Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘U. S. history’

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.

Read Full Post »

Abigail Adams

by Alexandra Wallner

Holiday House, 2001

32 pages

Grade-school lessons about the women’s movement are pretty limited in scope. They tend to focus on the women’s suffrage campaigns of the late 1800s and early 1900s, then skip ahead to the ’60s and ’70s and the battle over the ERA.

As a result, young girls can come away with the impression that the women’s movement (or any progressive movement, really) consists of isolated, dramatic showdowns, with nothing significant happening in between.

The reality, of course, is completely different.

While those dramatic showdowns are great for wide-reaching legislative or judicial gains, they’re only the culmination of days, months, years, even decades of day-to-day choices on the part of equality-minded men and women everywhere.

A dad tells his daughter he’s proud of her good grades, and she realizes that being a girl isn’t just about being pretty. A scientist mentors a woman protegee, and a male-dominated field gains one more female. A teacher corrects a child who says something offensive, and classmates learn to think outside stereotypes.

Or, of course, a caregiver reads an inspiring book, and a child learns to think of women as strong, capable, and smart. Alexandra Wallner’s picture book biography of Abigail Adams is one of those inspiring books you can read to very young girls (or boys, for that matter).

When I was a kid, Abigail Adams didn’t get much attention: she was notable primarily as the only woman to be both the wife and mother of a president. In recent years, however, blockbuster biographies, major miniseries, and the popularity of the revived musical 1776 have brought Abigail into the public eye.

She was quite the woman, it turns out, and Wallner’s biography really highlights her intelligence, her importance, and her revolutionary ideas.

Abigail’s egalitarian consciousness developed early, we learn, when her wealthy parents allowed only her brother to go to school. Undaunted, she educated herself by reading avidly in the family’s library and eavesdropping on the grown-ups’ conversations.

She fell in love with her husband because he was intelligent and respected her intelligence. Knowing that, in Colonial society, “her future depended on her husband,” Abigail chose John because she thought he would treat her as an equal.

As their marriage progressed, Abigail proved her mettle. She managed their large estate when John traveled, led Colonial women in boycotts of British goods, and wrote John with ideas and advice that he shared with George Washington.

John supported her through it all–except when she wrote passionately that the new nation’s constitution should include equal rights for women and freedom for slaves.

Despite his rebuff, however, she held to her principles and implemented them in her daily life. She saw her daughters fully educated, taught black servants to read and write, and continued to speak out for equal rights.

Wallner’s straightforward text and simple, folk-art-style illustrations evoke Abigail’s strong and direct nature. At the same time, they capture the salient emotions of Abigail’s life–her contentment in learning, her determination in her work, her pain at John’s rebuff, and her happiness in their well-earned retirement years.

The book shows girls that progress doesn’t always come dramatically, and not all heroines grab headlines. You don’t have to be interested in the limelight to make a very real and lasting impact. Wallner also shows that, even when progress is not all we hoped it would be, we can still find some way to make a difference here and now.

More than anything, I love the way Wallner goes behind the canonized narrative to demonstrate Abigail’s importance. It’s the kind of book that leaves girls asking, “If she was so important, and I haven’t heard much about her, who else haven’t I heard about?”

Inspiration to look behind the curtain, learn more, dig deeper–is there anything better?

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 74 other followers