September 2013

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Living in a Springsteen Song

In his blurb, Colum McCann says Mark Slouka's Brewster is "...like entering the heart of a Bruce Springsteen song -- all grace, all depth, all sinew." Without a doubt, Slouka's novel dwells deep in Springsteen territory, in the places where young men and women feel trapped and lost in dying towns, desperate families, and days full of denied longing that provide no opportunity for redemption. Novelist Andre Dubus III long ago claimed this place as his own, and now Slouka shows just how at home he is there as well. This stark, brutal, powerfully honest look at teenagers Ray and Jon and their friends is suffused with every verse of Springsteen's "The River" and Dubus's Townie, and it takes readers line by line into the inescapable tragedy that stalks so many teens who try to get out and sadly never do.

Set in the small town of Brewster, New York during the height of the Vietnam War (1968), Slouka's novel centers on sixteen-year-old Jon who is barely hanging on. As the sole surviving child of immigrant parents who have never stopped mourning the death of their other son years before, Jon is adrift, ignored and living the world of Ordinary People without the Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore star power. What keeps him going is a cadre of friends, all with their own small worries and despairs to deal with. The world is leaving these kids behind, and if they aren't careful, they are going to lose their minds while trying to make it into adulthood. Here's a bit of life on Jon's all too ordinary middle class street, shortly after he sees his respected neighbor hit his own teenager daughter in their driveway:

She was still looking out the window. "It's always like this, you know -- What they did to Martin, what they're doin' in Vietnam. It's their answer -- killing. My dad's no different -- if it scares you, hit it. Even if it's your daughter."

"They" of course are the adults, and Brewster presents a scathing look at parents who at best don't seem to know how to take care of their kids and at worst are the monsters their children should run from. Jon and his friends know that the way they are living can't be everything but how to find happiness when their own parents have failed so utterly at capturing it is a nagging mystery and constant frustration. Even more than the violence that explodes in the final pages, that endless pining for something else is what powers the book.

Here is another example of Slouka giving his characters not a coming-of-age "voice" or "experience" but rather a primal scream:

Even now it's amazing to think I managed to do anything at all those few months, to answer questions about Ezra Pound's black branch and the nitrogen cycle... as if all the time a storm wasn't raging in my skull. Only Ray and Karen understood, Karen because she could hear what you were saying even when you weren't, because she could see exactly how fucked up you were and care for you anyway, Ray because he had his own storm, twice as black and twice as loud, and recognized the look.

It is no surprise when the final pages of Brewster are turned and the damage is revealed to be so deep. But Ray and Jon in particular will stay with readers for a long, long time. Without hijinks, or classroom drama, no manic pixie dreamgirls or vampire romance, Slouka gives readers a coming-of-age novel they will recognize and embrace on a visceral level. Set in the mid-twentieth century, Brewster is a novel for the twenty-first; it's a message of survival that transcends time and place. My heart beat for these characters every step of the way, and I'm still not ready to let them go.

In Beth Kephart's Dangerous Neighbors, a young man, William, who acted as a bit of an "animal whisperer," was introduced. Kephart's affection for the character led her to write a novel set five years earlier that tells his story and Dr. Radway's Sarsaparilla Resolvent is the bracing result. Dark and brooding, Dr. Radway's takes readers to the harsh streets of 1871 Philadelphia, where a poor family can lose a father to political machinations that send him to prison and a son can be murdered at the hands of the law.

Kephart places her characters firmly within the territory of BBC America's Copper here (except it's not Five Points), and William's life is grim. His mother is nearly destroyed by the loss of husband and son, his father toils in prison, longing for the sound of freedom's whistle through the bars (shades of Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison), and William is sworn to avenge his brother, while also struggling to save his mother, perhaps through a miracle liquid like the one that shares the book's title.

There are moments of kindness and levity, but still and all this is a work that pulls no punches about just how much poverty sucks. William is smart and his friend "Career" is determined and yet the reader knows their options are limited by circumstances they did not choose but must wrestle with nonetheless. Poor is poor, and fighting your way out of it in that particular time and place seems impossible.

Dr. Radway's Sarsaparilla Resolvent is about city streets and searches for hope and a lost goat and lost dogs and big plans and those who are stuck in a gutter life but still extend a hand to help others get out. My only complaint involves the physical design of the book, which sends the text deep into the binding and forces a near breaking of the spine in order to read. Fortunately, William's voice breaks through the page with ease, and readers will overcome this minor annoyance to share in his struggles and triumphs.

While reading Truus Matti's sweet middle grade novel Mister Orange, translated by Laura Watkinson, I was reminded of Sydney Taylor's All-of-a-Kind Family stories, which I discovered on a lucky summer afternoon years ago at my hometown library. For all that Matti's novel is about a young boy befriending the great artist Piet Mondrian and set about fifteen years after Taylor's delightful family walked similar New York streets, Mister Orange has the same sense of love and caring that fills Taylor's work.

In the same way Taylor's child protagonists find their way in the world under the guidance of their endlessly patient parents, so does Matti's young Linus Muller. After his elder brother heads off to fight in World War II, Linus embraces the opportunity to serve as delivery boy at his family grocery, and it is in this capacity that he meets the puzzling, frenetic, and utterly charming Mister Orange. Over time, Linus and his customer engage in more interesting conversations, usually about the paintings that fill Mister Orange's apartment. They are like nothing the boy has ever beheld, and open his eyes to another way of seeing the world, at the same time his new responsibilities make him reconsider what growing up really means.

While things in Linus's life get harrowing -- it is wartime after all -- he still carefully navigates his troubles but finds himself relying more often than not on his conversations with Mister Orange (and occasional comic book daydreams) to make sense of the world. Some light philosophy makes its way into the text in this way, and a broadening of readers' minds is sure to follow. All in all, Mister Orange blends art and family in a manner that wonderfully respects the character and reader. An afterword shares some of Mondrian's biography for those whose curiosity, like mine, is piqued. Truly lovely.

Finally, there are three graphic novels out from publisher First Second that deal with different historical periods and provide a teen's view of events that make them especially effective. Boxers and Saints by Gene Yuan Lang is a two-volume set that explores different perspectives of the late nineteenth century anti-foreigner Boxer Rebellion in China. The Silence of Our Friends by Mark Long, Jim Demonakos, and Nate Powell is set in Houston, Texas in 1968 and shines a light on a long forgotten episode during the Civil Rights Movement. All of these books could be used very effectively in the classroom in high school or college. (Plus, yeah, they are just good reads as well.)

Yang deserves a lot of credit for tackling the Boxer Rebellion for teens as it easily one of the more forgotten events in modern world history. By dividing the story in two and providing a male teen for the Boxer perspective and a teen girl for the Christian side, he shows how justified each position could be and the societal events that propelled each to make the choices they did. It would be so much easer if one of these kids could be deemed truly bad, but that is rarely the case in any conflict. Boxers and Saints reveal all the many shades of gray that govern a society, and how easily one's own experiences can blind them to larger truths.

Vibinia is a fourth daughter, the one who lived, and the one who is for many reasons involving luck and tradition, the one who is not wanted. Her given name is "Fourth" and she leads a life of drudgery and abuse until she finds a welcome home in the religion of the foreign missionaries, who welcome her as one of their own. Christened with a new name, Vibinia has every reason to love the men and women of her faith, and even later, when their weaknesses are revealed to her, she can not deny the home they gave her when no one else did. Christianity saved Vibinia in the most fundamental manner (food and water); her loyalty is based on kindness. Compared to the pain of her childhood, it makes perfect sense.

For Little Bao, the foreigners and the Chinese who follow them are nothing more than a greedy and cruel lot, and his exposure to their crude and violent behavior marks every decision he makes. Bao has seen their callousness up close, the casual way they disregard the lives and traditions of the traditional Chinese, the wanton manner in which they beat and rob those who do not follow their rules. Bao fights back with his band of "brothers," righting wrongs from one village to the next. In his experience the foreigners have no redeeming qualities and if he must destroy a part of China to rid his country of this menace then that is what he will do.

The showdown between Vibinia and Bao is all the more poignant because at one point they easily would have been friends, if not more. That each has been heavily influenced by visions of those from the past (Catholic martyr Joan of Arc for her, and Ch'in Shih-huang, first emperor of unified China, for him), allows Yang to bring an element of fantasy into the stories and show how much power story has on our daily lives and decisions. The example of those who lived before them weighs heavily upon Vibinia and Bao, and often compels them to make decisions. In both cases the effect of these visions is all the stronger, due to the absence of parental role models who have left their children either literally or figuratively.

The fantasy sequences in Boxers and Saints are great stuff, and in many respects make the books more accessible, but they also represent a concern I have with both volumes. Yang and his editors had to know they were publishing on a topic that few Americans, let alone teenagers, know anything about. Yang does a fair job of showing how the teens come to their respective conclusions about foreigners, but he never explains why foreigners are there in the first place, or why Chinese authorities would welcome and assist them. Further, unless readers know the history of Joan of Arc, Ch'in Shih-huang and the members of the Chinese opera included here, they will likely be frustrated by how Yang hints at their lives but provides few concrete answers. While both books include bibliographies for further reading, neither has an afterword that could have resolved most questions (like how Joan ended up bald and on fire as depicted in the final panels of Saints) and certainly would have enhanced the reader experience.

Author Mark Long does provide an afterword in The Silence of Our Friends, and it does an excellent job of showing the autobiographical nature of the plot while also revealing the true outcome of the events that inspired it. (I was quite surprised by the facts; I thought the authors were using dramatic license in the story, but it really did play out as wildly as they depicted it.)

In The Silence of Our Friends, the Caucasian Long family is juxtaposed against the African-American Thompsons, all of whom live in Houston but might as well be a thousand miles apart for how the races intermix. Jack Long is the "race reporter" for the local television station, and Larry Thompson is a leader in the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) at Texas Southern University. Each man is involved in his own way in the Civil Rights Movement, both by facilitating change and providing fair coverage of it. The novel shows how the politics of the times, (including Vietnam) pervaded every backyard conversation and trip to the grocery store, in a manner that will likely be unfamiliar to most teen readers. The frustrations each of the men feel boil over more than once and this too, is graphically depicted. In the end, the court case that is at the center of the plot forces Jack and Larry to confront each other in the courtroom and decide once and for all what price each will pay for the truth.

Just as in Yang's volumes, The Silence of Our Friends has excellent artwork and a plot that zips along, easily holding reader interest. I could not help thinking that Long, Demonakos, and Powell could have provided more book here, however, as there are several subplots (such as the one surrounding Jack Long's blind daughter), that seem to drop in and out of the story will little resolution. Further, they show Long's drinking and Thompson's sudden fits of rage, but these moments seem to exist more to shock the reader than anything else. In a lot of ways, the characters remain cyphers after the last page is turned, and this is a shame. There was more to this novel than the story Mark Long brought to the table from his own childhood, and I think letting the characters tell what they wanted to tell would have made the book an even richer experience.

COOL READ: It's not every day that you see two books packaged for the younger set and authored by Mark Twain and Edward Lear grace your desk. I must confess that when Edward Lear's Nonsense Birds (Bodleian Library) and Advice to Little Girls by Mark Twain (Enchanted Lion Books) both arrived, my knee-jerk reaction was that I was staring at the ultimate baby shower hipster gifts. (I was tempted to hit the mommy blogs and see if they had already been packaged together.) But honestly, these two books are so beautifully designed and such a pleasure to read that I can't be snarky about them. Both publishers have done outstanding jobs of making Twain and Lear accessible to young readers. The fact that adults will embrace these titles is just a bonus.

Advice to Little Girls, with pictures by Vladimir Radunksky, has a collage style and is perfect for the misunderstood female members of the elementary school set. (In later years, they will embrace Matilda, and though they might read Twilight, they will never understand Bella.) Important advice includes that good little girls should be wise and "never... 'sass' old people unless they 'sass' you first," and when responding to advice from your mother, always state you will follow it, and then, when she isn't looking, "...act quietly in the matter according to the dictates of your best judgment." Twain wasn't interested in raising any wimps, that's for sure!

Edward Lear's Nonsense Birds includes his quirky and fun-filled color drawings of "the stripy bird," "the scroobious bird," and more, along with a series of completely nonsensical poems (of course!) and line drawings that all combined will give staid old Mother Goose a run for her money. This one is read-aloud territory and will continue to be something toddlers value as they grow older and find more ways to enjoy the author's quirky sense of humor.

Colleen Mondor writes about books and Alaska and flying (really!) at chasingray.com.