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Archive for the ‘Historical fiction’ Category

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

by Alan Bradley

Random House, 2009

373 pages

I think it was in one of my college lit classes that I first heard the term “antihero.” Before that point, I had encountered the character type but had never had a name for it.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, an antihero is essentially a primary or secondary protagonist who is unsympathetic or deeply flawed. And, like other character types (the savior, the fallen woman, etc.), antiheroes come in various shapes and sizes.

In some cases, the antihero isn’t a hero at all (at least, not in the commonly-used sense of the word)–more a villain who just  happens to be the story’s main character. At other times, the antihero is a figure of ambivalence, one who inspires neither repugnance nor admiration.

And then there are the inspiring antiheros–those whose flaws are very deep, but tremendously redeemed. Or those whose disagreeableness only highlights how much they’ve overcome. Flavia de Luce, 11-year-old narrator and main character of Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, is that kind of antihero. And that’s why I decided to write about her and her book.

Flavia, the youngest daughter of a 1950s English country squire, is also a passionate chemist with a particular interest in poisons. When one of her father’s estranged school friends (who, like Flavia’s dad, is into philately) turns up dying in the manor’s cucumber patch, with Flavia the only witness to his final moments, the girl catches the detective bug. And when the police arrest her father for the murder, she finds that her passion and her father’s dovetail to unlock a fascinating and dangerous mystery.

Now, quite apart from the inspiration factor, I really enjoyed this book. I’ve been a diehard Anglophile since early childhood, and I’m particularly fascinated by books that, like Sweetness, deal with the vagaries of England’s faded but persistent class system. The family’s centuries-old manor house is virtually a character in the novel, and the complicated relationships between the de Luces and “the village,” along with Bradley’s dash at questions of upward mobility and intra-class hierarchies, would warm any lit professor’s heart.

I also love well-crafted mysteries. As a kid, I read them widely until I settled on Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s detectives as my favorites (I know, again with the Brit lit). Sweetness has been likened to Christie, and deservedly so, both in terms of style and background themes. Bradley’s intricate plotting, colorful characters, and esoteric subject give the book just the right combination of craft, quirkiness, and depth.

The mystery is also where much of the inspiration comes in. Flavia is a geek girl’s Miss Marple; like the older sleuth, she’s sly, savvy, and misleadingly unintimidating and innocent–sometimes to the point of being downright manipulative (one of the reasons she qualifies as an antihero). And obstacles and fears that would repulse other people only add fuel to her detective fire.

Unlike Miss Marple, however, Flavia is baldly unconventional. Her craze for chemistry, her contempt for traditionally feminine pursuits like fashion and cookery, and her deliberate flouting of class barriers mark her out from the crowd. Significantly, they also help her solve the mystery. Her boundary-breaking is rewarded, not punished.

Finally, there’s that whole antihero thing. I’ve mentioned that Flavia can be manipulative. She’s also surly, defiant, self-centered, and distinctly unempathic. And she’s often indifferent or even vindictive toward her own family (in the book’s primary subplot, she deliberately contaminates her oldest sister’s lipstick with poison ivy).

Yet, as the book progresses, we see her begin to examine those tendencies, even modulate them somewhat. Without losing her edginess or strength, she becomes a bit more able to think outside herself. She pushes her detective work to the extreme of endangering her own life in order to save her father. And she begins to show genuine attachment to some of the more worthy characters of the book. Book’s end finds her “doing the right thing,” willingly (though I won’t describe what that thing is, since it would be a major spoiler).

Don’t get me wrong–Flavia is still very off-putting in her way. But real people often are. And that’s the point: Flavia feels real, not like a paperboard villain or half-crafted creation. And, like real people often do, she has to push beyond her own failings, possibly even find a way to redeem them, to make her world right again.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first of a projected six Flavia de Luce mysteries. The first five have been published; book six is due out January 2014. Thanks to my friend S. for pointing me to Flavia!

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Little House in the Big Woods and others

by Laura Ingalls Wilder; ill. by Helen Sewell (first editions) and Garth Williams

HarperCollins, orig. pub. 1932

I was trying to decide what to post today–something I’ve stockpiled? or a freshly written review? what age group or genre?–when I realized that I would be posting right before my birthday. And that immediately pulled my mind to memories of inspiring books I’ve been given, some for my birthday, some for other occasions (and some just because).

So instead of posting a review today, I decided to write about one of those gifts, the one that is probably most closely connected to my passion for stories, reading, and writing.

When I was about a year old, my mom took me to visit my great-grandmother in Texas. I was already in love with words by that point: I had talked early and was now babbling away in long, complete sentences. Mom says my favorite thing to do was talk. And so talk I did, keeping up a steady stream of questions, stories, and observations as I followed Great-Grandma from room to room in her tiny house.

I don’t remember Great-Grandma at all, but Mom often describes her as a heavy-hearted person. She had lived through two world wars as the sister and mother of soldiers, buried an infant daughter, and been left a widow with three children just as the Depression began. I’ve never seen a photo of her smiling.

My flood of words, however, made her laugh.

And so before we left Texas, she handed my mom a boxed set of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. “These are for Kathryn,” she said. “That girl is going to be a reader someday.”

When we got home, Mom set the books aside for a few years. I don’t remember exactly when she brought them out, but I do remember reading them with my dad when I was just six. Every night before bed, my younger sister and I would climb into his lap, and he would read us a chapter. We went through the entire series, and Dad says that I would sometimes read short passages aloud.

Later, I read the books on my own. In fact, by the time I reached junior high, I had read them so many times that I was afraid they would fall apart; I covered them in clear contact paper to hold them together. They had pride of place in my bookcase until just last year, when I took them to my parents’ house so all the grandchildren could enjoy them.

Obviously, I loved those books. I identified with Laura from the start. Like her, I sometimes got into trouble for expressing my mind (there was, for instance, the time I blew a raspberry and gave a thumbs-down to my first-grade teacher because I didn’t want to go to P.E.). I was stubborn and curious like Laura, bookish, and pretty uninterested in domesticity. Young as I was, something resonated in me when she refused to include obedience in her marriage vows. And the fact that these amazing books were written by a woman planted a seed in my mind: maybe I could be a writer, too, one day.

But I didn’t just love the Little House books for what was in them. I also loved them for what they represented in my life.

In handing my mom those books, my great-grandmother performed a very important act of validation. She left me with a constant reminder that she had loved me because, not in spite, of my thirst for stories. That my intelligence had made her proud. It was a good reminder to have, especially on the many days when I felt like a misfit because I liked to learn and read. That thick blue box said to me, “It’s not just OK to be yourself–it’s good.”

So the next time you’re trying to decide what to give a young girl for her birthday or some other occasion (or just because), give her a book. Not just any book–a good one. Because you never know where it will lead her.

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Inside Out and Back Again

by Thanhha Lai

HarperCollins, 2011

272 pages

The Vietnam War is kind of a nebulous area in my historical understanding. I know something about it–but only from an American perspective (how and why the U.S. got involved, our casualties, protests on the homefront). I know virtually nothing about the war from the perspective of the Vietnamese men, women, and children whose homeland was torn apart.

I had that ignorance in mind when I picked up Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again, an autobiographical novel-in-verse based on the author’s experiences as a war refugee. I was also interested in what I had heard was the main focus of the book: Lai’s experience adjusting to life in the U.S., specifically Alabama (I’ve written before about the culture shock I experienced when my family moved from Southern California to the South).

Lai changes some details of her story for the novel–for instance, Lai had eight siblings, whereas main character Ha has only three–but the essentials are the same. Ha, a 10-year-old girl whose father has gone missing in the war, flees South Vietnam with her mother and brothers when her home city of Saigon falls to the North Vietnamese army. After a harrowing few weeks on a defecting Vietnamese Navy ship, Ha’s family ends up in a Miami refugee camp. There, the only immigration sponsor who will take them all is an Alabama man Ha calls “Cowboy.”

But the family finds that their trip to Alabama is only the beginning of their struggle to find a home. Their new neighbors, including Cowboy’s wife, are mostly hateful and afraid: people egg their house, and Ha’s new classmates shout racial slurs and threaten violence. With the help of Cowboy and a couple of other friends, however, Ha and her family slowly win over their neighbors and begin to build a satisfying new life for themselves.

Since Ha is the main character, her personal acclimation is at center stage. After Cowboy connects her with an open-minded neighbor and asks her teacher to counter the bullying, Ha discovers that not all her Southern neighbors want her to go away. Those little rays of light, combined with Cowboy’s ongoing kindness and her mother’s monumental strength, give Ha the courage she needs to make a place for herself in her new country.

There’s a reason Lai won both the National Book Award and a Newbery Honor for Inside Out and Back Again. This is an incredible story, incredibly told. Lai’s poems are mostly short, always spare, but packed to the hilt with emotion.

So many authors who write about war fall into the trap of trying to create an epic. They lean on the imposing drama of big, sweeping vistas and the agony of thousands. But Lai zeroes in on the details: Ha tapping her toe to the floor at midnight to foil a boys-only New Year tradition, her frustration at being unable to solve an American math problem, the family’s first Christmas dinner.

The result is a reality and immediacy that brings home the weight of Ha’s transition from Vietnam to the U.S., the significance of what she accomplishes over the course of the book. On the surface, it’s not a lot: basically, she makes a couple of friends and learns enough English to get by in school. But the intimacy of Lai’s poems reveals the mammoth struggle behind these simple steps.

That’s what’s inspiring about Inside Out and Back Again: the fact that Ha, at just 10 years old, takes on a fight most adults would shrink from. Thrown into a disorienting situation through no choice of her own, she doesn’t just go down fighting–she refuses to go down, period. She gets her bearings, realizes she can still be her confident, somewhat defiant self, and deliberately chooses to survive.

When I got to the end of the book, I wanted a sequel. I wanted to know how this true-grit girl would handle the rest of what life had to offer her. And, for me, that’s the telltale sign of an inspiring story: one I don’t want to end.

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