Monday, August 22, 2016

Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia, 2015

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Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are off to Alabama to visit their grandmother Big Ma and her mother, Ma Charles. Across the way lives Ma Charles’s half sister, Miss Trotter. The two half sisters haven’t spoken in years. As Delphine hears about her family history, she uncovers the surprising truth that’s been keeping the sisters apart. But when tragedy strikes, Delphine discovers that the bonds of family run deeper than she ever knew possible.
Powerful and humorous, this companion to the award-winning
One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven will be enjoyed by fans of the first two books, as well as by readers meeting these memorable sisters for the first time.
(304 pages)

I didn't actually realize until after I'd finished it that Gone Crazy in Alabama is the third book in a trilogy. This somehow seems like very important information to me now, but while I was reading it I had no idea. I definitely doesn't feel like you're missing anything if you haven't read previous books, though I'm sure you are.

It's a good book, though a little convoluted at times. There are so many relatives that they learn about that I almost wanted to draw out a family tree to keep everyone straight. So many of the stories the girls learn are heartbreaking - like the man who had two wives and a different daughter with each, and the Native American woman whose father sold her husband (an escaped slave) and their children into slavery - and it's so sad to see how there's both a connect and a disconnect between family members that's so different from today's. Delphine's family roots are traced back into her great-great grandparents, and it's considered normal to have cousins that are really just second or third cousins that you treat like first cousins. At the same time, even though there's an intimacy in the accounting of who is a member of the family there's also a disconnect; for example, there's the white sheriff in town who's technically the girls' cousin (a real first cousin), but who still treats them like riffraff when they come into town. In a family where the color line is so blurred, where the main characters have bloodlines from three very different races, some still refuse to see their relatedness to others because of the outward difference in their skins. It's terrible.

I can't say that this was my favorite book in the world, both because it was very frustrating (in a life-isn't-fair sort of way) and because after a while I got sick of reading about so many imperfect and rather unhappy people. The threads of liberty versus prejudice run deep and are interesting to analyze through Delphine's eyes as she struggles to compare her free Northern upbringing with the repressed racism that faces her in Alabama. I don't know exactly how long ago the book is set (the Jackson Five were still performing, so maybe fifty years?), but it's sad to see that it definitely wasn't as long ago as I could have wished. Sad, and uncomfortable.

If you're interested in this book, then by all means read it. I'm not going to shove it down people's throats, and I don't know that I'll ever take the time to purposefully re-read it, but Gone Crazy in Alabama was a very interesting and enlightening read for me personally. It could be for you, too.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave by Virginia Hamilton, 1993

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The year is 1854, and Anthony Burns, a 20-year-old Virginia slave, has escaped to Boston. But according to the Fugitive Slave Act, a runaway can be captured in any free state, and Anthony is soon imprisoned. The antislavery forces in Massachusetts are outraged, but the federal government backs the Fugitive Slave Act, sparking riots in Boston and fueling the Abolitionist movement.
Written with all the novelistic skill that has won her every major award in children's literature, Virginia Hamilton's important work of nonfiction puts young readers into the mind of Burns himself.

(208 pages)

I read Anthony Burns as a summer reading assignment for my new AP US History class. The assignment was to read a book connected to US history and then write a review of it, so I figured I'd kill two birds with one stone and post my review on here as well as on the class website. The format is a little different from my usual reviews, because there are some specific questions I'm supposed to be answering, so sorry if it sounds a little stilted.

Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave is (as I'm sure you've already guessed) about a man named Anthony Burns, who was a fugitive slave. Moving past that obvious piece of information, I'll tell you that it's a historical fiction that takes all of the true facts known about Burns' life, adds some embellishing details about his childhood as a slave, and then tells the story of his life in the style of a fictional novel. It's a very gripping read, made doubly so because the story's true. The narration swaps between descriptions of his arrest/trial (focusing both on Anthony's emotions and on the people around Boston connected to his case) and flashbacks as Anthony reminisces to himself about his life growing up on the slave plantation. It's a very compelling rhythm, because as the trial unfolds the true (and terrible) picture of what exactly Anthony is trying to escape is revealed so that you can't help but be swept away in the truth of how devastatingly important it is that Anthony be allowed to go free.

The first time I read Anthony Burns, I was completely absorbed in the drama of the story, of the emotions running throughout each scene. The second time through, I spent most of the time wondering how much of what I read was actually true. The author says in the afterward that she filled in the story's gaps, and sometimes that's obvious–like when she makes up some tales from Anthony's childhood, or writes as though she definitively knows the inner workings of the main characters' heads–but sometimes her eagerness to add extra information makes me a little leery about the historical accuracy of other parts of her account. It makes for a compelling story, for example, to know exactly what Burns's lawyer said in his final passionate speech; the speech recorded in the book is a very clever, emotional, well-written speech, and I would love to applaud the person who wrote it - but since, a few chapters later, the lawyer mourns that the judge didn't take notes during the speech ("Not one note, Dana thought. Not on any of my points . . . He wrote not a word!") it begs the question: how did Hamilton actually get the original speech to put in her book? There may be a simple answer to that question or there may not be (I certainly haven't been able to find any transcript of the trial online), but this is just an example of how I wish she had been a little more clear about delineating between historical fact and made-up details.

Okay, moving on. The biggest piece of new historical information that I gained from Anthony Burns is - and don't laugh at me for not already knowing about this!  - the Fugitive Slave Act. This was an act that required citizens of free states in the North to return escaped slaves to their masters in the South; anyone who knew about an escaped slave and didn't turn him in was breaking the law. This law obviously sparked some major backlash from abolitionists, and so Anthony Burns focuses not only on Anthony's feelings throughout his trial but also on the response the people of Boston as a whole had toward his potential return to slavery. It's very interesting (in a horrifying sort of way) to see how the law itself was so obviously and overtly pro-slavery to the point where it could force people like Anthony to go back into the terrible slavery they'd almost escaped for good. It made me think about the government as a whole, and about how sometimes it's really nothing more than a tool used by evil people to justify and even enable the horrible things that they do.

Okay, well that's chipper. I guess this review was bound to be a downer, considering it's about a man's attempt to escape slavery. I usually try to avoid those sorts of books, because they're just so darned depressing, but somehow this one just really caught my eye. I'm glad I read it, in an "I learned something about my past" sort of way, though I'm also disturbed by the way Anthony and his fellow slaves were treated by their "owners." And also by the fact that he died only seven years after he was freed.

I know, that really puts a damper on the whole "triumph" part of the byline.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Defining Dulcie by Paul Acampora, 2006

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Quirky, uplifting, and written in a spare prose, this hopeful and humorous debut explores the connections made in life, the resilience of the human spirit, and the absurdities that keep life interesting.
(176 pages)

After a string of pretty lousy selections at the Little Free Library within walking distance of my house, I was just about ready to give up putting in the effort to go over there and swap out my books. When I pulled out Defining Dulcie, I sighed and shrugged - I figured it was the best of bad options, and would turn out as mediocre as the other books I'd gotten there.

When I actually read it, though, I realized that I'd been gravely mistaken. This is a very good book, one I'm so glad to have read.

I know that Dulcie's mother means well, but I can't help but hate her for the way she rips Dulcie away from everything she knows and loves. That's why, when she prepares to sell Dulcie's dad's car, I can totally relate with Dulcie's impulse decision to steal the car and drive cross-country to go back to her home. I am most definitely a fan of the familiar, of being comforted by what I can feel and see and touch; being ripped away from everything my father had ever owned in that way would feel to me (the way it does to Dulcie) like I was losing him all over again.

I really love Dulcie's grandfather, who takes her in once she gets back to her hometown. He's the kind of grandfather everyone wants to have: warm, funny, loving, understanding - and above all else he's simply just kind. He takes in Roxanne, a cheerful but wounded rising senior who's helping out at the school during the summer so she can spend as much time as possible away from her abusive mother at home.

And yes, I said "helping out at the school." There is a school involved, even though the story's set during the summer. But Dulcie's grandfather isn't a principal, or a teacher, or even some sort of summer volunteer; no, he's a janitor. And so was Dulcie's father, until he accidentally mixed some cleaning chemicals that shouldn't have been mixed and wound up dead on the bathroom floor. Yikes. It's very interesting watching Dulcie's grandfather, and reading memories about her father, because it's clear that both men take/took a great sense of pride and accomplishment in their responsibility to keep the school pleasant and clean. I haven't read too many books, frankly, about kids whose parents hold jobs that are traditionally viewed as being menial; I kind of wish I read more of them now, because it lends a really interesting perspective to things.

So yes, I do recommend Defining Dulcie. Don't let its small size and older release date fool you: it's a powerful, well-written novel about parental relationships, life goals, and - above all - dealing with grief. I truly enjoyed reading this little gem I found in a Little Free Library, and I hope you get the chance to read it too.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Six Kids and a Stuffed Cat by Gary Paulsen, 2016

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It seemed like a normal school day, until a horrible storm forced the very cautious school administration to make everyone hole up in a safe place. Six students find themselves stuck in a tiny, questionably smelly space—a school bathroom—with a stuffed cat for entertainment. Hijinks ensue and the unexpected happens. They enter as strangers…and leave as friends.
A special script accompanies the novel, so any six kids can get together with their friends and perform the story anywhere they’d like.

(144 pages)

Okay, this was not exactly what I was expecting.

It's a really short book - really more of a novella than a novel, really. The story was over just as I thought it was getting really interesting, and I suppose I'm so used to meaningful stories taking place over time that I have trouble taking the entire episode in the bathroom as nothing more than exactly that: just a short episode.

It's actually even shorter than the 144 pages the volume as a whole is, because the entire story is re-written in play form. And no, I don't mean that the book is continued in play form or that new meaning is given to the tale as the play casts different light on characters or inflection. I mean that it is literally transcribed into the format of a play, so that people can perform it if the urge strikes. That means the prose story itself is just 76 pages.

I feel like this was supposed to be meaningful, but it really just came across as bizarre more than anything else. It would have made a really interesting middle grade novel, with more fleshed-out characters and room for them to really grow, but in the short format of a novella everything felt really random and kind of rushed.

I don't know, though, maybe I'm just too thick and am missing the point. If you've read Six Kids and a Stuffed Cat and you got more out of it than I did, please enlighten me in the comments section.

Monday, August 8, 2016

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor, 2016

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From Leslie Connor, award-winning author of Waiting for Normaland Crunch, comes a soaring and heartfelt story about love, forgiveness, and how innocence makes us all rise up. All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook is a powerful story, perfect for fans ofWonder and When You Reach Me.
Eleven-year-old Perry was born and raised by his mom at the Blue River Co-ed Correctional Facility in tiny Surprise, Nebraska. His mom is a resident on Cell Block C, and so far Warden Daugherty has made it possible for them to be together. That is, until a new district attorney discovers the truth—and Perry is removed from the facility and forced into a foster home.
When Perry moves to the “outside” world, he feels trapped. Desperate to be reunited with his mom, Perry goes on a quest for answers about her past crime. As he gets closer to the truth, he will discover that love makes people resilient no matter where they come from . . . but can he find a way to tell everyone what home truly means?

(400 pages)

This is a very interesting scenario, isn't it? Such a moral dilemma. If you'd asked me before, I would have said that no way should a kid be raised in a prison; it isn't right to bring a child up amongst dangerous criminals who would be a threat to him or - at the very least - teach him really wonky morals. I would envision something like the opening scenes of "Megamind," where the titular character is taken in by prison inmates and raised behind bars by prisoners who teach him that policemen are bad and thieves are good. This is not the case in All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook, however; in fact, some of the inmates (committed for manslaughter, or one-time accidental murders) are morally superior to the people Perry meets outside of jail.

I really enjoyed chewing through all of the moral dilemmas and thought-provoking questions raised by the scenario presented in the novel - most of which I don't really want to discuss because they're spoilers. I also liked the characters, all of whom were realistically drawn with both good sides and bad sides. Perry is a great kid, he really is, and I felt terrible for him as he watched his entire life come apart at the seams. It's easy to hate Thomas VanLeer, the man responsible for ripping Perry away from his home and loved ones, but it's clear that he honestly believes he's doing the best thing for Perry.

I don't think this is one of my favorite books in the entire world, because while it's very good it feels like there's some extra unidentifiable spark missing that would take it to that higher level. As a regular read, though, it's very good: entertaining, thought-provoking, and emotionally satisfying. I recommend it to anyone who thinks it looks interesting - and if you do read it, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the book!