Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this decade of winners. It is also abundantly clear that racial inequality was an important social issue in the selection of books in this particular decade--being a critical facet in almost half the books. Broadening that to inequality in general it becomes more than half. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was my favorite 70's book. Julie of the Wolves runs a close second. Only two titles-- Summer of the Swans and M.C. Higgins, the Great--got a lackluster two star rating in my assessment. So, that's a pretty solid decade of winners, all in all.
I enjoyed Sounder reasonably well, though it sure was a sad one. It seemed to be about growing up, responsibility, and loyalty. Interestingly, the only actual name used throughout the story is Sounder, the coon dog and namesake of the book. I thought that was a cool literary feature. Sounder's family are poor, African-American sharecroppers in the South. The family never has enough to eat and hunting is lousy. One day the boy wakes up to find a pork sausage on the table--and for three days they eat ham and have full bellies. But, then it comes out that the boy's father had stolen the ham and so he is arrested and put on the chain gang. Sounder comes to his owner's aid during the arrest and is shot by the officers and assumed dead by everyone except the boy. The arrest scene was violent and upsetting. One of many such scenes in the book, actually. The boy vividly daydreams several equally violent revenge scenarios.
The dad's arrest puts a vulnerable family in an even harder place. The boy's mother makes ends meet by selling walnuts in town. I found the whole walnut thing pretty fascinating. The kids would pick up all the fallen ones starting after the first frost. They'd store them in a tin box by the stove to dry. Then the boy's mother would crack as many as could be "kerneled in a night" (usually about two pounds) for which she was paid $.30. I'd never thought about the process of saving or selling nuts like that before.
The boy spends most of the book searching--first for the injured (and possibly dead) Sounder and later for his father working on the chain gang. His mother urges him to give up searching for Sounder telling him, he has "got to learn to lose." I spent some time ruminating on that one. I can cling to things I love too much. His mom is right. Learning that losing is a part of life, learning to let go is a very important life lesson for sure.
The boy--who doesn't even know his own age--starts teaching himself to read from newspapers he scavenges. He eventually obtains a real book in the trash and makes acquaintance with a school teacher who takes him in, teaches him to read, and acts as a major agent of change in his life. At one point he hears there are people who own so many books that they never read them twice--which made me feel blessed with literature. Imagine having only one book!
I jotted down one long quote from the story: "Everything don't change much," the boy thought. There's eatin' and sleepin' and talkin' and setting' that goes on. One day might be different from another, but there aint much difference when they're put together." I thought that was great stuff. It is all those little things that make up the big thing that is a person's life.
This book was only okay. It was sweet enough, but I didn't find the storytelling very captivating. The story centers around Charlie, a young boy with disabilities who gets lost resulting in a town-wide search and some life lessons all around. His sister, Sara, had taken Charlie to see swans on a nearby pond and he was quite smitten with the elegant, white birds and didn't want to leave. That night he awakes and can't stop thinking about the swans and so sets out to find them again. Charlie gets confused along the route though and ends up lost in the woods. Sara is very protective of Charlie--maybe too protective. During the search for him she learns that she has been badmouthing an innocent person--her classmate Joe Melby--in her fury over the way Charlie is teased by the other children. It is interesting because Sara is both resentful of her brother (having to take him everywhere and his inability to do certain tasks for himself) and his most fierce defender. She ultimately finds Charlie at the bottom of a ravine with Joe's help. Charlie's watch is no longer working (it didn't get wound) and so, Joe loans Charlie his own watch in a move that was so touching and kind it won over both Sara and me. And then Joe invites Sara to the big party everyone's been talking about and all is well. Though Sara's absentee father doesn't magically come back and turn into super dad. That was the saccharine ending I foresaw, but it didn't come to pass.
Linguistically it is worth noting the word "retard" is still used regularly in the book, both in a clinical and in a derogatory way. I enjoyed that "meowing" was spelled "miaowing." Both spellings totally work! I don't know if I've seen the latter before though. Sara calls Joe a "fink," several times and I really like that word as an insult. The pretty girl from school is named Thelma Louise...which made me wonder if the writer of the movie Thelma and Louise had ever read this book. Or maybe it is just a coincidence. There was also a boy from Sara's class named Bull Duhram which also caught my eye.
I really, really, really liked this story. While I can remember watching the movie as a child this was my first time reading the book. The novel centers around a family of mice living on a farm and the critters who live there and in the surrounding countryside. Just as spring plowing is about the break up their fabulous winter home one of the children falls ill and cannot leave the warmth and comfort of bed. Mama mouse--Mrs. Frisby-- eventually enlists a crow, an owl, another mouse, and a gaggle of rats to help save the day. There is a minor sub-story about animal testing--NIMH = National Institute of Mental Health-- is the lab from which the rats and Mr. Frisby escaped. The cat is the arch-nemesis of most creatures in the barnyard. They all unite against the cat....which I enjoy since I see what a predator Ginger can be around the yard. The rats, while willing to take a break to help Mrs. Frisby, are working on a Plan of their own at breakneck speed. The ultimate goal of the Plan is to form a completely separate and self-sufficient rat society, complete with agriculture, so that the rats don't have to steal from humans to survive. It was quite the tale! I just about couldn't wait to see what would happen at the end. Matt says their are sequels (written by O'Brien's daughter, turns out) and so I think I shall read those, too. At some point.
Julie of the Wolves would have been right up my alley as a young reader. I still very much enjoyed it as an adult though. The story is a parallel to Little House or Island of the Blue Dolphins, though set on the Tundra in the Arctic Circle instead of the prairie or the coast of southern California. As it happens, my sister, Sarah, just moved to Utqiaġvik, Alaska right smack dab in the middle of where this story is set. Of course, in the 1970's Utqiaġvik was still called Barrow, Alaska. In any event, that recent family connection added another cool layer to reading the story. We also now own a traditional style ulu knife (thanks, Sarah!) which features regularly in the story.
First off, if for not other reason than clarity in my review, I will mention that the name Julie is rarely used in this book. Julie is the protagonist's "gussak" name (her white name) and the bulk of the story uses her Eskimo name, Miyax. I guess the title Miyax of the Wolves wouldn't have had quite the selling/drawing power for young, white readers.
The story begins with Miyax lost and alone on the tundra. Alone, save for a pack of wolves she is trying to ingratiate herself to through careful study and mimicry of their behavior. Eventually she is successful and through joining their family she survives. She has run away from her young husband--a boy with mental disabilities of which she knew nothing at the time of their marriage--after he makes it clear their relationship is to be sexual. Plus, her father-in-law was a violent drunk. (Sidebar: I thoroughly appreciated the way the characters regarded alcoholism. "Naka is evil again," she said. "His spirit has fled." This is a very apt way to look at alcoholics and other addicts. It is so frustrating when one knows that there is a good person in there--deep, deep down--but that their true spirit is lost and confused. This perspective helps reconcile the caring and outrage one can feel simultaneously for a friend or family member struggling with addiction.) Miyax intends to walk to Point Hope and catch a boat and then move to her penpal's in San Francisco, fleeing the Arctic, her husband, and everything she's ever known. As her journey evolves she grows disenfranchised with the gussak world and its machines and needless destruction and decides to live alone as and "old-fashioned Eskimo" on the tundra. Miyax likes the simplicity of the animals and nature and of living in a world where she understands how she fits in...and the modern world is so uncertain and changing. In the end she accepts that the way of life of the Eskimo as she knew it was going the way of the wolf. Not long for this world. Soon gone forever now that the gussaks brought electric stoves, lamps, gas heaters, airplanes, guns, bread, and wolf bounties to their community.
The ending filled me with malaise. Ultimately I think it was a very honest ending, really, but it wasn't the ending I wanted. I wanted Miyax to stick to her guns and leave the encroaching modern world behind and go back to her wolf pack and her traditional way of living. A world where "the riches of life were intelligence, fearlessness, and love. A man with these gifts was rich and was a great spirit who was admired in the same way that the gussaks admired a man with money and goods." But, I can't blame her. She was right, too. The folks up in Utqiaġvik now seem to live blended life with new (internet) and old (whale hunting). Miyax correctly read the writing on the wall and chose to stay with dad and other humans and adapt to a new way of life instead of fighting a losing battle. It was the reasonable thing to do. Perhaps it was so conflicting for me because I could relate, in my way. The recent changes to recycling, trade wars, and a variety of things have made me feel my simple way of life is destined for extinction, that I am fighting a pointless battle. I did like this paragraph near the conclusion of Miyax's tale though, "The old Eskimos were scientists too. By using the plants, animals, and temperature, they had changed the harsh Arctic into a home, a feat as incredible as sending rockets to the moon. ... The people at seal camp had not been as outdated and old-fashioned as she had been led to believe. No, on the contrary, they had been wise. They had adjusted to nature instead of to man-made gadgets."
Several other points that I enjoyed:
-Miyax knows that winter is in full force when she can feel the cold through her parka and that this means it is finally below zero. Cah-razy.
-A pond is called the "tundra looking glass," and the stomach is called the "belly basket." As in, the wolves bringing food to their young in their belly baskets. She also refers to warm viscera as "the nuts and candy of the Arctic," and oil drums the "signpost of American civilization in the north."
-Miyax is able to make a sled and various other items she's needs by laboriously chipping through ice, soaking hide in the water, and the freezing it on the surface in the desired shape. Since it was winter the frozen leather never thawed and was quite rigid. I thought that little trick was pretty crazy brilliant.
The Slave Dancer was a good book, though a fairly gut-wrenching one. The narrator, Jessie Bollier, is "pressed" into service (i.e. kidnapped and force to work) on a slaving ship out of Louisiana bound for Africa, Cuba, and back again on the triangle trade route in the final years of the North American slave trade. Jessie is not cut out for such service, being of the mind that it is not right to sell humans as if they were "bolts of cloth," and knowing nothing of sailing. Or men. Previously all the adults he'd had close contact with were women and the world of men was quite a different place. Due to the nature of the story there were more points than I will recount that were appalling to me--the most egregious being that as the slaver was being chased down by an American vessel the crew just throw the (very much alive and terrified) slaves overboard to get rid of the "evidence" of their illegal trade. Into the ocean. In the night. Too far from shore for a reasonable chance at survival. The horror of it gives me chills. Jessie and one slave boy near his age, Ras, hide out in one of the holds during the chaos and the storm that followed, eventually making it back to land as the only survivors. There were a few moral lessons I picked up on. First, Jessie would never have gotten caught up in the whole thing if he had listened to his mother and stayed away from the slave market to begin with. Second, that those who are good are rewarded (sole survivors) while the wicked get what's coming to them (eaten by sharks). Of course, this glosses over the fate of the Africans. They were stolen, sold, killed and it didn't matter what sort of moral compass they had....they died regardless. While the story made it clear that slavery was wrong and horrific the morality lesson seems to have skirted the larger issue there. Jessie makes his way home a little wiser and is gratefully welcomed back by his family who'd thought him dead. Quite the dramatic story.
This was a weird little story. M.C. has never really left his mountain home, but grows increasingly desperate to escape as he fears the heap of mining affluent that is slowly sliding down the mountain toward his house, threatening all he holds dear. His father is too deeply rooted to the homeplace--Sarah's Mountain was named after M.C.'s grandmother, an escaped slave--to consider leaving despite M.C.'s building concerns. During the course of the tale two strangers leave their mark on the mountainfolk and change the course of M.C.'s life forever--a man who M.C. believes might bring the salvation his family needs and an independent young woman who steals his heart. The way of life depicted in the book is so far from my reality that at times it made my head spin. M.C. is a genius in the woods, but not so in the ways of the world. It made me wistful for a simpler time that I've never actually known myself. Perhaps the oddest feature of the story is M.C.'s prized possession--a tall metal pole (think: flag pole) with a bicycle seat and pedals mounted on the top. M.C. "rides" the pole and keeps tabs on the comings and going of his family, neighbors, and strangers alike from this unusual vantage.
As was the case with The High King, The Grey King again forced me to reconsider my general aversion to fantasy adventure stories. I'm left to conclude that I actually do appreciate this genre of knights and wizards and epic journeys more than I'd previously thought. (Or perhaps I just like stories set in Wales.) The Grey King is book four (out of five) in the Darkness Is Rising series. Compared to The High King it didn't hold up quite as well as stand alone novel, but I still enjoyed it. The story centers around a young boy who is more than he seems. Will Stanton has a duty, a quest to fulfill. If the long drawn out battle between the Dark and the Light is to come to an end (Note:that resolution does not come in this book) Will must obtain a magical golden harp in order to wake six "noble riders" who have been slumbering in the Welsh hills for centuries. These "Sleepers" are critical to the success in the battle against the Dark. Unfortunately, Will only catches glimpses of this destiny to be fulfilled in snatches and hints as an illness has stolen most of his memory about who he really is--one of the Old Ones. The Old Ones are immortal beings dedicated to saving the world from the evil spread by the Dark.
One of my favorite bits involved the human antagonist in the story. (The Dark and the Grey King being the larger, overarching mythological antagonists.) Caradog Prichard lives on the neighboring farm and is a total jerkwad. Just a real meanie. Throughout the story he is obsessed with shooting the dogs he believes are killing his sheep (who are really being killed by Dark creatures). In a tense and gut-wrenching moment he actually shoots one innocent (and magical) dog. He is a very hateable character. Caradog is not consciously doing the work of the Dark, but his anger and hardheartedness make him an easy vessel for the Dark to fill. "A man so wrapped in his own ill-will is a gift to the Dark from the earth." I thought this was an interesting point to ponder. I've seen the damage holding on to past hurts and wrongs can do with my own eyes. Those bad feelings can consume a person. I did feel a pang of pity for him at the end though, since he didn't seem fully in control of his actions--more like he was possessed. But just a little tiny pang.
I had this book both in print and in audio and I was quite pleased about that duplication. The audiobook pronunciations of all the Welsh was quite helpful and made the story more, oh, set in its unique place and time. The story almost made me want to carry on into the next book just to see how it all resolved, but I added it to my ever-growing To-Read list instead. For some other day.
This was a real heartbreaking, gut-punching story. It was beautiful and compelling, but left me with a sense of outrage and despair. It is the sort of story that made my spirit ache with how unfair life can be and how for all our forward progress we're still falling short. It also is a story about the deep roots of family and the strength of friendship. I enjoyed it quite a lot, even if it was sad.
Cassie Logan is a young African-American girl growing up in a fiercely divided South where folks, especially the white folks, are still very much adjusting to the end of slavery 70 years earlier. Cassie's family are the only black property owners around--the other families sharecrop on plantations meaning 50% of their harvest is paid to the landowner. Though the Logans have to work very hard (both on and off the farm) in order to pay the mortgage and taxes each year they still know they're better off just for the fact that they work for themselves. They don't farm for anyone else and so their labors are their own. It allows them a sense of independence not shared by the majority of their community who are still under the thumb of the white property owners. A series of events--including an attack on a black man that leaves him horrifically burned and disabled which goes unpunished--lead Cassie to realize that, because of the color of her skin, she is still held to be a second-class citizen. After her grandmother makes her apologize to a white girl (who was in the wrong) Cassie's dad has to sit her down to explain about "how things are." I can't imagine how heartbreaking that must be for a parent. The system is so unjust and wrong and Cassie is rightful outraged, but her parents are afraid for her safety since she is so outspoken.
The Logans decide to use their landowning position to try and do something. They organize a boycott of the store owned by a white family--The Wallaces-- that have been attacking their friends and neighbors. Of course, this leads to further tension and conflict between the white and black communities. The landowners raise the rate owed to them by their sharecroppers, more attacks occur. The power dynamic is so unbalanced as to make me sick. It just isn't fair and the landowners have them over a barrel.
T.J. is a major source of drama for the story. He's one of Cassie's brother's friends and a bit of a troublemaker and not all that popular with a lot of people--including Cassie. He gets in trouble with Mrs. Logan (who is the schoolteacher) for cheating and it just gets worse from there. T.J. starts hanging out with the Wallace boys and feels they are his friends....except they totally leave him hanging out to dry in the end after committing a burglary that goes awry. T.J. was a bit of a riddle for me. He wasn't likeable, but the way things turn out for him...he didn't deserve that...it was a raw deal.
There is no end to the way the book highlights the degrees of racism and inequality--from the subtle, institutionalized forms to the obvious, viscous violent forms. It was heart rending (for this bleeding heart), but it was very worthwhile reading. I can't imagine. I just can't.
I had read Bridge to Terabithia in 2012 on a whim since it was a book I'd heard about quite a bit, but had never experienced. The story is lovely, imaginative, and then takes a real crushing sad turn near the end. Jess is a country boy who likes to draw and longs to be the fastest kid in the 5th grade. He inadvertently becomes friends with Leslie, the girl who moved in next door, when she beats all the boys at running--including Jess. Perhaps it is because he doesn't quite "fit" that they become such close friends. Jess feels like a disappointment to his dad who seems to think Jess is less-than-a-regular-boy because he likes art and isn't really into sports. Leslie's parents are seen as hippies by their new community and aren't warmly welcomed. They don't own a TV, read Italian poetry aloud, are both authors and environmental activists, and seem to know more about art and literature than practical matters about farming and construction. It only follows that Leslie is different than the rest of the kids at school. She wants to save the whales, wears shorts/pants and not skirts, calls her parents by their first names, and loves to read.
Leslie and Jess grow their friendship as together they develop a richly imagined hidden world in the forest--Terabithia. I loved this bit. Perhaps it is nostalgia about kids using their imagination for entertainment rather than, oh, Youtube videos and SnapChat. It isn't all pulled from thin air though. Jess eventually borrows books (such as the Narnia series) from Leslie as inspiration so that he can develop the language required in this hidden, fantastical world where he is king and Leslie queen. It is worth noting that though they are King and Queen of Terabithia their relationship is in no way romantic. In fact, when Leslie dies in a freak accident Jess realizes he never really thought about Leslie as a "girl" at all. With a hint of prescience for the YA literature of its day the book alludes to gender identity issues as neither Leslie nor Jess fit into the prescribed gender normative roles expected of them--a fact which make them objects of ridicule/scorn for their schoolmates and Jess' dad. But, that isn't a major point of the story, just an observation. I was also ticked to note a brief allusion to the Chronicles of Prydain in the line "He was reading on of Leslie's books, and the adventures of an assistant pig keeper were far more important to him than Brenda's sauce." Assistant Pig Keeper is the title of Taran from The High King (1969 Newbery Winner). When I read Bridge to Terabithia in 2012 that line meant nothing to me. Now it does. I like that.
Having just finished Roll of Thunder two days prior I couldn't help but contrast the loss suffered. Both stories left children missing their friends and forced to confront harsh realities at an early age. Both were quite doleful at the end. However, the individual loss in the latter book was much easier on my soul than the systemic loss in Roll of Thunder. T.J. was a victim of society/culture/time/place. Leslie was the victim of an accident. A dead child is a dead child, but that made it easier for me to take.
I had never even heard of this book before seeing the title on the Newbery list. It seemed reminiscent of the movie Clue, which I enjoyed. It was a bit of a relief after the rather heavy reading this decade. ...which is an odd thing to say about a murder-mystery, but....there you have it. The story centers around the death Mr. Westing, a wealthy and not-terribly-popular businessman. He leaves his very sizable estate to a group of people all connected to him in some way or another, but only if they can solve the riddle spelled out in his will. "The poor are crazy, the rich just eccentric." And that will was pretty eccentric to say the least. There were a lot of characters (there were 16 heirs alone) and I must confess I had to make a cheatsheet to help keep everyone straight and to assist in solving the mystery. The whole book is a whodunit with a series of clues being revealed to the reader (and the characters) as bombs go off and personal belongings go missing. Is it one person behind all three crime sprees?!? I didn't figure it out--though I sure tried!-- and so I was quite pleased when the ending came around and I had it all explained to me. And that it works out so well in the end for everyone involved.
|Fall photos from September 27 - October 13th. Glorious colors--with some snow for contrast!|