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.

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Book Review: Chime by Franny Billingsley

Don’t be deterred by the annoying cover – this book is excellent!

Star Ratings

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing : ***** (5 stars)

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

Age range recommendation: 13 +

Nancy Werlin recommended Chime to me way back in the fall when I met her at the Boston Teen Author Festival. I was one of those insufferable young aspiring writers who blabs about her work-in-progress to patient authors, and I knew that Werlin had written some YA novels inspired by just the sort of faery lore which was also inspiring me.  She was kindly encouraging, and one of the first things she asked upon learning that my faery story takes place in a swamp was, “Have you read Chime by Franny Billingsley?”  I had not.  I was told that I must.  I believed her.  Then I promptly forgot all about such instructions and only sat down with the book months later when I needed something gloomy, youthful, and uncanny.
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There was a small void in my reading life, waiting for a natural tale of unnatural creatures, and Chime filled that void perfectly.  I didn’t have particularly high expectations of this YA novel: only that it would be swamp-y and contain faeries.  Well, it completely passed those moderate expectations – blew them out of the murky, slimy water, as it were – and then some.  This was a truly remarkable novel.  I’m wildly impressed with Franny Billingsley, and have a mind to track down all her other books so I can get lost in them, too.
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Chime is Briony’s story, and Briony would like to confess to her crimes and be hanged.  It’s one of the more interesting opening pages I’ve come across in my reading life.  Hangings? Swamps? Wickedness?  Sign me up!
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chime text
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From here Briony tells us, in her own words, the events leading up to her trial.  It’s sometime around the end of the 19th century, and the secluded English village of Swampsea has been living in tandem with some supernatural neighbors for ages.  The townsfolk have a special method for trying witches, to ensure that they don’t hang innocent women, but lately the Chime Child responsible for making that judgement has been making mistakes in her old age.  Anyone who wanders into the swamp carries bits of bible paper with them, as protection against the faery-like creatures who dwell there.  The “Old Ones” range from mischievous nature spirits to the downright malevolent entities like The Dead Hand.   A deadly swamp cough troubles the town, and people live in fear of the “Old Ones,” though they’ve grown used to living beside them by now.  And yet, as it always does, progress has finally made its way from London to Swampsea. Mr. Clayborne comes to drain the swamp, bringing his son Eldric with him from London in the hopes that the University lad might stop getting into trouble and attend to his studies in less invigorating environs.  Swampsea is going to get a railroad.  Swampsea is going to join the fashionable and modern world.  Unfortunately, those spirits and creatures who dwell in the swamp aren’t too pleased about these new developments.  They need someone to hear them, to side with them, and stop the process.  Or the Boggy Mun will keep inflicting the swamp cough on innocent townsfolk, like Briony’s sister Rose.
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Briony is the Parson’s daughter.  She is also a witch.  She admits that to us from the beginning.  There’s no point in hiding this fact, and she’s grown comfortable with the wickedness which must then be an inherent part of her being.  She’s always been able to see the Old Ones, but it’s her ability to call them up to do her bidding which makes her capable of destruction.  Swampsea, in all its superstitious vigilance, does not take kindly to witches who can summon the Boggy Mun to flood the parsonage and incapacitate her beloved stepmother.  There’s not a lot of sympathy in the village for a girl who caused her twin sister to fall, hit her head, and lose her wits when Briony was a child and couldn’t control her powerful urges.  Briony’s stepmother understood.  She helped Briony to hide her power, kept her from entering the swamp, and always repeated that they must never, ever tell her father, who would feel obliged as the Parson to turn his own daughter into the authorities.  But their stepmother is dead, and there are blank spaces in Briony’s memory.  Was the fire, which burned up all the fairy stories she used to write for Rose, really Briony’s fault?  If stepmother didn’t take her own life with arsenic, who killed her? What mysterious illness afflicted their entire family when they were children, but not anyone else in town until Eldric comes down with it, too?   What terrible secret is the addled Rose trying to convey to her twin sister – some secret about their birth which she was forbidden to tell long ago?  The more we learn about the answers to these questions, the less sure we can be about anything in the natural and unnatural world of Chime. If Briony can’t trust herself, let alone anyone else, who can we turn to for the truth?  You will want to read this book and find out, I promise you that.
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The story is wonderful, but the writing is even better.  Each time I’ve recommended the book, the only way I can describe the beauty which Franny Billingsley weaves into each paragraph is by saying, “I want this tattooed on my face.”  That wouldn’t be a pretty sight, and I probably won’t get lines from the book going across the bridge of my nose, but I can find no better way to express my enthusiasm. There really are some marvellously poetic arrangements of words; the images are occasionally mesmerising; and the dialogue is good, too.  Briony’s voice is unfaltering — at no point does the narrative drop into a more generic omniscient tone, which is impressive since Briony’s thoughts are always twinged with guilt and colored with distrust verging on desperation.  The narrative is so personal but also requires some careful exposition to get us comfortable reading about the freaky swamp and unusual customs which seem so normal to the characters.  Briony has a rather poetic thought process, herself.  While the sing-song formulas and imagined patter might seem out of place at first, it quickly becomes clear that our conflicted narrator draws upon these literary formats to distance herself from the serious (and deadly) concerns hiding behind her wordplay and hypothetical conversations.  She compares Eldric to a lion, herself to a wolf-girl, and has metaphors on hand for whomever crosses her path (human or not).  This could have grown tiresome very quickly, but I think that the technique was employed just shy of over-zealously, and therefore it worked out beautifully.  Remember that Briony’s a teenage girl, and that’s the time when we think of everything as our own personal fairy-tale.  It was an absolute pleasure to read every page of Chime.  Not a word was wasted, not an image used uncertainly, and I could picture every strange event quite vividly.  Whatever magical power Ms. Billingsley has over language, I’d make a few blood sacrifices to get a taste of it, myself.
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My complaints about this book are very few and not too consequential.  I don’t really like the title; it doesn’t have much to do with the majority of the novel.  But it’s not a big deal, the title isn’t horrible.  It just doesn’t hint at the general swampiness, the creeping sorrow, or the sharp dialogue which I enjoyed so much.  On that note, the Chime Child and some of the other minor characters weren’t as fleshed out as maybe they could have been.  There is so much going on below the somewhat-puritanical surface of Swampsea, and I wanted to understand every single secret.  Secrets are the whole point of Chime; how they can control us and turn us into something we’re not.  But most characters’ stories are pretty much left alone, unless they have anything directly to do with Briony’s.  I suppose that’s only fair, but I hate it when my curiosity isn’t satisfied.  The Chime Child only makes a few appearances, despite the incredible cool-ness of her job description.  Seeing “Old Ones” and dealing out death sentences: what a lady!  I wish there had been a few pages dedicated to such details, as well as to the other characters who made Swampsea such a fascinating stage for this story.
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There’s also the question of romance.  Eldric is staying in the Parsonage with Briony, Rose, and the girls’ father.  It’s not too surprising that things must escalate for the sake of the story.  I’m pleased to report that Briony and Eldric start out by developing an honest and entertaining friendship, forming a secret brotherhood and starting inside jokes just because they’ve been thrown together by circumstance.  He’s a city boy, and lives life at more her speed than anyone in her own village, so I didn’t find their interest in one another too forced.  What a damned relief!  My one complaint on the matter would be the sudden inclusion of another woman after Eldric’s affections.  The fashionable lady who is drawn to his artistic endeavours and starts turning up everywhere has a mysterious secret which makes her a little more interesting, but on the whole I thought her character was mostly unnecessary.  Jealousy made Briony catty rather than sharp, but even though this may have been an important layer to her character, the dangers presented by beautiful, manipulative Leanne weren’t nearly as interesting as the dangers presented by the swamp, the townsfolk, and Briony herself.  The matter was resolved satisfactorily, but it was probably my least favourite part of the book.
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Those tiny issues aside, though, I will reiterate that I absolutely adored Chime.  It’s just the sort of book I was wanting to read: intense and dark, but without the oh-help-the-world-will-end-if-we-don’t-save-it drama.  The drama here was powerful because we care about the characters and don’t want to see their lives turned upside down.  The rest of England — indeed the rest of the world — would go on without Swampsea if it had to, but that’s one of the many reasons I was so desperate to find out what would happen.  Magic isn’t always big and grand, it can (and should) be organic and subtle, earthly and timeless, with roots in one strange scene.  Chime gets this just right, on every single page.  The murky swamp and the dark corners of the town are each fraught with peril, and our narrator’s mind hasn’t much more hope, but in the end most mysteries will come to light.  What these answers might reveal about our heroine, her family, and her conviction in her own wickedness must remain to be seen.  Read the book to find out.  It’s beautiful and you’ll probably love it.

Some St Patrick’s Day Reading Suggestions

Way way back in 2011, in honor of Bloomsday (even though I couldn’t actually finish UlyssesI listed three examples of good Irish books to read.  Well, I figure it’s about time I expanded that list a little.  There are probably hundreds of Irish books I could recommend for the occasion, and even more which are inspired by that marvelous and literary country. But we’ve not got time to sort through a list of titles longer than the road is long, so here are some of my particular favorites chosen from the crowd:

The Burning Of Bridget Cleary is an astoundingly compelling book which Jane Yolen recommended to me years ago.  I usually have trouble getting into nonfiction, but this true story is so strange, so twisted, and so evocative of more magical times that I get fully absorbed every time I go back and read it.  The Burning of Bridget Cleary is the true story of a village in county Tipperary who believe that a clever and slightly strange woman, Bridget, is a changeling and to get rid of the evil faery spirits they burn her. Even her husband believes this to be true. Did I mention that this incident happened in 1895? That’s not much more than a century ago! I re-read the book while I was in Ireland last year, and looked at all the old cottages and the sprawling farms under the spell of this tragedy whenever I rode past small villages on the bus.  It’s a book you won’t soon forget, and shows how superstition and fear can influence whole communities through the lens of this one tragic event.  Angela Bourke is an excellent authority on the subject; she speaks Irish and lectures on the language and Irish oral tradition in several respected universities in Ireland and America. I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in Irish folklore, 19th century history, and even true crime.

When I was a teenager, I picked up John The Revelator by Peter Murphy randomly one day because it had a crow on the spine, but lo and behold it was about two things I love: childhood and Ireland. I was told it compared to an Irish, modern Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and being one of Mark Twain’s biggest fans I purchased this book immediately. While I wouldn’t necessarily say it was as good as Tom Sawyer, John The Revelator gave a lasting impression of what it was like to come of age in the South East of Ireland under the guidance of a very sick mother, a nosy and intrusive neighbor (the perfect caricature of the traditional well-to-do old Irish woman), and a mischievous and persuasive best friend. The book tackles religion, the law, loyalty, and innocence without ever becoming too preachy, and in fact the moralizing characters are generally disliked. How could it be otherwise when the narrator is relatively normal boy with a slightly unhealthy obsession with bugs? There is also a certain creepy atmosphere of doom and very-Irish-gloom throughout the whole novel which, naturally, I rather enjoyed.

I read Edna O’Brien’s memoir Country Girl over the summer, upon my bookshop manager’s recommendation (although he wasn’t my manager yet at the time, I’ve just always trusted his suggestions).  I actually didn’t know much about Ms. O’Brien before I read the book, but she wrote so beautifully about growing up in rural Ireland, and then about growing into a writer while trying to make a life in bigger cities, that I felt like I’d known her for ages as I read.  Memoirs aren’t always my cup of tea, but when the writer can describe the setting for her own life’s story in such vivid and amusing detail as this, I can be won over completely.  I particularly like her memories of being a young child in a small town – so different from my own childhood, and yet she captures the aches and joys of being young and in the country so accurately I forgot that I didn’t grow up in the same time period and place.  The later half of the book has some great details about her famous friends, as well, though I preferred the early half simply for the setting. 

If you’re after good memoirs about decades past in Ireland, also check out Are You Somebody: The Accidental Memoir Of A Dublin Woman by Nuala O’Faolain.

My favorite Irish children’s book might be The Hounds Of The Morrigan by Pat O’Shea.  I wish wish wish it were still more readily available, but since it came out over two decades ago you’ll probably have to find it either from used bookshops or appeal to your trusty librarians.  This is a fantasy adventure in a similar style to Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series or even Dianna Wynne Jones’s children’s books, but with a wonderfully hilarious style akin to Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.  Two young Dubliners – 10 year old Pidge and his hilarious little sister Bridget – encounter figures straight out of Irish mythology as they embark on an epic adventure, hotly pursued by the hound servants of the Morrigan, who wants to take control of a mysterious old book Pidge has come across.  The range of characters is spectacular, and the story moves along at a sprightly pace.  I loved this one as a middle schooler, but re-read it in University and was happy to recognize even more references to the legends and folktales I’ve read along the course of my life.  Highly recommended to anyone who misses the fantasy books of the past few decades, children and adults alike, as well as to people who like their Celtic Mythology to be lightened with a bit of clever, youthful humor.

Finally, I would be much remiss if I didn’t mention my beloved W.B Yeats.  I was lucky enough to see a whole exhibit devoted to his life and works at Trinity University last year, and have been a big fan of his writing for a long time.  I’ll admit that I only understand about 70% of his poems – the more metaphysical stuff goes right over my head – but he has such a varied and impressive collection of work there’s bound to be a poem which speaks right to the soul of pretty much everyone.  Most of my favorite English-language poems from Ireland were written by this fellow, and if you haven’t read at least one of his poems yet, do so without any further delay! Yeats covers pretty much every subject that I care about: Ireland, faeries, the troubles of growing old, and history. Actually, one of his poems, “To Ireland in The Coming Times” covers the majority of these subjects at once. My favorite of his poems has to be “The Stolen Child,” which I first heard while studying Irish Dance as a child, and I think it captures the appeal of Irish faery-lore pretty damned perfectly, and childhood as well.   Other favorite poems of his include “A Faery Song,”, “A Crazed Girl”, “The Wild Swans At Coole”, and “When You Are Old”.  Seriously, just go to the library, grab a collection of Yeats’s poems, flip open to a random page, and read what you will.  Flip around until you find something which has the power to move you to tears.  I promise you there’s at least one poem which will make you want to weep in the hills of Ireland somewhere until you can weep no more.

Other suggestions for newer Irish books, which I’ve browsed through at my bookshop but haven’t yet read, include:

The Gamal by Ciaran Collins

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

The River And Enoch O’Reilly by Peter Murphy

City Of Bohane by Kevin Barry

Greyhound Of A Girl by Roddy Doyle (a children’s novel by the author of Guts and The Corrections)

Any favorite Irish books to add to the list?  What are you reading this St Patrick’s Day?  I’m planning to eat soda bread, play the tin whistle very badly, and recite The Stolen Child at anyone who crosses my path.

High School Books Part II: After The Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away

Star Ratings

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age recommendation: 14+

The next library book in my high school novel stack was the first YA book by Joyce Carol Oates I had ever read.  I’ve heard good things about Big Mouth, Ugly Girl, but I ended up choosing After The Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away because I liked the cover and the long title was irresistibly intriguing.  This was a much darker story than The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and while I tend to prefer funny young adult books over tragic ones I will say that Oates made a lasting impression on me with this novel.  The writing was poetic and the narrative was fluid: I found myself so deep inside Jenna’s tumultuous mind that it got hard to extract my own thoughts and impressions from her stream-of-consciousness style and memorable voice.  

The un-glamourous school setting in After The Wreck was vivid, chaotic, and realistic.  It reminded me of the middle school I had attended, though the characters were older and, therefore, the stakes were higher.  We read about Jenna’s high school experiences after she recovers from a terrible car wreck – one which kills her mother and changes her forever – and moves to a new town to live with her aunt and start a new life.  After The Wreck is one part tragedy, one part angsty teen nightmare about addiction, one part coming of age story, and one part meditation on grief and forgiveness.  Because the narrator is going through her own personal development as well as the unimaginable suffering of blaming herself for a parent’s death, the difficulties she faces are more dire than any which I experienced as a teenager, but the difficulties she experiences at school are universal and unavoidable.  Untrustworthy and manipulative friends, unrequited love, substance abuse, frustratingly bad communication between adults and teenagers: these conflicts rear their ugly heads in most teenagers’ lives despite their varying backgrounds or past experiences.

Oates writes about the distinction between Jenna’s life “before the wreck” and “after the wreck” to keep the plot visible and clear, but the story really focuses on facing internal fears and external pressures.  In her new town, Jenna meets a mysteriously aloof boy called Crow who inspires her to confront her memories and overwhelming sense of guilt, but he, like the other supporting characters in After The Wreck, seemed a little two-dimensional compared to Oates’s complex protagonist.  I sometimes wished that we could get a more detailed look at such compelling figures as Crow and the volatile teenagers who adopt Jenna into their social circle, but I do think that the decision to keep the entire story from her limited point of view was important to maintain the story’s style and tone.

I would recommend After The Wreck to older teenaged readers who have a good chunk of time to devote to reading a harrowing (but ultimately hopeful) book.  Joyce Carol Oates’s writing style is so absorbing and compelling that it’s best to finish this book in one day, or one might risk going about their real life as though they were still in Jenna’s fragile consciousness.  Oates portrays the ferocity with which young people must face the worst parts of growing up in sympathetic detail.  I may not have laughed much while reading After The Wreck, but each page brought a flood of memories from my own angst-ridden teenage years to mind, and I vote that’s one sign of a well-done high school book.