Book Review: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

This memoir-in-verse is an absolute gem.  The whole time I read it, I wished I were a middle school English teacher so that I could assign it and then talk about it for a month.  But, since I haven’t the patience to be a teacher (nor even the time to write a really long review), here’s a few thoughts instead.

Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: *****  (5 stars)

Narrative: **** (4 stars)

Interesting Subject: ***** (5 stars)

Objectivity and research: **** (4 stars.  This is a memoir.)

Overall: **** 1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Age Range Recommendation: 10 and up

The general subject of Brown Girl Dreaming is a simple one.  Jacqueline Woodson (award-winning author of Feathers and many other good books) remembers her earliest childhood days, growing up in both the North and South in the ’60s and ’70s.  Starting with her birth to the Woodsons in Ohio, she chronicles the separation of her parents, a big move down to her mother’s old home in South Carolina, summers with her grandparents, and then the beginnings of a life in New York City.  Five parts of the book categorize these phases in Woodson’s memory, and the pieces of her childhood are remembered through easy-flowing poems, each only a page or two long.  

Aunts, uncles, neighbors, and family friends filter in and out of the cast of characters, while Jacqueline writes about her mother, grandparents, and siblings in evocative detail.  Sometimes when you read a great work of fiction, you start to feel like the imaginary characters were once real people.  In Brown Girl Dreaming, these very real people have such memorable personalities I had to remind myself that they weren’t just made up to suit the story.  

 It’s obvious that Jacqueline had a keen observant eye even before she could read.  Re-told conversations and scenes between grown-ups give the reader an idea of what it was like to grow up during a big push in the civil rights movement, even when most of the action happened on the periphery of the Woodson siblings’ younger lives.  Little moments in the South, where passive-aggressive hostilities still ran rampant even after segregation was technically supposed to be over, made me grit my teeth in frustration, while the hopeful forward-movement inspired by Jacqueline’s mother and her friends buoyed my spirits.  There’s a great image of Jacqueline and her friend walking around NYC with their fists in the air like Angela Davis, and also a wonderfully moving poem which compares the revolution to a carousel: history always being made somewhere, while different people have a part in it. 

But, this being a memoir about her own experiences, the political atmosphere is enveloped by a narrative about growing up.  Jacqueline grows to find her voice, to discover a love of words, and to see how her family’s every-day lives can be the stuff of wonderful stories.  She’s not just a Brown Girl Dreaming, she’s a brown girl learning, speaking, changing, and – most importantly – writing.  And all that scribbling in notebooks has definitely payed off; the simplicity of these poems doesn’t diminish the strength of their message.  In fact, each word seems carefully chosen to reflect the temperament of her thoughts at the time.  It’s rare to read a memoir in which the grown-up writer can conjure up visions of her childhood without a tint of romanticism or regret.  I feel like I got a chance to meet the real child Jacqueline Woodson once was, and to hear her voice as though she was speaking just to me.  For this reason, even though there wasn’t a hugely dramatic plot, I found the entire story enchanting.

While the time-period was tumultuous, and the Woodson siblings had to keep picking up their lives as they moved, this is not a melodramatic story.  The poems are written with an earnest, child-like simplicity that captures the tone of happy summer evenings and anxious walks to school.  There are funny memories, and profound moments, and a general warmth of spirit throughout the whole book.  I loved little Jackie. I loved her family, because it was impossible not to feel how much she loved them, too.  Memory is a tricky thing, and that’s a big theme throughout Brown Girl Dreaming: the logical conclusions we draw as children don’t always hold up against reality.  I can only imagine how much digging Woodson must have had to do –through her own recollections, as well as the history of her families and the places where she once lived – in order to distill this sincere memoir from her past.  I’m very grateful that she gave it so much thought, because the resulting book was an absolute pleasure to read.

I will be recommending Brown Girl Dreaming to pretty much every child/parent/teacher who enters my store.  It’s thoughtful, it’s funny, and it’s easy to relate to Jacqueline even though she grew up in a much different time than this one.  Anyone who has ever called more than one place home; who has worried about their parents; competed with their siblings; and tried to figure out how they fit into their world, will see something of themselves in these poems.  I have too many favorite poems to list, all dog-eared in my book. (I try never to wrinkle the pages but too bad!  These pages need to be remembered.)  Once the book officially hits shelves on August 28, I’ll probably be reading certain pieces at unsuspecting customers.  And as long as my terrible elocution doesn’t drive them away, I think this book will be a hit.  There’s lots to talk about in it, and even more to enjoy.

Book Review: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up

“It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.”  That sentence appears twice in Maggie Stiefvater’s breathtaking novel The Scorpion Races.  The moment I read it, the first words in the prologue, I could feel that this was going to be a good story; a dark story; a story that draws on something old and deep and scary.  I knew it was inspired by the capaill uisge myths – vicious, man-eating water horses often called kelpies.  And that all of my friends who had read it before recommended it highly.  What I didn’t know was how beautifully Stiefvater would describe the island of Thisby, somewhere off Ireland, and the people who live there.  I didn’t expect to fall under the water horses’ spell myself.  I’m not really much of a horse whisperer: I think they’re cool and pretty, but sometimes it feels like they’re laughing at me.   (One time a big horse stepped on my foot to hold me in place while he bit my shoulder, and it has inspired some distrust.)  My own reservations were powerless in the hands of Maggie Stiefvater’s writing, though, because after a few chapters of The Scorpio Races I could feel why Puck and Sean devoted their lives to their horse-y companions. 

The Scorpio Races is about this island where, every November, a deadly race is held on dangerous water horses.  People capture the capaill uisge when they come out of the sea, the very act of which is the stuff of eerie seaside nightmares, and then try to train them into something they can ride.  But the sea is always calling the horses, driving them to drown and eat the men who would tame them.  As November approaches, tourists come to Thisby, more terrible creatures rise up from the sea, and the stakes get ever higher.  Two teenagers, living very different lives, have lost parents to the capaill uisge.  Sean’s father was killed in the races, long ago.  Now Sean trains water horses for the richest man on the island, and is famous for his victories in the Scorpio Races.  Puck Connolly is very much a Connolly, even after her parents died in a capaill uisge related boat accident.  She helps keep her family together; the only girl in a trio of siblings which isn’t so close as it once was.  She and her beloved horse, Dove, have to win the Scorpio Races if they’re to keep their home and independence.  The odds aren’t in Puck’s favor.  She’s the first girl to ever compete, and some people don’t think she should mess with tradition.  And even while the odds have been kind to Sean before, animosity from the boss’s son, and some troublesome feelings for Puck, might keep him from winning this year.  And that would mean giving up his dreams to own Corr, the capaill uisge who has become his closest friend.  When Puck and Sean become close their determination will have an even higher cost, because not everyone survives the Scorpio Races, and only one rider can win.

Setting is usually the most important thing when I’m reading.  If I can get drawn into the rhythm of a place and not want to leave, I’ll read the whole book no matter what.  And Thisby drew me right in.  (Not quite so fatally as the way capaill uisge draw humans into the sea and then eat them.  But pretty close.)  I loved Puck’s ramshackle house, where she and her brothers struggle to get by on their own.  I could picture Sean’s regular haunts on the cliffs and at Malvern’s stables.  I was afraid of the beach, but entranced by the shoreline all the same.  I felt safe from the storm in the butcher’s kitchen with his wife, Peg Gratton, dispensing sharp wisdom all over the place.  I’m sad that I’ll never witness the dark magic of Thisby’s Scorpio Festival, even though I’d probably turn senseless from all the colors, foods, people, and drums.  The seasons, rituals, and traditions of the Scorpio Races are an ancient, integral part of what Thisby is.  Puck and Sean even talk about how the island feeds off the blood – or bravery – of its people, and how they are as much a part of the weathered land as it is of them.  It’s been rather autumnal weather where I am this past week, and thank goodness for that, because reading about all the rain and wind made me want to go fetch one of my sweaters from Scotland.  The setting was just that good.

I’m pleased to report that the other aspects of this book were nearly as good as the sense of place.  Puck and Sean were complex narrators with interesting, honest motivations.  The story is told in alternating sections from each of their points of view. They were selfish sometimes and brave sometimes, and never one-dimensional.  My one gripe would be that sometimes it was hard to tell whose narrative had just begun, but that’s partly my fault for forgetting to read the chapter headings as I fervently read.  Their voices were similar, but that’s just because they shared such a fierce love for the island and for their respective steeds (I wouldn’t dare to call Sean’s Corr a horse, just as Puck can’t stand to have Dove called a pony).  They were each proud in their own ways, but learn to take the world in stride a little better by the end of the novel. 

There’s a little bit of romantic tension, but nearly all of the emotion in The Scorpio Races came from loyalty, family, and bravery rather than mercurial teenaged passions.  That’s the sort of story I like to read: one which doesn’t require amorous moping to make characters interested in one another.  So huzzah to that.  Puck’s relationship with her brothers was also done well.  She’s confused about her older brother Gabe’s sudden urgency to leave the island, especially since he’s been their main source of support ever since their parents died at sea.  She also wants to protect her sweet and slightly odd little brother, Finn, who was one of my favorite characters.  The townsfolk were lively and made Thisby seem real.  People on islands, man.  They’re my favorite sort of people.

For me, Maggie Stiefvater’s work can be either a hit or a miss.  I love the Raven Cycle and am beyond excited for the next installment.   On the other hand, I was wildly disappointed by Lament, and couldn’t get into the Shiver series either.  I don’t know why she suddenly started writing books I love around 2011.  It’s a happy mystery, though, and The Scorpio Races has solidified my belief that she’s become one of the best YA writers of modern fantasy writing today.  This is a stand-alone novel with an ending that left me satisfied but wishing I could stay on Thisby longer.   I’m kind of glad it’s not the beginning of a series, because I rarely have the time or presence of mind to follow through with sequels even if I love the first book.  It was just the right length, with an excellent balance of action and character development, and beautiful writing to carry the story through the weeks of October, leading up to the races.

Book Review: Fourth Of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

This book did not make me happy, it was not a particularly fun reading experience, but it was wonderfully engrossing.  Smith Henderson sure knows how to tell a story.  The little details he included while writing made me feel entirely transported to the impoverished, and often grimy, setting for this big, heart-rending drama.  It’s a long book.  Maybe it could have been a hundred pages shorter.  But even though some pieces dragged on a bit, I got through this larger novel in only two days because I was so curious to see what was going on around Tenmile, Montana. 

In the small, dilapidated town: Would Pete, the social-worker main character, be able to pull together the crumbling pieces of his own life?  His brother’s on the run from justice, his romantic entanglements end in disaster, and he drinks past the point of confusion.  (I thought that some of the female characters Pete meets weren’t given enough depth in their characterization, but this could just be a reflection of his own misjudgements.)  And what will happen to the messed-up families Pete visits for his job?  He genuinely cares about these kids who need his help, but there’s not much to be done, in such hopeless environs, for people who have nearly given up hope themselves.  The scenes in Tenmile showed a bleak reality behind the quaint picture I used to imagine when thinking about the vintage Midwest.

In cities and streets across various state lines: Would Pete’s thirteen year old daughter make it on her own? Would she make ithome intact? She ran away from her alcoholic mother, and her dad wouldn’t have been much help either.  As Pete says to his ex-wife at one point: “I take kids away from people like us.”  Rachel starts calling herself Rose and tries to act as grown-up as possible, but she soon finds herself in all sorts of gritty peril.  Other runaways and alluring boys are quick to take advantage of her wayward state.  This plot line was told through a series of questions and answers, like in a social services interview.  Rachel’s voice was determined and more hopeful than most, but her future looks bleak.  Sadder, still, is the fact that Pete knows what sort of trouble she could get into.  He sees it every day in his work.  And yet he’s still powerless to bring her back. 

And then, the most interesting — most American — series of questions arose from the woods and caves and rivers around Tenmile.  What’s up with Benjamin Pearl, the feral little boy who brings Pete into the woods, where he and his father live? Jeremiah Pearl is mesmerizing and dangerous: a survivalist who believes the end times are rapidly approaching.  He and his son live in the woods, denying most outside help, guarding against strangers, and asserting that American money will soon be useless.  Benjamin likes Pete’s company, even though the Pearls never quite trust the social worker, and after a while Pete spends more time camping, walking, and talking with the family.  Jeremiah Pearl may be covered in dirt and firing bullets into conspiracy theories, but his freedom and conviction appeal to Pete’s curiosity.  But curiosity leads to darker questions: Where are Benjamin’s siblings and his mother?  Why do they think the end times are coming?  Is the little boy really safe with his father, who is religiously harsh and could endanger them in the elements?  Are the Pearls part of a bigger, more threatening conspiracy than Jeremiah’s rebellious distribution of defaced currency and warning shots in the woods? 

The final questions were the strongest and most compelling part of Henderson’s book.  The Pearls, and the stories about them, reveal a specific American culture which I’ve only ever encountered through exaggerated caricatures until now.  Even as I dismissed Pearl’s ravings as extremism, I could understand how some people get drawn into the fervor of paranoia.  Especially in an area which the government tends to neglect until they need to come in with guns a’ blazin’.  The mystery of Jeremiah’s past, the uncertainty of Rachel’s future, and the desperation growing in Pete’s present circumstances kept my interest in Fourth Of July Creek, but the setting and tone will stay with me even longer than the plot.  Montana in the 1980s.  Who would have ever thought I’d voluntarily read 500 pages about people there?  I guess I’m getting more curious, with age, about the strange lands within my own borders. 

The characters I met in and around Tenmile have broadened my horizons a little, and made me 100% certain that a life in social work is not my cup of tea.  Even with all of Pete’s bad decisions and terrible coping skills, his sympathy for struggling people kept me sympathetic to his own tribulations.  When I slammed the book shut, at the heart-breakingly ambiguous ending, I wanted some assurance that everyone would be ok.  I may not these character’s lifestyles and beliefs, but they all just want hope and I wish that there would be enough to go around.

I recommend this book for fans of the vivid rural atmosphere in that show True Detective, violence and sorrow and grit included.  People who are comfortable facing the tragic realities of disastrously unstable families.  Anyone with little interest in conspiracy theories, or curious about the extreme characters who really do see the wrath of god in our near future.  This book is definitely for adults only, as very bad things happen to young people and those bad things are described without flinching.  Maybe it’s not the sort of book you want to cram into your suitcase for a vacation, but once you get into the story you’ll be constantly thinking about Tenmile, Montana until the very last page.

Book Review: What Is Left The Daughter by Howard Norman

Another realistic, grown-up book set on the Atlantic coast? I guess it was that kind of weekWhat Is Left The Daughter is the final book I read while on vacation.  It was a lovely, bittersweet conclusion to several days of reading and writing by the crashing waves.

Reading on the rocks at Schoodic Point.

Reading on the rocks at Schoodic Point.

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot **** (4 stars)

Writing **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 +

Both of Wyatt’s parents died on the same day, when he was seventeen years old.  His mother and his father jumped off of separate bridges in Halifax, unbeknownst to one another, because they were each having an affair with the same woman.  How’s that for the beginning of a fellow’s adult life?  Odder, still: Wyatt’s story only gets more tragic and tangled from there. His parents’ demise takes up barely one chapter, setting up for twenty one years of bittersweetness and unexpected calamity. He look back on it all so calmly, though – so open to irony and wry observances – that the book is nicely devoid of too much self-pity.  The writing is candid, not maudlin.  And whenever Wyatt’s remembered experiences reflect too much pent-up tension, a funny conversation or absurd circumstance reminds us not to take things too seriously.  

This novel is framed as a long letter to his daughter, looking back through the decades to when the action began.  After his parents die, Wyatt moves to live with his Aunt and Uncle in a smaller Nova Scotia town called Middle Economy.  With no particular plans for the future, he agrees to become an apprentice to his Uncle Donald’s trade making sleds and toboggans.  Donald and Constance are raising an adopted daughter, Tilda, who quickly captivates Wyatt’s attention with her “ravishing” beauty and lively charms.  Tilda a strange, likable girl: she wants to be a professional mourner and reads all the obituaries, but she’s also fashionable and charming.  In scenes when other characters stumble through awkward social situations, Tilda shines with conscious good humor.  

Life in 1940s Middle Economy has a gentle rhythm into which Wyatt falls easily enough.  He keeps his love for Tilda secret (she sees him as a cousin despite the lack of shared blood).  He tries hard to please his kind aunt and impress his uncle.  But World War II rages on, bringing a reality of violence to Canadian shores in the form of U-boats, deaths overseas, and a constant threat of spies.  Uncle Donald and others start to fixate on the dangers of German weapons sinking their boats and endangering their waters.

So when a German philology student comes to town and gets close with Tilda, the rhythm of Middle Economy is thrown out of balance. Hans Mohring is no Nazi – he and his family moved away when Germany started to spin out of control – but his accent and his attentions rile up some citizens of Middle Economy.  Uncle Donald shatters all his own beloved Beethoven records in a moment of suspicious anger, to make a point. (Music and trust run in the same metaphors throughout What Is Left The Daughter, illuminating certain characters’ deeper conflicts.)  Some army boys rough up the friendly owner of a Halifax music shop because Hans was teaching him a little German language.  Tilda and Hans eventually move above the local bakery – owned by a delightful local lady who takes no nonsense from any townsfolk – and plan a hurried wedding.  Throughout all this, Wyatt hovers somewhere between friendship and an aching jealousy which bursts out at unfortunate moments.  What was once a peaceful seaside town soon fills with pockets of unease.

And then a boat is sunk.  And then a murder.  And then a split-second decision which will change everything for Wyatt, his family, and the town.  There’s an image which I saw so clearly, I felt like I was standing in the house myself: Tilda sitting at the kitchen table while the song playing skips on the gramophone.  The needle keeps jumping over a bullet hole.  The gun in Tilda’s hand, pointed at her head, is at contrast with her measured voice.  It’s a moment of still clarity in the midst of panic.  It’s the calm before a slow storm of tragedy.  

Things can never go back to the way they were, and the next twenty one years bring Wyatt through changes of circumstance which, eventually, guide him back to his childhood home, where he writes to his daughter.  The second half of the book isn’t quite so vivid and moving as the chapters in Middle Economy, but they’re realistic and still an interesting picture of one man’s altered life in such a charged time period.  Characters resign themselves to unhappiness for a while, then have to look for comfort when it gets too hard.  There are so many heavy hearts in this book and they all need someone to bear the weight now and then, even when injured pride and the messy past would recommend solitude instead.  The war ends, time passes, but Wyatt still has to live with the consequences of his actions.  His letter to Marlais reveals the circumstances of her birth and the nature of her parents’ relationship.  It shows that sometimes fairness means someone has to suffer.

I loved the setting of What Is Left The Daughter, because Nova Scotia is one of my favorite places in the world.  (My last reviewed book, Lobster Kings, also takes place near there.)  I have to admit that I’ve never learned or thought much about Canada during World War II, but the setting and time period were easy to picture and a great stage for this character-driven story.  Little details really made daily life in Middle Economy seem real: the bakery’s cranberry scones, or a crow trapped in the library.  Even Wyatt’s job as a gaffer after he leaves town, years later, inspired little anecdotes which made me interested in a job which had never demanded my interest before.  I definitely preferred the first 2/3 of this novel to the final section, because the pacing was a little better and the characters more captivating, but by the end I thought the story felt nicely rounded out.  

I would recommend What Is Left The Daughter to readers of historical fiction who don’t need everything to be a history lesson, people who like Evelyn Waugh’s more serious novels.  Fans of stories about sad families in small towns, seen through a lens of beauty rather than grit – books like The Strange And Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender – will like the writing in this book.  The plot’s wayward journey will eventually fade like a childhood memory, but little moments between the characters, a line here or a false impression there, will make a lasting impression.