April 2006

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Young Adult Books Go to War

We all know that life in New York City in the late 19th century was gritty. We saw Gangs of New York we learned about Tammany Hall in school (hopefully) and we have an idea about just how rough it must have been for those people without money or connections who tried to survive in what are now the five boroughs.

Or maybe none of us have a clue and no one has ever bothered to tell us about it either.

My mother’s family is from the city; pretty much all of them were Irish. My grandfather’s people landed in Manhattan in the 1880s and my grandmother’s in the Bronx earlier than that. They were poor and my grandmother had a ton of stories about what they did to get by while having several children, some of whom survived and some of whom didn’t. The important thing though is that none of them were ever alone, they always had family to back them up, save them from illness or disaster, and chip in a few dollars when living expenses got critical. My ancestors were lucky. Kim Taylor has written a historical novel about the ones who didn’t have that safety net, young men and women who were out on the streets and trying to make it with little more than their bodies and their wits. They didn’t have a lot of choices and in Bowery Girl Taylor doesn’t shy away from telling it like it is: “We’ve got jobs, thank you,” Mollie said. “I’m a thief and she’s a whore. We could teach classes if you like.”

And that is how it was for Mollie Flynn and Annabelle Lee and everyone else they were friends with. In some respects Bowery Girl is hard to read because even though Mollie and Annabelle meet a “do-gooder” and begin trying to change their lives, it is still impossible to believe that something bad isn’t going to happen. The struggle to keep a roof over their heads and eat more than once a day is just so hard that you can see how difficult it is for them to leave the lives they know behind. Even though they can barely survive as criminals, at least they seem to be able to do it. Going straight doesn’t promise any great reward. Working in a factory or as an office girl will still only pay them barely enough to live. It’s an impossible situation made all the more difficult by their own confusion over what to do. Girls like Mollie and Annabelle desperately wanted a happily ever after, but Kim Taylor shows just how hard it was for them to have had one.

Bowery Girl is riveting because you will want something good for these girls so badly that you won’t dare leave their world for a moment. They are the best of friends, friends who would have stood by each other in any era or location, and are stuck with what they can do to make their worlds better in the difficult time and place they were born into. I knew that their plan of crossing the Brooklyn Bridge was not going to save them, but I wanted it for them.

I wish that my great uncle Martin had not died alone in a hallway, and my great grandfather Thomas had not drank himself into a grave at the age of 43. I wish none of them had been transformed from the pictures of hopeful boys and girls they were before they gave up on their generation’s hopes and dreams.  I wish that poverty did not crush the best and brightest time and time again. Girls like Mollie and Annabelle are still out there, writes Taylor in her Author’s Note, and they are still hoping their friendship will be enough to see them through.

Do I even need to mention how a book about 19th century New York could remind me so much of New Orleans? When will we ever learn to end poverty? When will we ever learn?
Switching gears a bit, Janet Taylor Lisle has take the real story of the Black Duck, a rum runner who lost most of its crew in an unexplained altercation with the Coast Guard in 1929, and turned it into an excellent story of two boys, their friendship and what happened to their town in the era after Prohibition. I was so happy to read this book as it has been awhile since I’ve read a straightforward mystery that involved boys and danger and cool stuff like fast boats and the mafia. This is what boys like to read, people! They like to read about how you have to stay calm when you find a dead body and what you should do when someone is hot on your trail and you’re just a kid on a bike racing down a dark gravel road. Actually, boys and girls like to read this sort of book, it’s just that it seems most of them are written from a girl’s perspective and I’m quite happy to find one that has such rich male characters. The fact that the whole thing is based on truth just makes it that much more thrilling and will hopefully spark some interest in history for readers.

Our heroes are Reuben and Jeddy, two fourteen-year olds who have been friends forever. They live in small town Rhode Island where life has always been quite dull, but as more and more rum runners are using the state’s shores to land illegal liquor from offshore barges, things are starting to heat up. At first it seems pretty awesome to be in the middle of it all -- even to find a dead body on the beach -- but soon enough their friendship starts to fracture under the pressure of what is right and wrong. Jeddy’s father is the Chief of Police and he is under tremendous pressure to catch the runners from one side of the law and look the other way from the other. Reuben’s father manages the local store, a crucial facility for the townspeople, but is also forced to make decisions about the liquor trade as the story progresses. There are no easy answers for anyone and as it begins to look as if the boys know more than they are telling about the body. That is when Reuben, the narrator, discovers just how serious a business running liquor can be, and just how completely unprepared he is for dealing with it.

One neat thing Lisle does with this book is set part of it in the present day with Reuben the subject of an interview from a teenage journalist. I really liked this aspect of the book as it allowed the older Reuben to reconsider the impact of the long ago events and it also answered what happened to everyone in the years after the loss of the Black Duck. She also follows up with an Author’s Note at the end explaining what really happened to the speedboat and her own personal connection to its dangerous times.

You really could not ask for a more compelling young adult adventure novel than Black Duck. It’s well written, the events are fascinating and the characters all complex and intriguing. I really liked it and I’m sure it will be a winner with boys (and girls) who like their stories fast and furious.

While I was reading M.E. Kerr’s Your Eyes in Stars I kept trying to figure out just how I should classify this book. It is set in the 1930s so it is certainly a historical drama, but it is also fundamentally about the friendship of two young girls, so it seems in that respect to be a coming of age story. The father of one of the characters, Jessie, is the Warden of the local prison, leading to a discussion of crime and punishment (and John Dillinger’s escape and later capture are points the girls feel strongly about). Elisa’s family is German and in the States only for her father’s work, and there are several moments where cultural differences, both between the girls and their parents, become significant to the plot.

There is a lot going on with this book and it can not be easily pigeon-holed into any genre description. (Of course that’s why we just like to call them all “young adult” and leave it at that, right?) Through the first part of the book, as the girls become friends and find themselves fascinated by the life of one of the prison’s inmates, Your Eyes in Stars was an easygoing read with discussions about dresses and parties and the love life of Jessie’s older brother. But then there is a prison break and a death, and a sudden trip and Germany. Your Eyes in Stars becomes the story of all the young girls in the 1930s.

In the second part of the book letters are exchanged between Jessie and Elisa, from New York to Berlin. There are also letters from a mutual friend whose family is German and travels back with his father to care for his aging grandfather. In 50 pages or so, Kerr shows how easily the lives they all enjoyed in small town Cayuta, New York, disappear into a haze of changing times and sudden miseries. Jessie finds Elisa slipping away, and her letters become more desperate for a response. In the end, it is Elisa’s mother who replies, after the war, and it is then that Jessie learns just how far apart the two friends became.

In the most amazing way, Your Eyes in Stars shows how World War II touched so many people and managed to place itself in the middle of a small town that once cared only about parades and the closing of the local shoe store. The novel lulls you with quiet lives and then in a jolt shows how easily violence can engulf an entire country. People disappear and die in this book, they make good decisions and bad, they allow themselves to be fooled and lied to. Mostly though, they live everyday trying to make their way in the world; trying to do what is right. It is so simple from our vantage point to judge them, to wonder how they didn’t notice, or didn’t act, but I can’t help but think in fifty years we will be looked upon just as stupidly by those who gaze at our trivial lives. What could Jessie have done? What did Elisa need to do? Why did they all make the choices they did? You will have to read the book to find out. On the last page you will wonder, how could this have all happened -- how could lives be transformed in such dramatic ways? It’s amazing what Kerr has done with this book.

With Warrior Girl Pauline Chandler has crafted a young adult version of the events surrounding the life and death of French heroine and Catholic saint, Joan of Arc. I am a huge fan of Joan’s -- more than any other saint she is the one that has always made me believe that there just might be something to the whole notion of God speaking to “commoners” and showing them the way to achieve greatness far beyond their own capabilities. Joan’s life on the battlefield, and her death at the hands of the British with the help of the clergy and the complicity of the French king, is so well documented that it brooks no argument from historians. We know for sure that she was an illiterate farm girl when she claimed that God and his angels spoke to her and told her she would lead a great army to bring French rule back to France. She took her unshakeable conviction that she was an instrument of the Lord’s will all the way to Charles, the dauphin with royal blood who had the rightful claim to the throne. She persuaded him to give her an army and with it she freed Orleans and then fought her way to Reims where Charles would be named King.

And then she was captured and found herself abandoned by the country she had saved and even, perhaps, by her God. She was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431, found guilty of witchcraft and heresy. But France knew freedom now, because of her, and although the war between France and Britain continued, it was a war that in all likelihood would have never even been fought without Joan to spark her future King and call his army onto the battlefield. She was the legendary Maid of Lorraine and she changed the history of the world.

How do you not love a story like that?

Chandler has taken Joan’s life and reinvented it with the character of Mariane, a fictitious younger cousin. Through Mariane’s eyes we see how Joan accepted the call of the voices and left her family (with her brother’s aid) and persuaded men to come to her cause and fight. Mariane is with Joan every step of the way as she constantly uses her faith to compel others not to retreat. The battle scenes are very detailed, showing just how hard it was to fight in the 15th century (unbelievable!). As Joan closes in on her goal she finds an amazing support from the people in the villages and towns, who have heard the stories of the “Maid” and rally to her banner, relieved that someone has finally come to save them.

In the midst of this larger story, Mariane finds herself embroiled in a mystery concerning her father, a soldier who died at the Battle of Agincourt before she was born. She is an orphan when the book begins, after her mother is brutally murdered by British soldiers. Her legacy seems to be little more than stories of a soldier’s bravery but gradually, as she follows Joan, she finds herself learning more about who her father was and what he bequeathed to his child. Eventually Mariane must leave Joan to fight her own battle against a man who is determined to steal everything from her. This sets up an interesting dichotomy in the storyline, as Joan continues to soldier on from one battlefield to another and Mariane finds herself running an estate and caring for the peasants. By doing this, Chandler shows how the big picture of France was often lost to its people who were so distant from the centers of power and the action of war. And she also explains how Joan’s achievements could be known to those in the thick of politics but lost to the people who did not see her deeds up close, and thus did not recognize her contribution until it was too late to save her.

There has been much consideration over the centuries as to why Joan seemed to change her story in the end, give up her soldier’s dress and agreed with the claims of those who spoke out against her. Chandler places Mariane at her side as Joan is imprisoned and questioned and shows how difficult it was for anyone to cling to their faith in such circumstance. It’s easy for us to question her actions now, but we were not with her then and we don't know how much she probably never wanted the burden of having to save her nation.

The book could have ended with Joan’s death but Chandler gives it a lovely epilogue, catching up with Mariane and the book’s other characters over twenty years later when Joan’s mother was able to formally rehabilitate Joan, allowing her to be posthumously found innocent of witchcraft. This could not save her daughter, obviously, but it did salvage her memory and her legacy. In 1920, Joan was elevated to the station of sainthood and began to formally provide an inspiration to all young people who learned of her courage and sacrifice.

Warrior Girl rescues Joan from the textbooks and religious tracts; it brings her back to the adventure she lived. It’s an excellent story with elements of mystery and intrigue. And hey, how many books about 15th century battles have you read lately anyway?

A different war is at the heart of Amaryllis, Curtis Crist-Evans’s stunning novel about Vietnam. My first attraction to the book was very personal; most of it takes place in South Florida in areas I’m very familiar with. The two brothers in the book, Jimmy and Frank, are also surfers and avid beach goers, someone I could certainly identify with after growing up on Florida’s Space Coast. The Staples family is in crisis for most of Amaryllis largely because the father has a drinking problem and older brother Frank isn’t so interested in pretending that it doesn’t exist (or affect the rest of them). He joins the Army as a chance to get away from all the questions at home and finds himself in the jungle before he has any chance to consider just what he has done. In letters home to Jimmy, Frank describes the war and bit by bit.

There are a couple of passages in this book that really blew me away. At one point, before he left, Frank had saved the life of another surfer who was attacked by a shark when they were near the wreck of the Amaryllis. It was a great moment of personal heroism but he did it without thinking because the other boy was in trouble and he was in a position to help. Later, though, in Vietnam, Frank finds himself deeply changed from the boy who would risk everything without a second thought. He writes Jimmy about it afterwards:

Pretty soon, we got word to circle back and try to find the spot where the attack came from. As I raised myself up and stood, I stopped and stared for a long time at the guy who had been crossing the field. He quit making any sound at all, and I knew he was dead. I could see he’d lost a leg and a part of one arm, and I thought again of that kid by the Amaryllis. If I’d gone out there to get this guy, would he be okay? What is happening to me? A living, breathing boy my own age walks across a field with a smile on his face and buys the big one. And what do I do? I hide in the tall grass and trees, waiting for the shooting to stop, listening to him beg me to come and get him. Jimmy, I listened to him die. And the whole time I was shaking from the inside out because I needed a fix.

The whole book reads like that, one amazing exchange after another as Frank opens his heart to Jimmy and Jimmy struggles to hold his small piece of the world together back home. It’s not a physically intense book -- it’s not full of battle descriptions like so many other war novels -- but it tells its tragic story with a kind of screaming moan that reminded me of every decent blues song I’ve ever heard. This is a family in trouble, this is a boy far from home who is in trouble, this is a boy at the breakfast table who is in trouble. And the hurricanes come and ships wreck and girls tries to save them and you don’t know who will make it. But really, it’s a war story, so you know nothing good will come of it in the end.

Finally I don’t usually recommend  picture books as a source for young adult historical fiction, but The Letter Home and Landed are not common books. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I saw Letter in Front Street’s catalog, but its incredible drawings immediately got my attention. I wanted to see just what author/illustrator Timothy Decker did with this story about a WWI medic and his letter to his small son. I read it once, and then again, and I keep picking it up. This book is breathtaking -- not in a dazzling sort of way, but in the quietest way possible. It is one of the best books I have read this year. Decker’s story is simple: a young medic (he wears an armband on his coat with a red cross) is writing a letter, one “I did not want to write to you until I could say that I would be home soon.” He recounts the voyage by boat, the march through fields and forests and “then into nothing.” They played hide and seek and “must have looked like schoolboys” but the days and nights passed slowly. In the end, after learning that they will be going home soon, he remembers a man who was in his care “back in ’17.” The man told him an old prayer: “Compassion as action to ease the pain of the world.” And in the end, as the boy stands at the mailbox and reads the letter, a soldier watches from across the road and the reader hopes that is the medic, home at last. You hope, even though you can not see his face, that it is him.

The prayer line in the book comes from a Buddhist prayer, and is a perfect expression of the battlefield work that is done by medics; work that could transform the world if it was embraced by every man, woman and child as a way of life. I do not know how Timothy Decker came to know these words, or why he chose to apply them to World War I, but this story with its spare and haunting artwork, makes a deafening statement about peace and war. It’s not a story for young children, but for teens, for adults, for history buffs of all ages and backgrounds, it’s a treasure. I thought it was simply beautiful. As for Landed, this story about a young Chinese boy emigrating to the U.S. in the late 19th century was an eye-opener on every level. I had no idea of the strict rules surrounding the emigration of Chinese or the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act which governed how an emigrant could gain entrance. The tests that young Sun is forced to pass, concerning everything from the location of rooms in his home to the compass directions outside his windows and doors, seem mind boggling. The main issue for young boys coming to America is whether they are “true sons” or “paper sons” and proving the difference is a lot harder than most twelve-year-olds would be capable of.

Milly Lee has perfectly captured and retold a true story of her husband’s family. She has also rescued from forgotten history the stories of so many young boys who languished on Angel Island, California for months, or even years, as they struggled to pass their tests or face deportation home. The fact that some of the boys are pretending to be sons of immigrants when they are not isn’t in dispute, but I wish I knew why it mattered. Millions of Irish and Germans and French and everybody else came to this country and no one asked them if their bedroom window faced north or south. The fact that the US government was determined to be so choosey about the Chinese is due to simple racism and nothing else. Lee’s story, with Yangsook Choi’s accompanying emotional illustrations, brings to light a period in U.S. history that is critically overdue for popular study. Because the book is a bit wordy, (and I mean that in a good way) it is suited best for grade schoolers who are reading on their own. They certainly need to read it though, we all do. This is one history lesson that is long overdue.