connection exists but it appears amorphous, and the narrative links are present but subtle as well. (At the back of the book, readers can learn more about the facts behind the girls’ stories, and there are recommended books and resources listed.)
Thematically, these works have more in common than readers might expect. From conflict with parents and questions about sexuality to death and murder, from dislocation and injustice to rape and assault, from suicide to depression: throughout it all, these girls try to be good.
Katherine, Fiona, Sylvie and Laiping embody stories that many readers of all ages will find compelling.
Is either of these books on your TBR list? Have you encountered any serious subjects in your kidlit reading lately?
At twenty-eight years old, Priscila Uppal meets her mother in Brazil, twenty years after her mother has abandoned daughter-son-husband.
Two decades later, their relationship is a complicated one between near-strangers.
They spend twelve days together and the experience is shared in Projection within a framework of movie titles.
This organizing principle reveals the tangible and intangible layers to this story, the practical details and psychological truths of projections on-screen and off-screen, and hints at the time and attention paid to this narrative.
“This is a story about mothers and daughters, disappearances and reunions, family bonds and family secrets, travel, trauma, grief, art, and the nature of the imagination. And movies. This is the story of how I became a blade runner.”
Readers who lack a runaway mother need not worry whether their interest will wane.
Priscila Uppal’s narrative is certainly an intimate one, rooted in a relationship between two individuals, but her observations certainly could apply to other complicated relationships (blood ties or otherwise).
She has been musing upon and studying, analyzing and challenging, her relationship with her mother for long enough to tease out the universals in her experience.
Relationships that have been fractured because dreams have dissipated? Not only mother-daughter relationships breakdown under those circumstances.
“Dreams are also dangerous. My mother’s heart was stuffed to the brim with dreams, and after my father’s accident she watched them poke out like pillow feathers and fly away.”
And gaps between imagination and reality? That snaps relationships in two pieces (or more) almost routinely: from marriages to business-partnerships.
“To come up face to face against the real person – whose face will never appear to you as you envisioned it – is to come up against and interrogate your own imagination and discover through cross-examination how true or how false you’ve been to this person, to the past, and to yourself. The ramifications are serious, no matter how elusive. Perhaps, more truthfully, I hoped I wouldn’t actually find her and force her to become real once again. Who you imagine others to be reflects on who you imagine yourself to be.”
What really makes this memoir hum, however, is the narrative voice. Self-aware and sure-footed: Projection is a pleasure to unravel.
“Writers’ psyches are a tad perverse. If a story presents itself, we are sometimes loyal to the story at the expense of ourselves.”
Priscila Uppal invites readers in, allows them to giggle with her at the inanities and insanities which proliferate in a situation like this, where dream and reality collide
“I’m a twenty-eight-year-old woman with a stuffed toy in her carry-on who reads and writes poetry for a living – not exactly the blueprint for a fearless explorer. I only have so much bravery and I might have used it all up today. You have no idea what you’re preventing me from doing. You’re interfering with my story. I didn’t write a visa complication into my script.”
And once she has successfully conquered that challenge (no spoilers here: that’s obvious from the bookcover), the descriptions of Brazil are also of interest (specific destinations, though identifying them is somewhat spoiler-y).
“And this is Brazil. You can set your sights on the vast blue horizon, but there are miles and miles and miles of dusty sandy beaches shifting under our feet.”
But the territory of prime concern is psychological rather than geographical.
“I may also have a version of my mother living out her day-to-day tragedy in the film set of my own mind, but at least I’m making an effort to alter my projections along with her production notes.”
There is a process unfolding on the page, and readers are engaged with the memoirist throughout, but most pointedly as the “plot thickens” and pages are turned.
(One of the ways in which she inserts humour is via her lists, for instance “Ten Things My Mother and I Share” and “Ten Things I Love about Canada”, although readers are left to scribble their own “Ten Things My Mother Never Imagined about Me” list, which might have included: “Is it possible my mother has never imagined me with a mouth?”)
Securing the motif of viewing relationships on a screen, there are many comments on specific films (which are of greatest interest when readers are familiar with the subjects under discussion) but, as always, there are enough broader observations to allow readers to make connections even so.
“We can watch a character make the same wrong decision we’re about to make, we can understand the terrible repercussions of that decision, we can identify the exact cause-and-effect relationship and chart out the line from beginning to end, but how is it we so rarely as a species put that learning into practice? Is art actually useful, or just a sophisticated distraction? Why are we so desperate to make our own mistakes? And why, after a couple of hours, don’t they fade to black?”
Ultimately, Projection is a single work in an artist’s oeuvre, in film or in ink; readers who are craving the criterion collection commentary might be disappointed that there is no tidy resolution. Even so, this is the director’s cut of the work, and Priscila Uppal is, indeed, the projection shaper.
Have you read this memoir, or is it on your TBR list?
[Aside: This book would make a fantastic selection for a bookclub and/or reading group, particularly for the sort of group that ventures into films as well. Things to talk about: oh, yes!]
At first glance, readers might not spot similarities between J. C. Carleson’s The Tyrant’s Daughter (2014) and Gabrielle Prendergast’s Audacious (2013).
Knopf – Random House, 2014
Laila, the 15-year-old daughter of an assassinated dictator, flees to North America with the aid of authorities who recognize the family’s vulnerability with shifting political power in their homeland.
Raphaelle, at 16 years old, isn’t sure how to decorate her new room and whether to keep a snazzy dress that she once thought was perfect.
But, in fact, the tyrant’s daughter is audacious, and Raphaelle’s family is seemingly intact but actually fragmented.
Both girls are struggling with a sense of dislocation and questions of identity, belonging, and betrayal.
And each girl makes a major decision which is heavily criticized by some and has far-reaching ramifications.
But the trappings of the stories are clearly different.
Although both novels are rooted in realism, J.C. Carleson’s is fiction inspired by real events.
As a former CIA officer, travelling through one of Saddam Hussein’s opulent properties in Iraq, J. C. Carleson saw a story in a “palace of a playhouse”.
She wondered who those children were, who had played in that elaborate structure built into the side of a hill: “When they came of age and learned more, were they shocked?”
In The Tyrant’s Daughter, the girl with the playhouse comes of age.
And she has to leave that playhouse behind, literally and figuratively, to face questions of loyalty and the reality of betrayal.
The author did not want to have Laila’s story rooted in a single country, so she relied on “a melting pot of details, current events, and personal experiences” to construct her novel.
“My country makes shameful lists: Worst countries for women. Worst countries for human rights. Worst countries for press freedom. It’s never at the top, but it’s often close—it’s the runner-up in a devil’s beauty pageant.”
Following the novel is a commentary by Cheryl Benard, who writes about her experience interviewing Benazir Bhutto and the similarly “fractured, fragile kaleidoscope of colors ready to shift at the slightest nudge of the wheel” that J.C. Carleson’s heroine finds herself facing.
But Laila’s adjustment to North American life, to life no-longer-as-a-princess, is rooted in the concrete. Readers can easily relate to her sense of dislocation.
From breakfast cereals to cups of coffee, Laila and her surviving family members’ experiences of culture shock are palpable. (And, sometimes, darkly humourous.)
“I’m angry with school lunches—every item on my tray date-stamped as edible for weeks or even months into the future. I had my first fruit cup today, all syrup and vacuum-sealed packaging. Is there nothing fresh in this country? Have they taken the farmers somewhere and shot them?”
And beneath her everyday struggle to adjust to a different kind of life, Laila must accept the fact that although she was raised to believe that her father was a king, that’s not how he was viewed by the world beyond her counry’s borders.
“A small part of me understands. How does a parent tell a child a truth like my father’s? And some of the lies were at least close to truths. Like royalty’s, my family’s status was passed down from father to son. Like a king’s, my father’s rule was absolute. The only real differences, I suppose, were that my father had no adoring empire and that his was an authority based more on bloodshed than birthright.”
The issues she faces certainly seem unique on the surface. “I remember gunfire, bodies, death. But I also remember my father as king. I still don’t know how much of my history is invented.”
Orca Books, 2013
But they are not as far removed from the questions about identity that her friends are experiencing in a different context. “I flush warm with guilt as I realize that I’ve thought of her as a paper doll of a friend, one-dimensional and picture-frame perfect. That she might also have things to escape never occurred to me.”
And even as Laila is remembering gunfire, in the passage above, she makes this observation, which could as well have been made by Raphaelle in Audacious:
“My grasp on reality has been so shaken that I can’t trust my memories.”
Raphaelle’s story is told in verse. It is solidly rooted in the present, but readers have the sense that there is something lurking.
Even while the family is adjusting to new surroundings, a new house and a new community and new schools and workplaces, something of what-came-before goes unaddressed.
It takes more than a hundred pages for this to be openly identifed, in a segment titled “Four Things I Never Say to My Sister”:
“There’s a dark black hole in the past
Somewhere in junior high.
A Cold place where nothing can escape
Don’t fall in
And if you do fall in, look for me
Because that something dark and cold
Won’t let me go….”
The details of the black hole are not disclosed for some time yet. Like Laila, Raphaelle has a legacy which she has not yet made sense of.
Given the heavily dramatized events of The Tyrant’s Daughter, readers will expect it to be a page-turner. And, it is that.
But Audacious moves with a steady pace as well. There are no death threats and no shadowed figures lurking in doorways. But there is a boy with parents who disapprove of Raphaelle (a boy from a country whose name might appear on those lists Laila refers to, with poor showings for women’s rights).
And there is the matter of Raphaelle’s behaving so audaciously (and explaining that is too spoilery to discuss, although it has nothing to do with the story’s romantic elements — and how refreshing is that).
“Something controversial, I say
(Without really knowing why),
I like to agitate, I add.”
Some of Raphaelle’s behaviour is simply for the sake of being contrary, true. But there is a political side to the decisions that she makes. Her actions are rooted in Raphaelle’s questions about identity, specifically her feminine identity and what roles she (and other girls and women) inhabit in society.
From Gabreille Prendergast’s Audacious
In many ways, Raphaelle’s audacity is not just an act of self-insistence but an open declaration of war on convention.
In her own small corner of the world, Raphaelle acts as the revolutionary, just as Laila does in another context and on another scale.
And there are gaps in Raphaelle’s family, too, although the holes are not bulletholes.
“We are the same, us four, that’s true
A family photograph full of holes
Secrets kept from one another
Hunger, fear, doubt, loneliness
And a missing brother.”
Gabrielle Prendergast’s language is unsentimental, and the everyday details in the verses balance the heavily emotional content.
Sometimes the mood is relayed as much by the shape and layout of the poems as by the words themselves.
(See “First Day of School”, in which readers can visually recognize the sense of isolation and increased connection.)
One of the most satisfying elements in each work, however, is the resolution. Or, more accurately, the lack of tidy resolutions.
Neither Laila nor Rahpaelle age substantially in the course of these novels and at the ends of their stories they have even more questions than they had at the beginnings (or, at least, readers are more consciously aware of all the questions with which the characters are grappling).
Both J.C. Carleson and Gabrielle Prendergast insist upon an ending which remains largely undefined, which suits their heroines perfectly.
Being a teenager, with and without a dictator in the mix: it’s serious stuff.
In “Save the Reaper” and “The Children Stay” readers are directed to wonder what young children remember of their parents’ shenanigans, but in this story readers inhabit Karin’s perspective.
Karin is certainly old enough to actively observe and contemplate the events unfolding around her (although from a girl’s perspective, so although she is maturing, her relational experiences are limited).
And even more fascinating, she is consciously aware of her role in these events, of her capacity to influence and pursue a desired outcome.
The story begins and ends with Karin and her mother Rosemary, but readers’ attentions are directed from the outset towards another kind of investment.
From the title, readers know that this story is not only about parenting and childing, but about paying and collecting, about negotiating dynamics of not only relationships but also economics.
“’Someday you will be rich,’ Derek said matter-of-factly. ‘But not soon enough.’ He was putting the camera away in its case. ‘Keep on the right side of your mother,’ he said. ‘She’s rich as stink.’”
Karin isn’t overtly aware of her mother’s wealth, or of the value of keeping on Rosemary’s right side. She is actually approaching the age where she aims to be on Rosemary’s wrong side at times.
But she is clearly aware of the question of sides, of there being right ones and wrong ones. When Karin arrives at the airport, she scans the crowd and sees her mother Rosemary but not Derek, and readers can see Karin making a shift, adjusting her position, choosing to play a different role.
“Rosemary said with dire serenity, ‘We aren’t seeing each other anymore. We aren’t working together.’
‘Really?’ said Karin. ‘You mean you’ve broken up?’
‘If people like us can break up,’ Rosemary said.”
The nature of Rosemary’s relationship with Derek is unclear because readers view it through Karin’s eleven-year-old eyes; Rosemary has been working with Derek on a book, and initially maintained an apartment in Toronto but recently moved into a trailer near Derek’s and Ann’s house. A trailer in which Derek keeps a lot of things, not only manuscript-related items but records and a coffee grinder, things that have a resonance beyond a working relationship even as viewed by an 11-year-old girl.
Regardless, Karin does not overlook the conflict inherent in their goings-on. Derek’s words are the source of the story’s title, his evaluation of Rosemary’s worth. There is no doubt that he perceives many differences between his own status and Rosemary’s, so that even the contrast in their taste in coffee takes on a symbolic importance.
These differences are meaningful for Karin, “people like us” and “people like them”, and she recognizes something familiar therein, sees a fluidity in her capacity to choose a side which intrigues her.
“Never, never, in her school-year life, her life with Ted and Grace, would Karin find herself in a place with this horrid smell of scorched sugar and grease and cigarette smoke and rank coffee.”
But this kind of detail is even more meaningful for readers, who recognize an additional layer of complexity, particularly after Rosemary arrives at the house for dinner with Derek and Ann (Karin already on site).
“Derek is not putting his hands on Rosemary anywhere but looks as if he is always just about to do so,” Karin observes. And for readers, the scene in which Ann discovers her wedding dress is cast in a new light. And whether a donut shop is rejected is connected to overarching matters of acceptance and union.
There is an air of doom and gloom attached to the household, Derek observed to Karin earlier in the day, and he attributes this to Ann’s declaration of intent. She plans to accept an offer on the property and move elsewhere.
Ann’s motivation might well be economic, as Derek explains it to Karin. Karin, at 11 years old, seems to receive it at face-value and insists that if she had money she would buy the property so that all could remain as it has been. Rosemary continuing to live in the trailer, Derek continuing to work on his book, Ann continuing to sit in the dark in the kitchen.
But even Karin recognizes another element at work. “Karin felt her face heat up, she felt the shock of those words. It was something she’d never heard before. Rich as stink. It sounded hateful.”
There are many possible elements which readers might identify in what Karin does not recognize and articulate. Derek’s assessment heats up Karin’s skin, but she does not identify specifics.
Nonetheless, the lack of understanding does not halt Karin’s response, her desire to shift the positions of the players on the stage at the dinner.
A phrase from “Royal Beatings” in Who Do You Think You Are? which often focusses on Rose and Flo’s relationship (step-daughter and step-mother) comes to mind:
“She has the same difficulty Rose does, a difficulty in believing that what you know must happen really will happen, that there comes a time when you can’t draw back.”
In “Rich as Stink”, readers do not see that time for Rosemary, neither the point at which she perhaps did not draw back nor the point at which she may have.
But they do witness the hinge in Karin’s experience. And the scene which unfolds is mythic and unforgettable: the little bride ablaze.
What did you think of this story?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the sixth story in the collection of the same name. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next week: “Before the Change”.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.
This year’s Massey Lecture text begins with passion and grandiose declarations.
“I have had a lifelong obsession with blood, and I’m not the only one. As both substance and symbol, blood reveals us, divides us, and unites us. We care about blood, because it spills literally and figuratively into every significant corner of our lives.”
Lawrence Hill’s personal anecdotes, which he shares next, explain the genesis of his obsession and draw readers closer to the subject.
House of Anansi, 2013
The first segment, ”Go Careful with that Blood of Mine: Blood Counts”, considers how “notions of blood have evolved over thousands of years”. The chapter offers an overview of blood’s nature and functions, addresses some of the ways in which blood defines men and women, and the ways in which blood can betray.
Even the simplest of biological facts contains an element of wonder:
“Blood has some four thousand components. A drop of blood the size of a pinhead is teeming with quantities of cells that seem unfathomable: 250 million red blood cells, 16 million platelets, and 375,000 white blood cells.”
There is talk of bloodletting and menstruation and personal anecdotes nestle with material drawn from the headlines, as in the second segment, “We Want it Safe and We Want it Clean: Blood, Truth and Honour”.
Here, the topic is how we change the nature or composition of our blood, and how we respond to alterations of blood in medicine and sport.
From Olympic scandals to stem-cell research to different national policies regarding blood donation: blood is more interesting than many readers likely expected.
“The arbitrary, subjective nature of the rules barring or impeding blood donations from males who have had sex with males becomes very clear when one looks at the divergent policies from country to country. In Israel, France, Greece, and the United States, gay men are not allowed to donate blood. Canada recently eliminated its lifelong prohibition, and ruled that gay men who have been celibate for five years will be eligible to donate. In the U.K., Sweden, and Japan, gay men can donate blood if they have been celibate for one year.”
The third segment of the series is “Comes by it Honestly: Blood and Belonging”. Ideas about parental expectations and the complications that step-parenting and adoption pose to traditional ideas about families and blood relations, offer an interesting entry point to this aspect of the subject matter.
But moving from the realm of the personal to the political, the consideration of jus sanguinis, the concept of basing national citizenship on blood, is just as interesting and complex, as is the question of legal definitions of identity and membership and the socio-economic ramifications.
“It has been in the economic interests of government agencies to expand the definition of black identity in order to maximize the economic benefits associated with slave labour, but it was not considered such a valuable idea to define all people with Aboriginal identity as ‘Indians”, due to the costs associated with providing services to Aboriginal people or recognizing their land rights.”
In “From Humans to Cockroches: Blood in the Veins of Power and Spectacle” the exercise of power, control, and public spectacle is examined.
From the persecution of witches, to the accumulation of databases about blood collected and studied, to the guillotine, to the tremendous popularity of The Hunger Games: this chapter covers diverse and interconnected ideas.
One of most curious (and new to me, though apparently the subject of many books and a feature film) was the story of the Mexico-born Sor Juana in the mid-17th-Century, who became a nun and was celebrated throughout the Spanish empire for her intellect; she signed a letter in her own blood renouncing her intellectual life and devoting herself to the Church.
“In forcefully denying her own beauty (Octavio Paz describes her as having been beautiful), Sor Juana imagined her own destruction. She met her downfall, and paid for it with her own books – and blood – after infuriating the men who ruled her world of Catholicism.”
With the series’ final chapter, “Of Presidential Mistresses, Holocaust Survivors, and Long-lost Ancestors: Secrets in Our Blood”, the ways in which blood can offer up our deepest secrets and revelations is displayed.
From DNA testing, to talk of Lady Macbeth, to surgery to reconstruct a hymen for women whose worth in society is measure by their chastity alone: biology, literature and culture intersect in these musings.
“To recognize the fundamental equality of all human beings means that we cannot create hierarchies along liens of gender, race, religion, age, sexual orientation or ability. To recognize and shed subconscious beliefs that should be relegated to the Dark Ages, we must agree that blood is no determinant of human difference. In our bodies, and in the red stuff that courses through our veins and arteries, we are one and the same.”
In closing, Lawrence Hill asks readers to consider the connections and intersections and the implications of these complex ideas on readers’ worldviews.
“We are more connected than we think, and sometimes in dangerous ways. The more we learn about blood, the more we understand how all blood is hopelessly and forever intermingled, just like humanity itself, across culture, across gender, across age and race, and even across time.”
The scope of the work is almost overwhelming and, yet, there are many instances in which those interconnections seem to simplify just as they simultaneously seem to proliferate.
Doubleday Canada – Random House Canada 2013
In Blood, Lawrence Hill refers to two other books I have read recently, Wayne Grady’s novel and Carolyn Abrahams memoir, which illustrate Hill’s thinking beautifully.
“We imagine science to be pure, inviolable, and absolutely true, but we have only to look at the evolving theories of human blood and human circulation, over the millennia, to realize that scientists – like everyone else – move at least partly in step with the social biases and subjective limitations of their time.”
He refers, too, to other sources, like Shirlee Taylor Haizlip’s The Sweeter the Juice, from which the first epigraph is drawn.
“Sometimes I look at people and wonder if they are related to me. I do this in public places and private spaces…I have indulged in this curious pastime since I was eight years old, when I first understood that all but one of my mother’s family had become white.”
And I was surprised to find that other books I’ve read recently also explore this territory. Consider Indu Sundaresan’s The Mountain of Light, in which a character observes in 1854 that “Sophia knows that now it’s fashionable to make these distinctions – you’re black and Indian; I’m white. Or you’re not quite white, are you? Some Indian blood lurking around somewhere? A quarter of it? A sixteenth?” Or Emily Schultz’s The Blondes, which declares that the “thing about disease is that it’s based on connection”.
This passion truly is uniting. If you’re intrigued, the CBC Massey Lectures page has more to offer (with links to excerpts from each of the five lectures, a video of the final lecture, links to purchase the audio files, interviews and photographs).
Did you listen to (or read) this lecture? Are you still planning to do so?
Kathy Kacer’s name dots the pages of Second Story Press’ Holocaust Remembrance Series.
From her first book in 1999 to last year’s Shanghai Surprise, no other author has contributed so many stories to the series.
The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser is bookended by contemporary snippets designed to draw young readers into the tale.
(I like to start at the beginning and this was Kathy Kacer’s first novel.)
Two children listen to their grandmother tell her story, and the book takes just that long to read.
It’s an old trick, but it still works, And young readers are encouraged to stay because the story is told in language which capably and succinctly deals with complex issues which children can immediately recognize and understand.
The breakdown of “religious and not-so-religious beliefs”, the sensory details depicting the sabbath dinner, the overarching threat to the family as the disturbing political changes begin to affect people’s everyday lives: these facets of Kathy Kacer’s storytelling cement the connection between readers and characters.
Gabi must grapple with the serious matters which face her and her family, and she is certainly aware that there are events unfolding which her parents are not discussing in detail with her.
But Kathy Kacer affords Gabi an agency that not all writers would afford their young heroines; she depicts Gabi choosing not to share certain information with her parents, too, thinking that she must protect them just as they seek to protect her.
Nonetheless, even while there are life-and-death matters of importance, Gabi also must struggle with the disintegration of her friendship with Nina, who has been her best friend.
Talk of lost friendship is juxtaposed with discussion of rallies, factories, work details and death camps. There is a brief foreword to the novel which offers some historical context and an appendix, including two pages of photographs, which outlines the main events in the war as it unfolded in Czechoslovakia. But ultimately The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser is the story of one young girl, told in unadorned prose.
A more recent work by Kathy Kacer depends upon a similar framework, but there are many more photographs included, spread through out the narrative, so that readers are constantly aware that although reading a story now, the events which unfolded were real for millions of people.
In The Diary of Laura’s Twin (2008), Laura’s bat mitzvah is approaching and she must research the experiences of a girl her own age during the war.
As a contemporary guide, Laura’s character is slightly older than Gabi and afforded slightly more complexity as well.
Laura is just as preoccupied with her best friend, and even more so by matters revolving around experiences she is having at school, but she feels conflicted in some ways.
Although initially she resisted the idea of learning more about Sara’s experiences during the way, soon Laura finds Sara’s experiences in the past so compelling that she wants to spend more time with her friend on the pages of this diary than with her real-life friends.
And, just as Laura is being drawn towards the diary, a string of hate-crimes seems to give the past even more relevance to Laura’s contemporary life than she suspected possible.
“She didn’t want historical information about the events leading up to World War II. She wanted more than that. She wanted to know what Sara seemed to be asking – why the world had stood by and allowed these events to unfold in the first place.”
Nonetheless, it is Sara’s voice which resonates most intensely in the narrative. The immediacy of the diary form and readers’ awareness of historical events add urgency to the story.
The sense of impending doom is captured brilliantly, but Sara is afforded the opportunity to imagine a future act of resistance.
“That’s what Hinda’s illness was like for me. It was like running to get out of a burning building before something really terrible happened. We were able to avoid this disaster. But it always feels as if the next one is just around the corner. Next time I’m going to do something. Next time I’m going to be like David.” (November 5, 1941)
And, in the meantime, Sara has a way of describing things which keeps the content from settling into the overwhelmingly grim.
“They are living with an old couple and Deena says the old man snores and barely even speaks to her. Deena says they are all jammed together the way her grandmother used to bottle pickles – one next to the other until there was no space left in the jar.” (July 16, 1941)
There is a sense, early in the story, that Sara will take action when the time is right.
“That’s what David told me what he wanted me to do. ‘We need a messenger,’ he said. ‘Someone small, someone who can move quickly and easily through the sewers.’ David went on to explain that there was a letter that had to be delivered to the outside. A contact was waiting beyond one of the gates of the ghetto.”
Specific events create a page-turning atmosphere for the reader, but a more subtle shift is also chronicled as the story unfolds. These words, from Sara’s diary, are just as meaningful for Laura in the present-day:
“These ghetto walls had take away every sense of freedom I ever had. But I suddenly realized that freedom was not just about where you were. Freedom was about who you were and who you chose to be.”
Kathy Kacer creates a heroine in Sara, a young girl who dares to take action against the threat she faces.
In the sequel to The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser, Gabi and her younger cousin have the same opportunity when they meet a member of the Czech resistance group.
The Night Spies (2003) depicts Gabi and her cousin hiding in the barn behind the house of Kos family, in a space carved out of straw (6′ x 6′ x 4′) during the day, but the children become — and this is not a spoiler because it’s in the title — night spies.
Published four years after her first novel, Gabi’s continuing story introduces a degree of complexity which is appropriate considering that readers who met her as a younger girl are now prepared to meet her as a thirteen-year-old girl.
When she and her cousin meet the partisan soldiers in the woods, with whom they soon ally, they must accept the fact that some of these soldiers are fighting to protect their homeland from the Nazi invaders, but they do not necessarily disagree with Hitler’s policies.
It is difficult, but Gabi and her cousin must accept the fact that they are hated by some of the partisans as much as they are hated by some of the Nazis, and yet they owe their survival to the partisan soldiers.
Gabi does not sugar-coat the challenge she faces and at least one battle between the partisans and the Nazi soldiers is a devastating experience for her, but these stories were based on stories that Kathy Kacer heard from her mother: Gabi is a fictional creation but she is based on a real girl who had to find courage that she did not know she possessed.
This is true, too, of Clara in Clara’s War (2001). “Clara was so tired of having to be grown up and brave when deep down inside she still felt afraid.”
This was the story which I personally found most engaging. It unfolds in Terezin, 60 kilometres north-west of Prague, in a ghetto-fortress which was originally built by Emperor Joseph II of Austria.
The details about ghetto life in Terezin, the specific experiences that Clara has in the girls’ dormitory, from the awkwardness of her arrival throughout the daily events which comprise the routine there, were sketched in a matter-of-fact voice, with just enough detail to evoke the scenes.
Most impressive were the descriptions of what school was like in the ghetto, the ways in which the elders and adults worked to educate the children under these conditions, and, amazingly, the production of Brundibar, an opera composed by Hans Krasa.
The lyrics in the final victory song in the opera, sung in defiance of the wicked organ grinder, are powerful indeed. All the more so when one imagines that one knows the children singing them.
“His days are numbered now. We face him with no fear. We are unbeatable.”
After reading several of the books in this series, I had to set aside my reading for this project for a spell. I had become so absorbed in these stories that I set aside all other reading.
I was reminded of what I had read in Bernice Eisenstein’s I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors beautiful graphic memoir last autumn, about her voracious reading (in general and on the subject of the Holocaust).
“I read in order to be brave, to learn how to navigate my way through a shape-shifting world. I read for the pure pleasure of how language serves both imagination and will, and to hear the clarity of voices responding to murky reality. In doing so, I discover time and again the ability to find my own.”
I bet she takes her kidlit seriously too.
One mother in my step-daughter’s seventh-grade class complained.
The teacher incorporated John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas into the lesson-plan, and this mother believes the subject is inappropriate for twelve- and thirteen-year-old students.
Are children too young to grapple with such serious subjects?
The story of Hana’s Suitcase suggests otherwise.
And certainly children younger than my step-daughter directly experienced the Holocaust.
Karen Levine’s book is based on the story behind a suitcase marked “Hana Brady, May 16, 1931, Waisenkind” (‘orphan’ in German).
The suitcase was received by Fumiko Ishioka, who curates a small Holocaust education centre for children in Tokyo.
When the curators at the Auschwitz museum agreed to loan her some artifacts, the children at the centre were particularly intrigued by the case and by the details that emerged about Hana’s story.
Her girlhood experiences are recreated in a believable and accessible manner. Certain facts have been uncovered, but the emotional aspects of her story are drawn from the experiences of survivors.
“One day, Hana and George lined up at the movie theater to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When they got to the ticket box they saw a sign that read ‘No Jews Allowed’. Their faces red, their eyes burning, Hana and George turned on their heels and headed for home. When Hana walked in the door, she was furious and very upset. ‘What is happening to us? Why can’t I go to the movies? Why can’t I just ignore the sign?’ Mother and Father looked grimly at each other. There were no easy answers.”
The question of what children should know, how much they can handle, surfaces directly in the text, too; this is something that adults and older children struggled to determine while the events unfolded around them.
“Every few weeks a letter would arrive from Father, who was imprisoned in the Iglau Nazi prison. George would read only the cheerful part to his sister. George thought Hana was too young to know the whole truth about the harsh conditions in prison and how desperate Father was to be free. She was not too young, though, to be deported by the Nazis.”
The details of camp life are recounted in straightforward language, and the tenth anniversary edition of Hana’s Suitcase (2013) contains a number of photographs and documents to add to the descriptions.
“Lists. Everywhere there were lists. The Nazis were systematic record keepers and they wanted all their prisoners to know it. Through the constant counting and listing of people, the Nazis reminded the inmates who was in charge. Everyone knew that being counted, being noticed, could mean a transport and another separation from family and friends.”
But Hana’s story is not unremittingly bleak. There are moments of kindness recounted. (And something wonderful does happen as a result of Fumiko Ishioka’s explorations.)
“In Terezin, where there was never enough to eat, residents received a small buchta, a plain doughnut, once a week. Hana never ate hers. She brought it to George so he could be strong and stay sweet.”
As the most well-known work within Second Story’s Holocaust Remembrance Series, Hana’s Suitcase is” now being read around the world by hundreds of thousands of children, in more than forty languages. Fumiko, George and the suitcase continue to travel, sharing Hana’s story, the lessons of history and a message of tolerance”.
There are, however, many other works for children and teens in this series (many by Kathy Kacer, which will be discussed in a separate post) which educate and engage young readers.
Debbie Spring’s The Righteous Smuggler (2005) tells the story of Hendrik, the young son of a poor Dutch fisherman who must grapple with moral questions that might have seemed beyond his capacity, when Holland was invaded by Nazi soldiers in 1940.
“It was hard for me to sit still. I felt like punching something. Johan, Pieter, Malka, and Jacob had been my friends since first grade. I never even thought of them as Jewish. They didn’t think of me as Christian. We didn’t care about religion. We only thought about ourselves as friends.”
Hendrik is a fictional creation, but his story is based on real-life accounts of smugglers who aided those threatened with deportation.
Kathy Clark wrote Guardian Angel House (2009) after she saw the documentary film Orangyalhaz (‘Guardian Angel House’ in Hungarian), created by the Hungarian movie producer Anna Merei.
The film portrayed the actual events which occurred in the Convent of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul during 1944-45, but Kathy Clark had first heard about the convent from her mother, Vera, who had taken refuge there as a girl.
“‘I thought…’ began Viktor, ‘I thought that perhaps his daughters could come here to the convent. There are so many girls here. A couple more or less would not make that much difference. They could pretend to be orphans, or young novices. No one would dream of looking for Jewish girls here. Everything in the country needs identity papers now. But no one would come here asking for identity papers. Not in a convent.’”
This was not an easy decision for the family to make.
“‘No!’ Mama broke in firmly. ‘My girls will never pretend to be Catholics. We will not hide who we are. We are proud to be Jews. We don’t need Catholic charity.’”
Eventually, however, Vera and her older sister, Susan, enter the convent, which the author also describes in a short video.
Guardian Angel House also considers that it was not only Jewish children who had to go into hiding to survive.
“‘Everybody knows about the Jews and what is happening to them,’ said Lena, her voice quivering. ‘But the Nazis and those Arrow Cross soldiers are also after us Gypsies. They don’t like anyone who is different from them.’”
It’s clear that the storyteller in Guardian Angel House survived to tell her story, and that the survivors feel an obligation to share their experiences, however painful that process may be.
“‘Those of us who survived, we have all suffered. We must each tell our own stories now – stories of both the living and the dead [...] I hope the world has the strength to hear them all.’”
There are a number of books, fiction and non-fiction, which add to this body of storytelling (even a Teachers’ Resource here).
Second Story Press takes kidlit seriously. Are you familiar with their Holocaust Remembrance Series for Young Readers?
Nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, Claudette Colvin, fifteen years old, stayed in her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
It was March 2, 1955, but in the intervening years, this story has been all-but-forgotten. Phillip Hoose‘s work is essential reading.
Based on fourteen lengthy interviews and substantial supporting research, this is a compelling story indeed.
Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009) is a keeper.
Large segments of the narrative read as though she is speaking directly to the reader.
The author posed thousands of questions to her in interviews (three of them were conducted in person) and he then read and reread these written segments to her and made the corrections she requested, either to correct or to change the emphasis to accurately reflect her perspective.
This makes for a truly engaging account with an air of authenticity.
The supporting historical narrative is clearly presented too, so that the pacing of the work remains consistent even in the more outwardly expository segments.
There is also an abundance of imagery – photographs and copies of newspaper articles – which adds another dimension to the reading experience.
(The image of the ticket to the movie theatre fit perfectly with my reading of Viola Desmond’s story too: see below.)
“When I look back now, I think Rosa Parks was the right person to represent that movement at that time. She was a good and strong person, accepted by more people than were ready to accept me. But I made a personal statement, too, one that she didn’t make and probably couldn’t have made. Mine was the first cry for justice, and a loud one. I made it so that our own adult leaders couldn’t just be nice anymore. Back then, as a teenager, I kept thinking, Why don’t the adults around here just say something? Say it so they know we don’t accept segregation? I knew then and I know now that, when it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it. You can’t sugarcoat it. You have to take a stand and say, ‘This is not right.’ And I did.”
For a more familar story, but told here by the inimitable Nikki Giovanni, Rosa (illustrated by Bryan Collier, Henry Holt, 2005) is certainly worthwhile.
It begins: “Mrs. Parks was having a good day.”
Her mother had been feeling poorly, but was now out of bed. Her husband was getting some extra work. And, just like that, Rosa reminds us ta the amour Rosa Parks is ordinary.
She seems extraordinary. And what she did was extraordinary. And that resonates across the generations.
The author describes her feelings about the project like this:
“Rosa Parks is a cooling breeze on a sweltering day; a sun-dried quilt in fall; the enchantment of snowfalls extending the horizon; the promise of renewal at spring. It is an honor and a responsibility to explore the bravery of her acceptance of history’s challenge.”
The artist describes his feelings about Rosa Parks as follows:
“To me, she s like a radiant chandelier, an elegant light that illuminates all our many pathways.”
He captures this deliberately in the images which accompany this story, created with watercolour and collage.
First, he explains that he travelled to Montgomery and to Selma, Alabama in 2004 to research the book, and he was so struck by the heat , that all of the paintings have what he describes as a yellow and sometimes dark hue.
They look soft, like old sepia photographs, but with gentle hues adding dimension and depth.
“I wanted the reader to feel in that heat a foreshadowing, an uneasy quiet before the storm” so that it looks as though there is light radiating from Rosa Parks in every image.
The details in the paintings are remarkable, and although the images sound dark (and, yes, these were dark times), there is light reflected in unexpected places: in the fold of tape measure around her neck, the plastic window of a wallet, opened on the kitchen table, the gleam of a wedding ring on a seatbelt tightly gripped in determination.
Most impressive is the double-page fold-out spread of the march, described with a poet’s patient rhythms:
“And the people walked. They walked in the rain. They walked in the hot sun. They walked early in the morning. They walked late at night. They walked at Christmas, and they…. They still walked.”
Richard Rudnicki‘s acrylic paintings in Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged (told by Jody Nyasha Warner, Groundwood Books, 2010) are of a very different nature.
His bold colours and brushstrokes complement the vivid style of storytelling perfectly.
The work begins:
“Viola Desmond was one brave woman! Now come on here, listen in close and I’ll tell you why.”
And so it unfolds, this story of another “everyday person who courageously took a stand against racial segregation”.
Viola Desmond sat in the whites-only section of a movie theatre in Nova Scotia and refused to move when she was confronted.
She was also refused the option of paying an additional penny to gain entrance to the lower level in which she was seated and, when the case went to court, the matter of the policy’s racist roots was doggedly overlooked.
“But I told you Viola was brave, didn’t I? She wouldn’t budge one inch because she knew this seating rule wasn’t fair to black folks. It was just plain wrong. So the manager and the policeman dragged her out of the theatre in a real rough way.”
For context, a work like Phillip Hoose’s would be helpful; herein, only a single page, titled A Glimpse of African Canadian History, appears.
In teeny-tiny type, the single page moves from the first documented black person in Canada in 1605 (Mathieu Da Costa, who acted as a translator between the Mi’kmaq and the French) through Viola Desmond’s birth (in 1914, Halifax, Nova Scotia) and business dealings (she owned and operated a popular beauty salon and founded the Desmond School of Beauty Culture because many beauty schools refused to train black women).
Alongside existing knowledge and other texts, however, this story resonates with determination.
Eventually Viola Desmond’s case was thrown out on a procedural technicality on appeal. Her struggle is captured in small details in the paintings, which often show more of her body than just her face, and which capture the tension in her shoulders and her crossed arms and legs.
The paintings have an interesting way of dealing with the background, sometimes sketches of buildings and crowd members are greyed out, emphasizing bright and bold colours in the foreground and emphasizing the fact that other stories might be playing out back there, but this is the story which matters in this moment.
There is a sense of dynamism in the illustrations: mouths are sometimes agape, caught in the act of speech, expressing a demand for justice or an annoucement or threat, and sometimes caught in a moment of quiet indecision, or pursed in reflection or resistance.
Kadir Nelson’s illustrations for Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (told by Carole Boston Weatherford, Hyperion, 2006) are rich and resonant.
(Heart and Soul was my introduction to his artwork.)
Although a slim volume, Moses endeavours to represent the whole of a long-lived woman in only a few pages, which is a challenge given the varied nature of her life experiences.
“This story is based on the spiritual journey of Harriet Tubman – as a slave in Maryland, a free woman in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and a famous conductor on the Underground Railroad.
She had been born into slavery around 1820, one of 11 children, and she was named Araminta but took mother’s name in adulthood and became Harriet Tubman.
In 1849, after she learned that her master had died and she was to be separated from her family, she decided to flee, travelling 90 miles, mostly on foot, to Pennsylvania.
“Courageous, compassionate, and deeply religious, Tubman saw visions and spoke to God.”
This is how it’s described in the biographical note which follows the narrative:
“She believed the Lord called her to free slaves on the Underground Railroad. Her strong faith not only helped her to escape from slavery, but to lead others to freedom.”
And here is how part of her escape is presented in the story:
“Up ahead, she hears word that patrolers are nabbing runaways, and crouches for days in a potato hole., dreams she is buried alive, Have you deserted me, Lord?”
She was “called” to return in 1851, to bring other slaves north:
“Finally a conductor, a guide, she turns to God, I am ready, Lord, Lead me, Harriet, I will make a way for you.”
By 1857, she had brought her parents, and by 1860 she had travelled south 19 times; she freed more than 300 slaves, and she never lost a passenger.
The illustrations are sometimes cinematic and sometimes sharply focussed. As is clear on the cover, hands are often at the heart of a scene and the texture of garments seems palpable.
The majority of the images are dark, emphasizng those which are light (some in Pennsylvania and one each in slavery when she is at work chopping wood and one when she is mid-way to Pennsylvania and doing some farmwork in a yard for a woman who agreed to give her some food), like the gorgeous cover painting.
Picture books are not just for young readers. Each of these brings true stories to life, stories worth telling and stories worth reading and stories worth reading again.
[Edited to add that Helen Kubiw has compiled an excellent list of works for Black History Month on Canlit for Little Canadians, which also includes a mention of Viola Desmond's story. Do check it out and add to your TBR or recall old favourites!]