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Archive for the ‘Historical fiction’ Category

Sarah, Plain and Tall

by Patricia MacLachlan

HarperCollins, 1985

58 pages

For most of my childhood, my family attended a church that had a lending library. Among the books were novels about pioneer-era mail-order marriages, which I completely devoured. They were trite and fluffy reads, but through them I caught a glimpse of something serious: the reality of women’s social imprisonment (even in “the land of the free”) and the lengths to which some women would go to escape it.

I never lost my fascination with the interplay between marriage arrangements and women’s social status. As I got older, I sought out novels (Anthony Trollope and Louisa May Alcott were my favorites) and nonfiction on the subject, and I discussed it often with professors, fellow students, and friends from other cultures.

Through all that, however, I never got around to reading one of the most famous – and best – stories on the subject: Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall.

But just last month, I was casting around for something to read for the blog and thought of it. It won the Newbery Medal when published, and several of my bookish friends had recommended it, so I decided to try it. It was perfect.

Sarah is narrated by young Anna (no age given, but probably a preteen), whose widowed pioneer father places a newspaper ad for a wife. It’s answered by the title character, a woman from Maine, who agrees to visit for one month to see if they’re all a good fit for one another.

Anna and her brother Caleb are very hopeful. They are desperate for a mother – someone to make a garden, cut their hair, and make good stew – and they know their father needs someone to make him sing and smile again. But when Sarah comes, they’re not sure she’ll stay. She desperately misses the sea and her extended family, and she’s uncertain that she belongs in this dramatically different environment.

This is a book for fairly young children – a first-grader could probably read it with little help – so I was pleasantly surprised at Sarah as a character and at the way the story resolves.

In her own words, Sarah is “strong” and “not mild-mannered.” She has come West because she wants to marry on her own terms and because she won’t play second fiddle to her brother’s new wife.

As it turns out, she also won’t play second fiddle to Anna’s father. Equality is her default, both in work and in relationship. She wears overalls (something Anna and Caleb have never seen a woman do), helps with plowing and carpentry, and learns to drive the wagon so she can go to town on her own. She never asks permission for something. Instead, she states confidently what she wants.

It’s clear that Anna’s mother never did these things, but it’s also clear that Anna’s father likes Sarah all the more for them. And so Sarah not only discovers that she belongs on the prairie – both she and Anna’s family discover that they all belong together.

That, to me, is what makes this book inspiring.

First and foremost, inspired girls love themselves for who they are. But it’s also good for inspired girls to know that they’re lovable. To hear the message, “There are people out there who value girls and women not in spite of, but because of, their courage, intelligence, independence, and creativity.”

Growing up, I struggled with extremely low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression because I felt rejected for who I was. I was incredibly smart and fiercely independent, and many people in my life – both adults and peers – told me (sometimes explictly, sometimes implicitly) that girls “weren’t supposed to be that way.”

I was saved from alienation, isolation, and perhaps even suicide by the few adults and peers (including the boy I eventually married) who saw my intelligence and independence as assets, who were enthusiastic about who I was and told me those qualities were my birthright.

Sarah, Plain and Tall is the kind of book that whispers to an isolated young girl that those people are out there for her. If she hasn’t met them yet, she will soon. It’s inspiration to hold on, knowing that she’ll find a place to belong without losing who she really is.

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Dead End in Norvelt

by Jack Gantos

Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011

341 pages

I have a thing for dark humor. I’m also a fan of period fiction (sometimes truly historical, sometimes not) and stories with a strong regional flavor. Give me a book, TV show, or movie that combines the two, and I’m in heaven.

So I’ve been itching to read Jack Gantos’ Dead End in Norvelt ever since I read the ALA Newbery committee’s description of the book. I finally got my hands on a copy, and it did not disappoint. Even better, I discovered that (although the main character is male), the book has a handful of terrific female characters that make this story a perfect fit for my Super Secondaries series.

Here’s the story: young Norvelt, PA, resident Jack Gantos is in deep trouble. He got caught playing with his father’s WWII souvenirs, and he cut down his mother’s prized corn. So instead of spending his summer playing baseball, watching movies at the drive-in, and hanging out with his friends, he’s grounded until further notice.

His only escape is Miss Volker, an elderly neighbor who does double duty as the town nurse and obituary writer. Jack’s mother has loaned him out to the old lady, whose severe arthritis is getting in the way of her work.

As Jack works for Miss Volker, he learns something about the fascinating history of his hometown and its residents, how grown-ups cope with harsh economic realities, and what it means to live – and die – well. As more and more of the town’s elderly residents do the latter, he also begins to ask some questions. Is Norvelt’s soaring death rate just a coincidence, or is someone bumping off the old ladies a bit before their time?

As you’ve probably guessed from the main character’s name, Dead End in Norvelt is semi-autobiographical. Norvelt, PA, is the author’s true hometown, one of dozens of New Deal settlements founded during the Depression for the relief of unemployed coal miners and their families. Most of the town history related in the book is real, and Gantos communicates it in an entertaining way.

But it’s not just the history that makes this story a winner (though it won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction as well as the Newbery). Gantos’ wry style and strong voice are deeply engaging, and the macabre humor is side-splitting. And then, of course, there are the ladies: Dead End in Norvelt has three strong female characters to inspire girl readers.

First there’s Jack’s best friend Bunny, who is very small of stature but huge of personality. Her father is the town undertaker, and exposure to his profession has made Bunny the exact opposite of a shrinking violet. While Jack swoons in the autopsy room, Bunny goes in for a closer look. When arsonists plague Norvelt, she organizes a nighttime fire patrol. In short, she is one of the spunkiest, sassiest girls I’ve ever encountered in fiction. For girls who are athletic, fascinated by the weird side of life, dealing with physical limitations, or just loud and proud, she’s an excellent point of contact with the story.

Next there’s Jack’s mom, a big-hearted and capable woman. With Jack’s father frequently out of town on construction jobs, she often holds down the fort alone. And when insufficient income and other setbacks arise, her resourcefulness keeps the family afloat and provides for Norvelt’s elderly residents. She’s not perfect: her desire to protect Jack can make her fearful, but she always summons courage when it’s needed, as when she faces down an armed stranger in the family’s backyard. In a time when girls are still bombarded with messages to fit a mold for the sake of winning love and approval, she shows how to operate as part of a loving family and caring community without sacrificing identity or principles.

And finally there’s Miss Volker, a fiery, sharp-witted old lady who teaches Jack to think both for and outside himself. She is one of Norvelt’s original residents, a deep admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt (for whom the town is named), and dedicated to educating and caring for Norvelt’s citizens. In addition to the town obituaries, which she pens as wider historical lessons, she writes a “This Day in History” column where she encourages readers to question and look beyond the victors’ narratives that make up most textbook versions of history. Politically progressive, outspoken, and tenacious, she teaches Jack and readers that women’s voices are an essential part of the social conversation. She is also a healthy model of single womanhood – encouragement that women needn’t marry or have children to find fulfillment in life, career, and relationships.

Dead End in Norvelt is an excellent read any way you slice it, a hilarious and touching coming-of-age story with plenty to engage both boys and girls. But with these three ladies as part of the story, it becomes inspirational as well.

Read about the further adventures of Jack and Miss Volker in From Norvelt to Nowhere, published in 2013.

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The Help

by Kathryn Stockett

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009

451 pages

Starting with today’s post, I’ve added a new age category: young women. Books under this heading are appropriate for the age group I like to think of as “grown-up girls.” They’re mature teens and college students, the oldest of the next generation of women. They’re not yet independent adults, but they’re capable of reading, understanding, and processing adult literature.

Growing up, I understood very little of the long-term impact of slavery on our nation’s racial landscape. Raised initially in an integrated community with friends and classmates of many races, I was familiar with the term Jim Crow but thought segregation (both legalized and de facto) and racism were a thing of the past.

Then, in my middle school years, my family moved to an all-white, rural Southern town–and I came face-to-face with de facto segregation and modern-day white paternalism and supremacy. Both offended and curious at the same time, I tried to dig deeper but met with little success. Our school curriculum didn’t address slavery or its legacy in any meaningful way, and neither did the adults in the community. When I asked questions of white adults who had lived through Jim Crow, they usually just stared (sometimes angrily) or gave vague non-responses.

It was a different matter when I got to college, where I loaded up on classes and books about race and the South. When I got out of college, I kept reading on the subject (in fact, it was Freedom’s Daughters, one of those post-college books, that inspired me to start this blog).

And that brings me to Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. I heard about the book soon after it came out; when I had finished it, I was so inspired that I immediately read Susan Tucker’s Telling Memories Among Southern Women, the nonfiction book that had galvanized Stockett.

Set in 1960s Mississippi, this novel is the story of three women. Aibilene is a black maid in her 60s who specializes in caring for young children. Her best friend Minny, also a black maid and the county’s best cook, is roughly a generation younger. And Skeeter is an upper-class white woman, recently returned home after graduating from college.

All three women are in transition. Aibilene, recently hired by Skeeter’s friend Elizabeth, is grieving the recent death of her 24-year-old son. Minny, unable to find normal work because of her reputation for “mouthing off” and a smear campaign conducted by Skeeter’s friend Hilly, is secretly teaching the lower-class Celia how to keep house for a wealthy husband. For her part, Skeeter is struggling to reconcile her own awkwardness and career ambitions with intense social pressure to become a typical Mississippi belle.

The three become more than just passing acquaintances when Skeeter, growing increasingly piqued by racial injustice and social constraints, invites Aibilene to help her compile a no-holds-barred collection of black maids’ stories about their white employers. Aibilene, embittered by white indifference to the accident that killed her son, agrees and pulls in Minny and several other friends.

As they work in secret to create the book, the three women find themselves learning much about themselves, each other, and the true stories–and natures–of their friends, family members, and employers.

What I love most about this book is how real it feels. The first-person narration has something to do with it, but Stockett has also managed to craft a story that transitions smoothly between deep heartbreak, the mundanities of daily life, and laugh-out-loud humor without ever seeming maudlin or melodramatic. I think it also helps that much of the book resonates with my own experiences. I’ve felt or witnessed firsthand the tight corset of Southern social mores, the dismissive stereotypes tossed out by Skeeter’s mother, and Hilly’s special brand of insidious, racist cruelty.

But what makes the book inspiring is how the three women rise above it all. Aibilene’s quiet, steely resolve is amazing, the more so for the heartbreak behind it. Minny’s courage is equally so; despite her initial (and very understandable) reluctance, she ends up not only participating in Skeeter and Aibilene’s project but also leaving her abusive husband. Skeeter, meanwhile, meets the man of her dreams–and he actually proposes. But when maintaining the relationship means hiding her role in the book, Skeeter chooses integrity, single womanhood, and a literary career in New York.

Even the novel’s most problematic aspect inspires me. As Stockett herself admits in an afterword, the book is “too little, too late,” a long-overdue atonement for her wealthy white family’s part in taking advantage of and perpetuating Mississippi’s Jim Crow sytem.

In a sense, Stockett’s right: it’s too late to help her family’s black servants, or any of the other men and women who suffered under Jim Crow. But it’s not too late to educate people like me, to help us see another brick or two in the massive wall the black community has had to surmount in this nation, and to help us understand why we must keep tearing down the wall and make sure never to rebuild it.

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