Novel Thoughts: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Children across the globe are familiar with the summer doldrums that inevitably set in once the initial rush of vacation has worn off, and Jack Gantos is no different. In his book, Dead End in Norvelt, Gantos relates a story of his youth in a creative way that is both relevant and relatable to children today.

Gantos’ tale is semiautobiographical in nature, and the writing contains no pretension that every written word in the story is true, an admirable quality in a book of biography or autobiography. The author creatively weaves throughout the story both real elements of his life and fictional conversations and reactions regarding the events that take place in the story. He also places heavy emphasis on the importance of asking why things happened with regards to history. The protagonist is a very curious boy, but he never allows himself to take the things he reads or hears at face value. For children, the delineation of that which is true and that which is fiction is an important lesson to learn for the future, and Gantos successfully brings that lesson to the attention of the reader without being heavy-handed.

The setting of the story, both physically and temporally, is an important facet of the story, and Gantos helps his reader to situate (her)himself in that setting without stating the pertinent information outright. Readers are given clues as to the time period and the location throughout the first pages of the book, and it is only then that they are able to piece together that most basic element of the story. This technique will keep reluctant readers motivated to get through the first ten percent of the book by which time they will be thoroughly enthralled.

While the parents in the book do bicker with each other, it becomes evident towards the end of the book that they have settled into their marriage and the paces through which they must be put. At one point, Jack’s mother is concerned that her actions may have been a contributing factor to the main conflict of the story, and she worries that she will “never be able to grow old” with Jack’s father. The family dynamic in the book is one with which many readers today will be familiar, as Jack’s dad is a war veteran who served in the Pacific. Although the war has been over for some time, its effects are still visible in the behavior of Jack’s father. He is absent a lot of the time, and Jack seems reluctantly concerned with his reaction to Jack’s behavior. He knows that his dad is an authority figure, and he wants to please him and gain his approval. But Jack seems to know throughout his adventures that the source of parenting and guidance he seeks, whether consciously or not, will come from his mother. His relationship with his father is distant and tenuous at best, and at the end of the story, readers come to understand just how different the two of them are from each other. The children of today’s veterans will encounter a protagonist here in whom they may see themselves in terms of familial relationships.

As the 2012 Newbery Medal winner, Gantos’ book Dead End in Norvelt encapsulates a relatable and familiar experience for children in a way that seems more realistic because of its autobiographical elements. The lesson to be learned by the end of the novel is both clear and relevant, and getting to that point of understanding will be a delight for both the child and the adult reader.

What’s New?: The Newbery

Every year around this time we start rolling out red carpets and handing out award trophies. We dole out accolades with adoration and commendation, both genuine and feigned. We watch with rapt attention to see who is wearing the best dress. And the worst. We throw themed parties and make bets with friends regarding the outcome of various award ceremonies. We indulge ourselves in the notion that watching and reading and discussing these events actually makes us a part of them.

But not all awards this season exist purely for the recognition of the silver screen. Every year around this time, the American Library Association (ALA) lends its seal of approval to the most notable children’s books of the year. In between the excitement that was the Golden Globes and the anticipation leading up to the Oscars, the ALA inserts its voice into mainstream media culture to remind us all that there is still something to be said about literature for children. That it is indeed important for us to remember and recognize the authors and illustrators who continually produce fodder for growing imaginations.

Yesterday, the winners of the prestigious awards were announced. There was no red carpet. There were no camera crews or flash photographers. There were no E! programs devoted to them. No trophies. The winning books have nothing more than a small foil seal on their covers. But that seal is proof that the tradition of recognition and acclaim is still alive and well in both the publishing world and in the world of children’s literature.

Since 1922, the ALA has been awarding the Newbery Medal to an outstanding work of literature for children written by an American author, published in an American publishing house in English. It became the first official award for children’s literature in the world, and each winner carries the heft of that prestige. Despite the growth of technology, children’s literature has come into its own as a genre worthy of recognition and study. Since the inception of the Newbery award, the evolution of Literature in general (particularly children’s literature) has created the need for various other awards, marking the journey of American culture and the culture of childhood.

For more information about the ALA and other children’s literature awards, click here. For more information about this year’s Newbery winner, stay tuned for this week’s Novel Thoughts post.

Novel Thoughts: Separate Beds by Elizabeth Buchan

Elizabeth Buchan’s Separate Beds weaves together many different stories to which many of her readers will be able to relate. Annie and Tom, arguably the main story’s protagonists are struggling with marital, familial, and economical woes, and their children are not faring much better. The story is realistically told and the characters realistically constructed in a way that adequately portrays the hardships with which they are dealing without over simplifying or hyperbolizing.

Buchan takes a tone of hopeful realism in relating the various tribulations of the family in the novel. Readers will find them sympathetic and relatable given each different set of circumstances. Since the reader’s life could potentially mirror that of any character in the novel, the predictability and tidiness to be found at the book’s end become assets instead of liabilities.

However, while the story ends nicely enough, it takes its time getting there. After awhile, readers might become overwhelmed by the sense of boredom associated with books that have become long-winded. Most subplots are given far too much attention, causing the story to drag its feet across the finish line, and one of the most important subplots, arguably THE most important, while embedding itself in some way into every subplot, is only superficially dealt with at the book’s end.

Despite its eventual slow crawl to its finish, Separate Beds gives readers a chance to interact with characters similar to themselves without the gloom and doom imposed so often on them by reality. Readers will find themselves contented and hopeful at the novel’s end, an end that engenders positive feelings for the reader’s own life.

Opposites Attract

As a general rule, the library should be a place of immense potential. For adventure. For mystery. For just about anything we find outside our particular realm of experience. The books we find there often become more than the lost relics of a time when a charger or USB port wasn’t necessary to embark on a literary journey. They become, in effect, a way to escape ourselves. They become old friends, comfortable yet strangely new with each subsequent read.

The children’s section of the library in the small town in which I grew up held limitless potential. At least for the first month, give or take a day or two. It was at that time that I realized I needed more. I was no longer satiated by the picture books and elementary chapter books. I wanted more. At the time, there was no such thing as Young Adult Literature (at least not where I lived). Teens and tweens had to find literary solace in the small spinning towers located just to the left of the large print picture books. They were dusty and squeaky from neglect and were generally avoided by most patrons. It was because of these towers, rather the literature contained therein, that I was forced to confront an eternal fact of life.

The towers held a particular series of books with which many people, I’m sure (I hope), are familiar. In these books, the reader is often given two courses of action at the end of a chapter. Upon choosing choice one, the reader is directed to a different page in the book. Choice two directs the reader to another page and another outcome. In this way, the reader is given some agency in the outcome of the story. The end result becomes the choice of the reader.

These books were fascinating to me. So often I would read a chapter book only to be disappointed by its outcome. The chance to dictate that outcome seemed logical and completely natural to my young mind. But I quickly discovered that endings are not always as precise as we’d like them to be. I learned that making a choice does not necessarily mean achieving my desired outcome. Therein lies the fact of life, something we all eventually grapple with for better or for worse:

For every decision we make, there is an opposite choice with a completely different outcome. We make the best decisions we can with the information we have and hope that whatever lies on the other side of it is precisely our aim. We soldier through life making these decisions, both large and small, and we deal with whatever fallout occurs. For the most part, we convince ourselves that we are happy with our decisions, or if not, we tell ourselves that the experience was a lesson learned and promise never to make the same mistakes again.

So how do we deal with the nagging voice lurking in the back of our minds which asks, “What if you’d chosen differently?”

The books at the library always took me twice as long to read as any others because I wanted to read them twice, once with my initial choice and once to see what I’d missed. I don’t remember being disappointed in any particular ending. And my child’s sensibilities were satisfied, knowing all possible outcomes, knowing the fate of my protagonist one way or another.

I haven’t seen those books for a long time. I’m not even sure they’re still available. But I think about them every time I’m forced to make an important decision. I wonder what lies on the other side of each decision, and I lament the fact that there are certain pages of life beyond which I cannot see the end results.

What would life have been like if I had chosen differently? Where would I be today? Who would I be today? Occasionally I ask myself these questions, not with regret but with childlike curiosity. But the truth of the matter is that life is a web of both possibilities and outcomes. The most we can hope for is that we fail to entangle ourselves beyond our capacity to continue weaving it.

Novel Thoughts: Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor

Fluidity isn’t always necessary when it comes to fiction; in fact, sometimes it actually detracts from the story. However, in Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light the lack of fluidity makes the story inaccessible and its main character less than empathetic. At first.

Molly, as she calls herself, is ambiguous at best when the novel opens. We don’t learn anything about her or how she came to be in her current position until much later in the novel, and the absence of information creates a barrier between the reader and the one with whom they should be identifying. We are too infrequently informed of the time period with which we are dealing, so we don’t know how to relate to our protagonist or her circumstances.

Narrative voice in the story doesn’t quite help Molly’s case. O’Connor writes in second person for much of the novel, and instead of creating a bond between reader and protagonist, the technique only serves to make the reader feel disoriented and disconnected. Readers may find themselves wondering why they’ve been personally drawn into a story in which they have no firm footing.

Generally speaking, new characters are drawn into a story for some sort of effect. They somehow help to further the story, if only to make a suggestion about the future choices of the protagonist. In Ghost Light, these characters are haphazardly (or halfheartedly) written into the story; their presence isn’t explained, and they offer no resolution for any of the problems taking place therein. Take, for example, Molly’s daughter and son-in-law. She (or you, as O’Connor writes it) has obvious issues with her son-in-law, and there is reference made to an argument which, the reader can surmise, dealt with alcohol. Molly obviously has an affection for her family, but we are never told precisely why she is so distanced from them emotionally. Traveling is not within her means and is easily explained away, but the lack of communication stands apparent and important for both Molly and the reader.

No text is without some sort of redemption (I am ever the optimist), and Ghost Light is no different. Couched here and there within the wandering text is a poignant line, often when the reader is most in need of one. And eventually one does come to sympathize with Molly. Her everyday obstacles become more and more apparent and her struggles to overcome them more personal. We find ourselves cursing the obstacles along with her and chastising the people who place them there in the first place. By the end of the novel, Molly’s fate has become apparent to the reader, and it is with some difficulty that we relinquish our hold on her. Somehow, Molly has managed to endear herself to us in a way that provokes consideration.

In theory, Ghost Light tells a great story of a woman who overcame the odds and rose above the social position into which she was born. However, in practice, the techniques used to tell the story prohibit the reader from fully engaging with it.

I Am Nobody / Who Are You?…Wait, what?

Emily Dickinson once allowed her narrator to call herself (or himself) a nobody. I can’t help wondering how she (or he…you get the idea) came to that conclusion. Was she stuck in an identity rut? Had she been in one place so long that this seemed to be the only logical conclusion to make about herself? What might she have done if she had come outside her comfort zone, if she had started fresh?

She goes on to suggest that being a someone is “dreary” and that anyone who is someone is part of an “admiring bog.” Would she have felt this way if she had gotten the chance to try on a different personality for awhile, if she had gotten to feel what it was like to be a somebody? When we have the fleeting chance in life to start over, to be whomever we chose to be, do we scoff and pretend that who or what we were before is all we’ll ever be? Do we embrace our nobody-ness and continue living with whatever aspects of ourselves we find plaguing? Or do we grab that opportunity by the horns and hang on for the ride? Do we allow ourselves the opportunity to change, grow, experience?

Beginning a new chapter in one’s life is akin to beginning to write in a new journal. We stare at the vast expanse of space in which we can create whatever we want to create, and the hardest part seems to be what should come first. We become the storytellers, the master creators. If a character exists, it is because we made it so. If there’s something about that character that we wish to change, we can do so with the quick flick of an eraser.

Moving to a new place gives us a similar opportunity for creativity. When we move to new places, where we don’t know anyone, we get the chance to make a new first impression. We get the chance to take our past experiences, learn from them, and transform ourselves into better people because of them. Certain aspects of our personality will always be present, and they will inevitably surface without our bidding them to do so. Who we are, the core of what makes us us, is inherent; some things we can’t change. But we all have moments in which we wish we were something else: more adventurous, more easy-going, more ambitious. A change of setting always allows for new perspective for a character, and we are no different. Being in someplace new nudges us out of the norm, forcing us to either sink under the weight of all the things we don’t like about ourselves or to swim, free of the baggage of self-related negativity.

For that kind of chance, isn’t it worth seeing what the bog is all about?

Novel Thoughts: The Oracle of Stamboul

Michael David Lukas weaves a mystical tale inThe Oracle of Stamboul, chronicling the life of young Eleonora as she contemplates the world and the people in it. Accused of being both a prodigy and a spy, Eleonora copes with tragedy and happiness and ultimately takes her destiny in her own hands.

Lukas does a good job of lending his novel a sense of the mysticism often associated with folk literature of the Middle East. The Oracle of Stamboul employs the curious and fascinating qualities of the geographical region without being heavy-handed to the point of distraction.

Repetition is used throughout the book in the form of ideas (“There was only one rule, and Eleonora broke it.”) and gestures (putting one’s thumb and forefinger on the bridge of one’s nose). While commonly used in folk tales, the device seems rather tedious at times when utilized in this way in a novel-length text.

Lukas does a good job of providing readers with conflict and rising action in the beginning of his novel; however, the falling action and resolution are somewhat anticlimactic. Details go unexplained, and character functions are glibly dealt with often leaving us with more questions than answers. While some readers may find this negligence prohibits full engagement with the text, others may find the reading experience enhanced by the abundance of mystery both in the rising action and in the resolution.

Ultimately, The Oracle of Stamboul provides readers with a fantastic fictional experience filled with magical realism that will encourage them to question which events are real and which are the product of the author’s imagination.

Novel Thoughts: After the Falls: Coming of Age in the Sixties

Catherine Gildiner’s continuation of her life story in After the Falls offers a first-hand experience of what it meant to participate in the social revolution of the sixties. Gildiner was admittedly a difficult child, and she was no less difficult as a teenager and young adult. In this second installation of her memoir, she explores the tension surrounding race and equality as she perceived it then.

Gildiner’s tone here is one of honesty in both the stories she relates and in her upfront admission that there has been some embellishment. She acknowledges the foibles of the genre within the first pages and quickly moves on. Throughout the story Gildiner is reluctant to linger on any particular event, exposing a conflicted sense of what it means to linger. To write a memoir in the first place suggests some predilection to linger in the past for whatever reason, but Gildiner provides the information and quickly moves on with little or no exposition.

While the stories themselves are entertaining (sometimes morbidly, sometimes not), the authorial voice feels reserved at times. Gildiner was involved in many efforts to promote equality, and she spends the most time discussing the seemingly innocuous ones. She quickly discusses her work with youth and social reform, but she doesn’t expound on her efforts or what became of them. She discusses her efforts with SNCC and SCLC, but when she leaves the movement (for reasons I won’t disclose here), readers are left wondering if she ever became involved in social change again.

The abrupt nature of her discussion foreshadows the end of the book, which happens far more quickly than the reader is prepared for it to happen. Gildiner closes out her story, and the reader is left wondering why. Why did she choose that moment as a stopping point in her story? Why does the reader feel somewhat unfulfilled at the end? Will there be another installation of Gildiner’s life story?

Conclusively readers will leave the book with a sense of curiosity both about the time Gildiner discusses and about the author herself. While Gildiner does discuss some of the important events of the sixties, she holds herself in reserve, something her readers will find lamentable at times.

Novel Thoughts: Late For Tea at the Deer Palace

Tamara Chalabi’s Late for Tea at the Deer Palace tells the complex story of a woman’s search for her identity amid the turmoil surrounding her Iraqi family. Chalabi’s family was one of prominence in Iraq several decades ago and has struggled immensely during the many regime changes that occurred during the twentieth century.

Writing a memoir and maintaining objectivity are among some of the most difficult tasks of writing in general, but Chalabi is adept at handling the reality of her family’s situation. While her voice and emotions are evident in the text, she does a fine job of portraying her family members in a way that is not clouded by emotion. Her story, the story of how conflict in Iraq has shaped her life, doesn’t actually begin until the later part of the book, allowing readers to familiarize themselves with the context in which the story is set to the point (almost) of forgetting the book is a memoir.

Chalabi seems to struggle most of all with the connection to her grandmother, Bibi. She finds herself attracted to many of the same social figures Bibi was drawn to, despite the fact that many of these figures are long dead. Bibi seems to represent true roots in the story. Although she lived in exile for many years, Bibi always remained faithfully and authentically Iraqi. Chalabi’s own story is written across the borders of many countries, and her ultimate search for how these different identities culminate within her is the crux of the book.

In Late for Tea at the Deer Palace, readers are forced to confront the pitfalls of memoir, fraught as it is with inaccuracies and inconsistencies. While Chalabi successfully conveys the nature of her family members without excessive emotion, the conversations, actions, and reactions are keenly specific, calling their accuracy into question. Because of this, readers should take into account the capacity for misinterpretation and incongruous versions of the same story while they are reading.

Late for Tea at the Deer Palace provides readers with remarkable insight into a culture with which many of us are unfamiliar. Sure, we have the media portrayal of life in the Middle East; we know what the television tells us. But in reading Chalabi’s book, readers will be able to put a face on the conflict we’ve heard about and read about for so long. Chalabi’s account is personal and leaves readers with a sense of the way humanity is affected both by conflict and by the search to figure out who we are.

Novel Thoughts: The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

Hoffman’s novel is composed of short stories that relate the history of a town, Blackwell, in Massachusetts. In the book, the town binds the characters together across history; it is the only consistent element, even though Hoffman doesn’t specifically divulge the way the town itself changes, only the people in it.

Employment of magical realism helps in this book to detract from the sometimes selfish nature of the characters that inhabit its pages. The author uses colors (specifically red, green, and blue) to suggest the proper emotion for the reader without being too forceful. Readers will also notice the Garden of Eden imagery or rather the fall of the Garden of Eden. The characters in the book are related in such a way that their humanity is inescapable, raw, in need of some sort of direction which the townspeople seem to derive from nature.

Throughout the novel, a bear operates as a constant source of guidance, survival, fear, omnipotence. He transcends the generations and can always be felt lurking underneath the surface of the story and, it turns out, the surface of the garden. The insinuation, we eventually come to realize, is that we are not as far removed from nature as we like to think we are. Over the course of the novel, the people of Blackwell, the women in particular, are prone to abandon the lives they know in favor of the unknown, in favor of the mountain, of the bear. They abandon that which they have always known because it doesn’t seem to fit them. The mountain offers them a truer existence.

In its entirety, the novel is a tightly woven family narrative that spans generations and branches of the family tree. While a visual diagram of the family tree itself would have helped the reader to avoid confusion, overall the novel leaves us with an unexplainable sense of belonging and a gnawing sense of our own humanity.