Familiar Faces, New Stories
Oh, Emily Dickinson. Canonized as a literary saint, she is one of the first American poets we learn about in school. With a personal life shrouded in mystery, Dickinson is endlessly interesting in the way of so many other famous women writers, but without the horrifying end of, say, a Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf. When I was young, the story of Dickinson in her quiet room in Amherst raised dozens of questions; she was always described as ill in that vaguely puzzling nineteenth-century sort of way that seemed perfectly acceptable but explained nothing. Of course Lyndall Gordon's Lives Like Loaded Guns has pretty much dismantled most of those old interpretations of her life, but for me she it's the saintly image that stuck.
Two recent books for teens tackle Dickinson's legacy in new and fresh ways. Kathryn Burak's Emily's Dress and Other Missing Things and Nobody's Secret by Michaela MacColl make the poet come alive to readers, something I believe is quite important and transfers well to what is learned in the classroom. These are two good books, enjoyable books, but they also build curiosity about Dickinson and will hopefully bring more readers to her work.
Emily's Dress and Other Missing Things is set in the present day with high school senior Claire, who is dealing with some intense personal issues. Her mother was successful in her third suicide attempt the previous year, and not too long after, Claire's best friend disappeared. Her father, who loves her dearly but has no idea how to help her, has moved them from Providence to Amherst in the hopes that with a clean slate Claire can get past her tragic past. Of course life is never as easy as getting a new zip code, and much of the book is about Claire figuring out how to do live with the way things are. Her affinity with Dickinson's story is made clear, and the many poetry excerpts included in the text, which Claire considers as she does her school assignments and works on her own writing, only bring Dickinson more alive. Considering what has happened to Claire, you can't read these lines and not feel a chill:
The last Night that She Lived
It was a Common Night
Except the Dying --
Later, while reading through some of her mother's old books, Claire writes a poem of her own which includes these lines:
And the way her notes in the margins, like stitches,
show you all the places where she felt
the insistent and jagged
little cuts of each new day.
In Amherst, Claire's papers receive the concerned attention of her English teacher and a college intern, Tate, who is assigned to her classroom. Her friendship with Tate becomes more and more tangled as the novel progresses, culminating in a wild confluence of circumstances that finds the two of them stealing Emily Dickinson's dress from the museum. After that they are bound together by a circumstance that requires careful fixing and it all gets more complicated when the cold missing person case involving Claire's old friend suddenly warms up.
Emily's Dress and Other Missing Things is eloquent and elegantly written. There is so much care placed in every single word, so much weight to this language while still managing to read as effortless. This is quietly beautiful about friendship and romance, about grief and family, about how you repair yourself when touched by tragedy. Claire is no freakishly smart pixie girl, she is angry and confused. But for as much as she needs saving, the brilliance of Kathryn Burak is to let this character actively take part in her own rescue. I loved this kid, and Tate, and her father and her new best friend and everyone else who takes part in this story. It's a thing of wonder Burak has created here; a story of how Emily Dickinson's words can reach across time and space and still inspire and still save.
Dickinson herself moves into the position of protagonist in Michaela MacColl's middle-grade historical mystery Nobody's Secret. A suspicious death plays a significant role in the novel, but this is still an exceedingly gentle story reminiscent of another time when the romantic plot is nothing more than a teenage girl's momentary crush and nefarious acts are hinted at rather than presented in blood-drenched pages.
As the book opens, fifteen-year-old Emily is a dreamy nineteenth-century girl detective, who sets off in search of clues when a good-looking stranger is found floating in her family's pond. She and the unnamed "Nobody" had enjoyed an innocent flirtation during a brief meeting a few days earlier and she feels compelled to uncover his secrets now, even though everyone else seems happy to regard the death as an accident. Aided by her sister "Vinnie" (stalwart Mary to her precocious Laura Ingalls), Emily is determined to establish the young man's identity and discover who in sedate Amherst would want him dead. Step by step, they follow clues that lead to a society scandal while trying to keep their mother in the dark and maintaining their own positions in society as "good girls."
MacColl is in comfortable territory here; she has written previously about young Queen Victoria and aviatrix Beryl Markham, and she infuses Nobody's Secret with many period details. In particular, the author places into sharp focus the sheer amount of physical work daily domestic life required of young women in 1846. These aspects of the story bring Nobody's Secret into Wilder and Alcott territory as Emily and Vinnie constantly find themselves stymied in their investigation by the drudgery of chores and their mother's watchful eye. Their discoveries are all the more impressive for the tricky path they must navigate to get to the bottom of the mystery.
Again, this is not a seat-of-your-pants adventure, and even with the moments of excitement the shocks are small and the threats light. (Emily, of course, will not die.) But MacColl's goal here is twofold: not only to give eight-to-twelve-year-olds a mystery but also to show the everyday life of this very famous poet when she was young. On that score in particular she succeeds quite well, giving us a curious Emily forever taking notes and always asking questions; clearly a writer in the making.
If ever there was a poet designed for teen girl appeal, Plath is the one. In Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953, author Elizabeth Winder focuses on the period of Plath's life most applicable to the YA audience. Detailing the experiences of Plath and her fellow interns as they spent one month at Mademoiselle ("the intellectual fashion magazine"), Pain, Parties, Work shows the writer first exhibiting her trademark determination and vulnerability. Mademoiselle was where she caught a long look at the writer's life as well as the dazzle of literary society. There was dating drama, dashed expectations, and professional and personal accomplishments and disappointments. As Winder illustrates through many interviews with those with her that summer and Plath's own journal excerpts, the Mademoiselle experience held as many negatives as positives, and the summer culminated in her much-documented suicide attempt once she returned home.
Winder is well aware of how much has been written about Plath, but by narrowing her focus so tightly she provides keen insight into the effect of this summer on Plath's life. June 1953 found Sylvia Plath taking a chance on the career she dreamed of and embracing the hopes of its success. The pressures put upon her and the other interns were not something she was prepared for, however, and the entire internship, like a mashup of The Devil Wears Prada and The Donna Reed Show, would prove to be extremely difficult for many of them. Coupled with all of this, of course, was the cultural clash between past and future that all young women were facing in the 1950s, as these interview excerpts from fellow interns show:
Neva Nelson: One of the last assignments that we competing girls had to complete was a survey on "our ideal man." It was assumed then that most girls went to college to husband-hunt, and Mademoiselle wanted to join in on the assumption that although we were all looking for careers, we still expected to find the right man and get married.
Gloria Kirshner: In the movie Mona Lisa Smile, Kirsten Dunst flings open the door to show her friends the new laundry room -- with her own new washer and dryer. It's hard to believe as a woman of these days -- but that was the tenor of the times.
Carole Levarn: I was told I would have won the Ernie Pyle Award -- but they'd never give it to a woman. I didn't even think twice about that statement or question it. Later I won the award in the 1970s. I've always loved reading the Sweetbriar alumni magazine. "Peaches Lilliard's husband Biff has just been promoted..." But what about Peaches?
Winder does an excellent job here of reminding readers that the much-lauded Plath was once a young woman like them (and consequently making The Bell Jar that much more relatable as well). In 1953, Plath was in New York and at her hopeful, shining best, and knowing what would come, even just a few months later, makes this brief glimpse into her life that much more stirring. Using the words of Plath herself and the young women who were with her gives Pain, Parties, Work considerably more power for teens as well. From Plath's journal:
Exhilarated. Can't stop thinking I am just beginning. In ten years I will be 30 and not ancient and maybe good. Hope. Prospects. Work though and I love it... I will work. All the boys, all the longing, then this perfection. Perfect love, whole living.
We are all so often on the edge of something more at twenty-one; a peek at the early route Plath and her friends took is a reminder of how tough it was simply to be an ambitious girl, and how easily such girls, still, can become lost.
Oh, holy hell -- Abraham Lincoln, Joshua Chamberlain, Winfield Hancock, Robert E. Lee and everyone -- every-fucking-one who was at Gettysburg. Happy sesquicentennial and have we revisited your actions those days in July 1863 enough? Can we revisit them enough? (The answers are "No" and "No.") If ever there was a group of men needing the alt-history treatment it is you, and thank the gods that Jack Campbell has been the one to do it.
The Last Full Measure is a novella of the war that didn't happen but is so dangerously close to our own Civil War that it serves to illuminate all the many ways in which we as a nation have come, time and again, perilously close to losing our way. Campbell has written a warning and wrapped it up in a new look at the bloodiest battle in American history. The men are all, heartbreakingly, just who they were. The only difference is what they are fighting for, and which side each of them have chosen.
Just picture it -- Lee is on the government side and Lincoln is the hope of revolutionaries determined to free the country from military control. Chamberlain has been sentenced to prison for daring to reveal the truth about George Washington -- that he "became president as a result of open, fair and free elections." Those are fighting words in this 1863, and soon enough Chamberlain, the college professor who really was a hero on the battlefield, finds himself confronting Lee as the "rebels" break Lincoln out of a military stockade. Consider this passage between Lee and Chamberlain to help sort things out:
Lee's face reddened. "I took an oath, sir. An oath to obey all lawful orders. Every action being ordered of me is in compliance with laws passed by the Congress, signed by the President and upheld by the Supreme Court. Can you say the same?"
"The congress is owned, the president installed by the army and the Supreme Court packed with those who would agree to any expansion of the power of the few at the expense of the many."
"They are the laws of this land," Lee insisted.
Chamberlain shook his head. "This republic was founded by men who argued that unjust laws must be opposed."
If you know your Civil War history, then you know who lives and dies at Gettysburg, and Campbell presents no surprises on that front. (Poor Winfield Hancock!) But the reasons behind the fighting, the deep conflicts each man must face are all turned inside out just enough to make readers reconsider what we fought for then and also, one hopes, what we stand for today. I love a good alternate history and The Last Full Measure is an excellent one, but more importantly, it's exciting and provocative and more than once deeply profound. Teenagers bored with American History class will find new inspiration here -- it's not to be missed.
Finally, I have been sorely conflicted over Steven Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen's graphic novel Genius. The story itself is fascinating -- intense, unusual, and certainly thoughtful. But at its heart it is the story of a man trying to figure out how to be a better husband, better father and most importantly, a better man. Even though it was published for young adults (by the always impressive First Second), I just wasn't sold on how well it really fits that audience. I'm still not sure, but if Ted's story makes anyone think about being the best sort of person he or she can be, then it succeeds, and that's all really matters.
In the opening pages, with Kristiansen's spare, moody art to guide us (an excellent match for the book), we learn that Ted was a boy genius, became a physicist, and is now married with two children and holding onto his position at Pasadena Technical Institute by his fingertips. Ted has not been brilliant for a while, and he is surrounded by geniuses who are kicking it far better than he. Ted needs a break or he's going to lose his job, and because this is all he has ever done -- hired while still a student himself -- there's not much on the horizon for him to do with his life if he loses his career.
At home, his thirteen-year-old son is thinking way too much about sex and possibly drifting away from him, though Ted is a pretty good dad and doing his best to keep the boy at his side. Their relationship is really quite lovely. His daughter might just be the same kind of brilliant as he was, which is both wonderful and terrifying, his wife is sick and getting sicker, and his father-in-law, who lives with them, apparently has a secret given to him decades before by Albert Einstein. As Einstein is "god" to Ted, the revelation that this secret, which may or may not exist, is locked in the older man's slightly demented head, rapidly becomes Ted's obsession. The secret could be the thing to make him brilliant again, it could save his job, and if he has his job than that might save everything. Now if only his father-in-law could remember and if only he would tell Ted and if only his wife's run-of-the-mill illness wasn't rapidly becoming far more terrifying than everything else.
Slowly, with Einstein filling his thoughts and becoming the sounding board Ted needs to navigate his increasingly turbulent days, real life forces changes that cannot be ignored. This is when Ted must decide what matters most both in his life and the lives of the people he cares about. He must decide the best way to live as a genius.
Genius is very quietly about very serious things, and what has stood out for me more than anything after turning the last pages is just how quiet the story is. For all that many powerful things occur in the plot, the tone is subtle, the language understated, and the characters wary of sudden moves. There is not a lot of screaming, which is a relief, because in most parts of life, screaming doesn't happen much. Genius is simply a peek at how complicated adulthood can be, even if you're smarter than the rest. It's going to be a significant read for some teens, and I hope they find it and embrace the humanity of Albert Einstein, and all the wonder that his secrets likely possess.
COOL READ: Jill Corcoran has edited a new poetry collection for children that is a nice introduction to several largely unknown great people (with a few famous ones tossed in). Dare to Dream... Change the World, with illustrations by J. Beth Jepson, includes poems from such well-known children's and teen book authors as Jane Yolen, Lee Bennett Hopkins, J. Patrick Lewis, Stephanie Hempill, Ellen Hopkins, and Curtis Crisler. Using a multitude of poetic forms, the contributors write about adults and children who made a difference while also illuminating those acts with other nonspecific poems that build off the acts of their subjects.
Standouts include Curtis Crisler on Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jacqui Robbins on playing ball (even when you aren't good), and Alan Katz on Steven Spielberg. Brief biographies of the subjects accompany each two-page spread, providing just enough information to answer obvious questions and spur further research for the very curious. With big, colorful illustrations that jump off the page, Dare to Dream... Change the World is a nice addition to any child's nightstand.