Monday, February 27, 2006


Dreadful England

The Convicts by Iain Lawrence (Delacorte, 2005): You read a book like this and see how so many Victorian "criminals" were simply dirt poor. You see how radical a thing it is to have child and youth workers around to prevent the young and ignorant from being ridden roughshod over by the law. Lawrence's story is tight from the start and never stops being convincing; having recently read some very bad historical fiction I appreciate the well-done even more. I appreciate having the sense that this story is just a part of the characters' life stories. The book comes to a graceful end when a broken part of the main character's heart is made whole; you just know, however, that there would be more to tell, if the author wanted to tell it. (That's not to say that there needs to be a sequel.)

Some time ago I gave my desperate son Crusade in Jeans by Thea Beckman (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975). I bought this at a secondhand shop years ago, having remembered it from childhood. It's where I got my information about the Children's Crusade(s) and also, I realize now, a lot of my background information about the Middle Ages. Son enjoyed it, by the way, quite a lot, probably for the same reason I enjoyed it way back when: because I learned so much from it. Upon reread it's solid, with believable characters, though it has a rather quaint, old-fashioned tone. (The time-travel frame seems dated and hackneyed, now, but mercifully, it's a quick trip both in and out.) The author does a good job of having the main character struggle with (what we imagine to be) the medieval mind; for that, let us read the religion-saturated undereducated mind. She also has the main character try to perceive its joys.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


Two Books with Covers in Shades of Green

Although I am impatient normally with lyrical novels, this one of Jeanette Winterson (Lighthousekeeping: Vintage, 2004) kept me reading. I did not grasp the significance of the Tristan and Isolde chapter; heck, I didn't even get a handle on the details, maybe because I am not very familiar with that legend. But there's something about the way her books unfold; maybe it's a kind of humility at their cores. I just miss feeling that her wings of fancy are too much "craft" they actually mean something to the story, even if I miss the meaning.

Then there is Olive's Ocean by Kevin Henkes. What makes a man take on the inner (and this novel is very inner) life of a prepubescent girl? Maybe Kevin has a daughter. He did it well, though somewhat remotely. It was all true, but it seemed underwater (maybe that was deliberate)--nothing made me gasp. Sometimes, something can be very well written but still leave you wondering why. Why this story, and not another? Why Martha, and not Olive? (Again, that's maybe deliberate). The details were all true, but they didn't quite add up to something bigger, for me.

Saturday, February 18, 2006


Alienum humanum est

Or something like that. Anyway, as I explained to my son, I read spec/sci fiction to find out what being human is. Or, in the case of Sheri S. Tepper, to find out something about being male and female.

The Gate to Women's Country is still my fave Tepper, but Six Moon Dance (1998) is pretty darn good. It employed a bit of a cheap trick at the end, though, setting us up so thoroughly to believe the worst about the girl babies. The Hags' reaction to the Questioner's revelation that she knew all was too guilty; the righteous one, especially, would not have reacted with a white face turning away. She would have been immediately righteous about it. Otherwise, the fiction here sets up many natural ways to deliver delicious lectures on the natures of men, women, anger, humanity; and the idea of "compensatory joys" is going to bounce around in my brain for a long time, I think.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


The Amazing Ann

My respect for Ann M Martin grows. I want to commend her for growing up and moving away from The Babysitters' Club; for not resting on her nest egg; but I think that would be insulting. It's clear that this woman cannot not write. I might venture, however, that the Babysitters might have been the ideal best friends still-smarting Ann plastered over her childhood wounds. In Here Today (Scholastic Press, 2004), tellingly set in the early 60s, grown-up Ann is picking at the scabs; and what fresh, red blood flows out!
Ellie is one of the kids of Witch Tree Lane, all of them misfits of one kind or another, surrounded by adults (parents and otherwise) who likewise don't fit the mould. At school, she and her best friend Holly (also a Witch Tree Lane kid) are tortured by what Ellie calls the sparrows, an brilliantly apt name for the alpha girls whose perky preened exteriors belie the battles for dominance constantly going on. With a victim's fatalism, Ellie hides the torture from her family; in one heart-stopping moment in the story, a passing comment by her mother on her bruises triggers in Ellie a physical reaction, in which her body remembers what has happened: and still, Ellie is mute.

But no wonder. Doris, Ellie's mother, is on her way out of the family. The small town, her husband, her three children can't hold her; she has always been restless and never been very mothery. Martin establishes sparely and well what a long exit this has been; and though Ellie is at times furiously angry with her mother, we don't hate Doris. But we do respect Ellie. Forced by her mother's absence--at first emotional, then physical--into looking after her younger sister and brother more than she should have to, Ellie has the wit and courage to use the skills she has learned to care for herself, too. Fortunately, her weary father speaks and acts just in time; and they are helped by the practical ministrations of their Witch Tree Lane neighbours "the ladies." Here, where it matters, Ellie doesn't keep still and take it. She is able to cut Doris, and herself, loose. (And she does give the lead sparrow a satisfying shove.)

The Babysitters are alive and well in the most loving of ways, however. Martin doesn't leave the re-exposed wounds open. She gives us a peek into Ellie's future, into junior high "where the sparrows have no power." In doing so, she provides one of those services grownups who write children's books provide for their readers: the assurance that however long the bad moment you are living in seems, just hold on, and life will probably carry you out of it.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


Gezeligheit: It's Not Just For Dutch People

Apparently the Danes, too, have an untranslatable-into-English word describing a certain kind of homeyness--hyggelig--and it's almost like the word I grew up with. The author of Hitler's Canary (Doubleday, 2005), Sandi Toksvig, describes it as being "cosy, cheerful and comfortable all at once."

It's good to know that this generation of children are getting their own novels about the Second World War. This one describes life in Denmark during their occupation, a time in which there were good Germans and bad Danes, and life was complicated. Particularly, the smuggling of (most of the) Jewish Danes out of the country to safety in Sweden is described. Theatrics play a role in this; and there is a surprisingly sad ending for one of the characters. But then, the story is based on the author's own family's experiences--perhaps that is why, as a story, this book feels somewhat flat. But it's a good read, anyway.

Thursday, February 02, 2006


Little Native House in the Past Woods

Louise Erdrich's The Birchbark House (Hyperion, 1999) has been around for a while but I hadn't seen it before. It's a charming read, rather like a Little House book, but with less description and a more modern, refined style. It's simple: just a year in the life of a young Ojibway girl and her family, their habits, methods, technologies, interactions—and the arrival of smallpx, and the hunger of late winter. The girl does not like her younger brother but loves the youngest, a baby; and she longs after and is also annoyed by her elder sister. She has an especially close relationship with her grandmother.

Interestingly, nothing here was unfamiliar, at least to me--The Voyageurs had taken me to the same neighbourhood, time and people last fall. But it was more than that. I know this territory from childhood reading, or maybe it's just everywhere around, because the Ojibway are one of Ontario's most prominent (in historical study, in Native revival) peoples. Erdrich brings to these people such love and respect, though, that they end up feeling not just like her relatives, but anyone's.

Anyway, I was able to concentrate just on the character, particularly on her relationship with Iron, the independent single female who has a loose relationship of mutual aid with the main character's family and has a special regard for the girl. Because of the prologue, we are aware of the probable reason for the regard. Erdrich chooses to leave the confirmation to the very end, though, then weaves it in so deftly and lovingly you end up with tears in your eyes. I can't forget that beautiful final image, of birdsong entering the girl's heart "like a needle, sewing up her broken heart."

Dead Reckoning by Laurie Lawlor (Simon and Schuster, 2005) followed close on Erdrich's heels, and it was interesting. The author did an awful lot of research in order to recreate shipboard life during Francis Drake's circumnavigation of the globe; I just wish the publishers had employed a more knowledgeable copy editor, who understood the function of the word "withal" and did not (it seems) just assume that it was an antique spelling of "with all." There were other, more subtle discordances in the book which made it difficult for me to connect. Perhaps it was a tension between historical fact and the fiction; I got the feeling that really, the story required that Emmet be the instrument of Sky's destruction; that the author wanted to go there, but couldn't, because in historical fact, "Sky" lived to inherit Drake's fortune. Emmet's escape, therefore, didn't seem like the triumph it was surely meant to be, but simply the only way to go, given the stone wall of history.

Finally, Secret Letters From 1 to 10 by Susie Morgenstern (Viking, 1998), translated from the French. It was entertaining for a while, but it fizzled out limply at the end, and overall it was a lightweight read and really sort of Hollywood-familiar: kooky unconventional female shakes up straightlaced male and changes his life for the better. Yet apparently this book was hot stuff in France and elsewhere, the winner "eighteen international prizes, including . . . the French equivalent of the Newbery Medal." Whatever; Pavlov is alive and well and living in Hollywood, training international children's book award panels. . . .

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