The Trouble With Historical Fiction

March 3rd, 2015 — 12:57pm

When I was in school, my two favorite subjects were history and English. I love learning about people and societies, both real or imagined. When I discovered historical fiction, it was like Christmas every day.

Little House on the Prairie was my gateway drug. Once I discovered Laura Ingalls and her family, I was hooked. I read all of the books, then the spinoff series about her husband, then the books about her daughter. I forced my younger brother and neighbors to play pioneers in the back yard, in which we pretended to hunt and forage for food in my parents’ garden.

Then I discovered the American Girl series and was astounded to find books about girls in so many other time periods. Each girl was an introduction to a different historical period that held new and exciting cultures and experiences, but my love was for Molly McIntire, the feisty WWII era girl who grew a Victory Garden and went to summer camp — which, at ten, was pretty much the dream of my life. Molly’s books opened me up to the world of WWII historical fiction, which led to the ultimate coming of age experience of discovering the Holocaust and the stories that lie within that terrible time in history.

As I got older, I ventured into other genres, but historical fiction always remained near and dear to my heart.

Which leads me to the trouble with historical fiction: the research.

Some authors, I have noticed, have a terrible problem with research — particularly when the plot of the book starts to resemble an introductory history lecture. Historical fiction is like a dance, a lovely waltz when it’s done right and an offbeat two step when it’s not.

Case in point: Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. She sucked me in with the first book, I’ll give that to her. It had everything I love about historical fiction — well-developed characters, lushly described landscapes, interesting historical period, intriguing plot lines (not to mention a nice hunk of man in the character of Jamie Fraser). However, as the series went on, Gabaldon became more bogged down with the research.

Unnecessary intricacies were described in detail — making clothes, making a meal, farming, preparing for war, fighting a battle, cleaning and caring for wounds and ailments. The result is a plot that moves at a snail’s pace, plodding along among the murky waters of historical accuracy and research.

The first book in the series was 640 pages, which in itself is daunting. The largest of the currently eight book series is a ridiculous 1008 pages. That is some 400 extra pages of History 101 fodder. Not every day of life in colonial America needs to be drawn out in detail — this is a book, not the recreation of historic Jamestown.

When it comes to historical fiction, the fiction is sometimes better than the history.

Comment » | modern, musings

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

June 10th, 2014 — 10:40pm

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon was published in 1991 and housewives have never been the same. Gabaldon has a Ph.D. in behavioral ecology, a master’s degree in marine biology, and a bachelors in zoology, and she writes historical romance/fantasy. Go figure. Outlander-1991_1st_Edition_cover

Outlander is the story of Claire Randall, who is on a second honeymoon to Inverness, Scotland, with her husband Frank after serving as a British army nurse in World War II. She and Frank have been having marital difficulties, revolving mostly around their inability to conceive a child. Frank is taking the opportunity to research his family history, and Claire is intrigued by the story of a pagan ritual held by a henge at nearby Craigh na Dun. She sneaks out one night to watch it; while at the stones, she hears a strange buzzing noise and becomes disoriented, then is surprised to hear the sounds of a battle, which she assumes are battle re-enactors. When she finds the men, she is taken captive by someone who claims to be called Captain Jack Randall (who is the ancestor Frank was researching) and he asks her why she is in a state of undress. He thinks that she is a prostitute or a spy and prepares to rape her when he is knocked unconscious by a Scotsman, who takes Claire with him as he rejoins the rest of his clansmen. Claire discovers that she has somehow traveled back in time to 1743 and has been rescued by Jamie MacTavish, who is a member of the Clan MacKenzie. Though they are suspicious of her and refer to her as a Sassenach (an outlander who is not part of the Scottish culture) Claire manages to gain their respect as a healer when she uses her 20th century medical knowledge to help Jamie’s injuries.

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Claire dresses Jamie’s wounds in the Starz “Outlander” series.

Captain Randall finds out that the MacKenzies have been housing Claire and he demands that the clan bring her to him. In order to protect her, the leaders of the Clan MacKenzie, Colum and Dougal, tell Claire that she needs to marry Jamie. Claire protests but since she cannot really explain that she has a husband in 1945, she consents to marry Jamie. On their wedding night, he reveals to her his true last name – Fraser. He has been using a fake name because he is wanted by the English for obstruction, and had previously been captured and tortured by Captain Randall; he has deep scars on his back from the whippings, both with a whip and a bayonet, that he received. Jamie and Claire quickly grow to love each other and have hot sex. Like, really hot.

Claire adapts to life in the Scottish Highlands. She becomes friends with Geilis Duncan who shares her love of medicine. However, when a young girl who is in love with Jamie and jealous of Claire misinterprets their medical practices, Claire and Geilis are accused of witchcraft. Jamie manages to save Claire from a public whipping and possible hanging, but not before she sees a smallpox vaccination on Geilis’s arm, and she realizes that Geilis is from the future as well.

When Jamie asks about the witchcraft allegations, Claire is unable to explain herself other than with the truth – she is from the future. Jamie believes her and tells her that he will help her get back to Frank, if that is what she truly wants. Claire takes a night to decide and realizes that she loves Jamie more and decides to stay. The two of them go to Lallybroch to stay with Jamie’s sister on their clans’ land and hide from the English forces.

However, a tenant on their land betrays Jamie to the English. He is captured and taken to Wentworth Prison, which is presided over by Captain Randall. Claire and Jamie’s clansmen stage a break out, but fail – Claire is captured and is beaten and almost raped by Captain Randall. Jamie offers himself to Randall in Claire’s place, knowing that Randall has a sadistic obsession with him. Randall agrees and throws Claire out into the cold woods. Claire tells Randall that she’s a witch and, using Frank’s family genealogy research, tells him when and where he will die.

Alone and freezing in the woods, Claire runs into a former suitor of Jamie’s mother, who gathers men together to help her free Jamie. They stampede a herd of cows through the castle, trampling Randall when he comes to investigate the noise.

Claire takes Jamie to an abbey in France where she helps him recover from his injuries and the psychological tortures that he has undergone. She and Jamie swim in a “healing spring” under the Abbey, and Claire reveals at the end of the novel that she is pregnant with their first child.

At the end of the day, Outlander is a good book — it is lushly researched, the time travel element is interesting, and the story is interesting. The book itself is very long — about 650 pages — so be sure that you have plenty of time to invest in the story.

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But let’s be honest, we’re all in it for one thing and that is Jamie Fraser. I consider myself a pretty ardent feminist, but even the scene where Jamie takes the strap to Claire after she ran away and he saved her from Captain Randall is not enough to turn me off of Jamie. He is the right amount of tortured and strong and perfect and hot. Did I mention hot? He’s about 6’4, strapping, red-haired, and fictional, but hey, no one is perfect.

I mean, DAMN.

Starz is creating a series based on Outlander that premieres this August. There are also seven books in the Outlander series, with the eighth book coming out this June. Each of the books in the series is just as long, if not longer, than Outlander, and just as richly (and sometimes obnoxiously) detailed. There are eight additional books by Gabaldon that detail a secondary character, Lord John Grey, and are historical mysteries. Putting those degrees to work, obviously.

Comment » | modern

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

June 4th, 2014 — 11:26am

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is the 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction and rightfully so. It is a beautifully written novel about Theo Decker and his life after his world is changed by an act of terrorism. The_goldfinch_by_donna_tart

When Theo was 13, he and his mother visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see an exhibition of Dutch masterpieces, including Theo’s mother’s favorite work, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. While at the exhibit, Theo gets distracted by a redheaded girl and her grandfather — he is mesmerized by the girl and follows her into a room away from his mother. It is then that a terrorist bomb hits the museum, killing many including Theo’s mother.

In the aftermath of the blast, the elderly man (Welton “Welty” Blackwell) gives Theo a ring and appears to point at The Goldfinch painting — Theo, in his confusion and panic, takes the painting out of the museum.

But depression wasn’t the word. This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time. The writhing loathsomeness of the biological order. Old age, sickness, death. No escape for anyone. Even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil. And yet somehow people still kept fucking and breeding and popping out new fodder for the grave, producing more and more new beings to suffer like this was some kind of redemptive, or good, or even somehow morally admirable thing: dragging more innocent creatures into the lose-lose game. Squirming babies and plodding, complacent, hormone-drugged moms. Oh, isn’t he cute? Awww. Kids shouting and skidding in the playground with no idea what future Hells await them: boring jobs and ruinous mortgages and bad marriages and hair loss and hip replacements and lonely cups of coffee in an empty house and a colostomy bag at the hospital. Most people seemed satisfied with the thin decorative glaze and the artful stage lighting that sometimes, made the bedrock atrocity of the human predicament look somewhat more mysterious or less abhorrent. People gambled and golfed and planted gardens and traded stocks and had sex and bought new cars and practiced yoga and worked and prayed and redecorated their homes and got worked up over the news and fussed over their children and gossiped about their neighbors and pored over restaurant reviews and founded charitable organizations and supported political candidates and attended the U.S. Open and dined and travelled and distracted themselves with all kinds of gadgets and devices, flooding themselves incessantly with information and texts and communication and entertainment from every direction to try to make themselves forget it: where we were, what we were. But in a strong light there was no good spin you could put on it. It was rotten from top to bottom.

Theo went through some dark times after the death of his mother and his recovery from the bombing.

His father had abandoned Theo and his mother the year before, but Theo is determined to stay in Manhattan. He stays with a school friend, Andy Barbour, and his family. The Barbours are wealthy socialites with the typical WASPy problems — Mr. Barbour is medicated for a behavior disorder that is probably manic depression, Mrs. Barbour is cold and distant, the oldest son, Platt, who is away at boarding school and is a huge bully, Andy, Theo’s friend who is a genius with all of the social awkwardness that comes along with it, Kitsey, a snobbish princess, and Toddy, who is the youngest child. He gets along well with them, though he has nightmares from the post-traumatic stress disorder from the bombing.

Theo also returns the ring to the family of Welty — James Hobart, who goes by Hobie, and his redhaired granddaughter, Pippa. Pippa sustained a head injury in the bombing. Theo sits with her and his initial attraction to her grows. Unfortunately, Pippa is being sent away to family in Texas when she recovers from her injuries.

Unfortunately for Theo, his father, Larry, and his girlfriend, Xandra, show up to take him to their home in Las Vegas. Theo doesn’t want to leave the Barbours, but doesn’t really have a choice. Vegas is terrible for Theo — his father and Xandra are not good parents and his father’s source of income is not steady, since he mostly just gambles. Xandra has a Maltese puppy named Popper that is incredibly neglected, except for Theo’s attentions to him. (We’re talking super neglected, to the point where I almost felt worse for the puppy than for Theo at this point. Oops.) At school, Theo meets Boris, who is a Russian-Ukrainian immigrant and is not the best role model for Theo. Together, Boris and Theo drink a lot of alcohol, take a lot of drugs, and skip a lot of school.

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The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius

Theo is haunted by The Goldfinch. He still has the painting, which was on the news as missing/destroyed in the bombing and is renowned for being one of the only works by Fabritius to survive a gunpowder explosion in 1654. He wraps the painting in bubble wrap and a pillowcase in an attempt to preserve it once he notices the wear that occurs when he looks at it. He is in constant fear of its discovery and the retribution he would face for its theft.

Theo’s dad starts getting friendlier with Theo and tells him he needs his social security number in order to open a savings account for him. He also tries to get Theo to put his money from his mother’s will in the account that Larry would have access to. Luckily, Theo’s lawyer is onto Larry and doesn’t allow for him to steal Theo’s money. It turns out that Larry is in deep with the gambling debts. In his despondency about not getting Theo’s money, he gets drunk and dies in a car accident. Theo knows that he will be sent to a state home, so he steals drugs and money from Xandra and leaves with Popper. Boris begs him to stay another day, but he leaves immediately for New York on a bus.

Once in New York, he sees Mr. Barbour on the street, but Mr Barbour is not on his medication and curses at him. The only other place Theo can think to go is to Hobie’s house, where he is pleased to find Pippa. Pippa tells him that she’s at a boarding school in Switzerland and is only visiting, much to Theo’s chagrin.

Hobie teaches Theo the art of antique restoration, and he eventually becomes a partner in what was once Welty and Hobie’s antiques business. The narrative skips forward eight years, where Pippa is living in London with a boyfriend (which tortures Theo) and Theo and Kitsey Barbour are engaged to marry. Mr. Barbour and Andy died in a boating accident, and Mrs. Barbour has pulled a Mrs. Havisham and has secluded herself in her apartment. Theo has also developed a prescription drug addiction. Theo and Kitsey have many relationship problems, the biggest of which is her continued love for her high school boyfriend, Tom.

Along with restoring antiques, Hobie enjoys creating pieces that are identical to antiques — which Theo has been selling them as legitimate pieces, unbeknownst to Hobie. One of the buyers of the fabricated pieces realizes what he has and attempts to blackmail Theo — he realizes that Theo and Welty were in the room with The Goldfinch and thinks that Theo and Hobie know the whereabouts of the painting. Theo is afraid of the financial repercussions of customers finding out about the fake antiques, the trouble he will be in when authorities discover he has The Goldfinch, and the guilt he feels in betraying Hobie’s trust.

Out of nowhere, Boris appears on the street of Manhattan. He has wealth and renown in the Russian neighborhood (which he does not explain), but he has a confession for Theo — while they were in Las Vegas, Boris stole The Goldfinch from Theo and replaced it with a textbook that was the similar size and weight; because it was so tightly sealed and Theo never looked at it, he had no idea. Over the years, The Goldfinch has been used as collateral to barter for various criminal activities and deals, but Boris feels guilty and vows to return it to Theo. At Theo and Kitsey’s engagement party, Boris approaches Theo with a planfor them to fly to Amsterdam and meet up with the men who have the painting in order to get it back. Theo is overwhelmed when the blackmailer arrives at his and Kitsey’s engagement party, and he agrees to go and leaves without telling anyone that he’s going — he leaves a note of love to Pippa.

Once in Amsterdam, Boris and assorted men take Theo to meet up with the men who have The Goldfinch, but they all have guns (besides Theo). At the meeting, they attack the men and steal the painting; however, agents fo the dealers finds them and there is a shootout, in which Boris is shot in the arm, Theo shoots a man, and the painting is stolen back.

Theo goes back to his hotel, devastated, and takes a ton of drugs. His cell phone is dead, so he can’t get in touch with Boris, he thinks he is going to be arrested for shooting and killing the agent, and he realizes that he doesn’t have his passport — he left it in the car with Boris. He contemplates suicide when, miraculously, Boris shows up at the hotel. He tells Theo that he has saved the day — he called the art recovery police on the agents, and they have been arrested and The Goldfinch has been recovered. Even better, Boris received a reward for the painting’s return and he graciously shares the reward with Theo.

Theo returns to New York and is greeted by a very upset Hobie. Hobie has been made aware of the sale of the fabricated antiques, so Theo confesses to everything, beginning with the day of the art museum and The Goldfinch. Hobie confesses that The Goldfinch was Welty’s favorite painting, too.

Theo travels the world to buy back the fabricated antiques. Pippa has told him that though she loves him, they can never be together because their character flaws and their shared experience of the bombing makes them too similar to be a safe and effective couple. Theo wonders how much of his experiences are due to fate and how much are due to his character.He realizes that “we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”

The writing of The Goldfinch is beautiful. I read this book over Christmas break but have not been able to stop thinking about it. The story can be described as a bildungsroman, but it is so much more than that. The novel discusses the preservation of beautiful things, both items and people, as well as how much power fate has — as well as the power of our parents and their presence (or lack thereof) in our lives. Theo loses his mother early in his life and fourteen years later he observes that “things would have turned out better if she had lived.”

There are plot points that are eyeroll inducing (especially the deus ex machina in the climax — Boris called the cops, really? Really, that’s how it’s resolved after an epic shootout) but the story of Theo’s decline into teenage delinquency and his fight out was mesmerizing to read. I’m also a sucker for a good mom story. I’m very close with my mother and even the thought of losing my mother, even as an adult, makes me slightly hyperventilate.

Comment » | modern

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

October 24th, 2013 — 10:05am

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley was published in 1818, when Shelley was 21 years old (if you want to feel awful about your life accomplishments). Shelley began writing the book, about scientist Victor Frankenstein and his horrific science experiment, after a dream she had and as the result of a competition between her, her husband Percy Shelley, John Polidori, and Lord Byron to determine who could write the best horror story. Best. Contest. Ever.

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Frankenstein is written in the epistolary form through letters from Captain Walton to his sister. Captain Walton is sailing around the North Pole in hopes of acheiving fame. One day, he and his crew see a giant figure commanding a dog sled, and a few hours later, discover a frozen and malnourished man named Victor Frankenstein. The crew bring him onboard the ship and he stays with Captain Walton as he recovers. Victor tells Walton the story of his life as a warning against being overly ambitious and doing dangerous things in pursuit of academic fame.

As a child growing up in Geneva, young Victor is fascinated by science — at a young age, he witnesses lightning split a massive oak tree in half and becomes fixated on the power of electricity. He has two younger brothers, Ernest and William, and his parents take in an orphan, Elizabeth Lavenza, with whom Victor falls in love. Victor begins to study the science of natural wonders, and as he prepares to go to Germany to attend the University of Ingolstadt, Victor’s mother dies of scarlet fever.

When he gets to the university, Victor begins his studies and embarks on the experiment to create life. He visits graveyards to collect body parts and creates a human body; though it is an oversized body, as he decides to make the body eight feet tall in order to compensate for the minute body parts that are difficult to work with. He is disappointed that his creature, which he envisioned to be beautiful, is actually hideous — after bringing the body to life, Victor is repulsed and horrified by it and runs from the room. When he returns to the room later, the monster has disappeared.

His fear of the monster and the realization of what he has done overwhelms him and Victor falls ill. His childhood friend, Henry Clerval, nurses him back to health. After a four month recovery period, Victor is summoned home when his younger brother, William, is found murdered. William’s nanny, Justine, is found with William’s locket and is found guilty of his murder, though she and Victor maintain her innocence — Victor is convinced that his creature killed William. Justine is hanged for William’s murder.

Victor blames himself for both William and Justine’s deaths, and he goes camping in the mountains to reflect and keep harm from others. The creature finds him in the mountains and tells him what has happened to him since Victor left him abandoned in the science room. Victor is surprised to find that the creature is articulate and well-spoken, which is from his observations of humans.

When he left the laboratory, the creature was afraid of humans and found an abandoned cottage secluded from the surrounding village. A family, the DeLaceys, lived in a neighboring cottage, and the creature was drawn to them and became obsessed with watching them. He listened to them speak and found books and taught himself to read and speak. He eventually works up the courage to speak to the DeLaceys and begins with the old man who is blind. He speaks with him and gains his trust, but when the younger DeLaceys see him, they are repulsed and chase him away. The creature sees a reflection of himself and realizes that he doesn’t look like other humans that he has seen and is, in fact, monstrous in appearance. So he burns down the DeLaceys’ house. As you do.

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The creature tells Victor that, as he is responsible for the existence of the creature, he is responsible for his happiness. He demands that Victor make a companion for him, so that they may live together away from other people and be happy. He tells Victor that if he makes a female companion for him, that they will go to South America and never bother him again.

Victor agrees out of fear for himself and his family. One night, Victor has a dream that when he creates the female creature, they breed creatures that take over mankind. He creates the female creature, but destroys her after he catches a glimpse of the creature watching him through a window.

BIG MISTAKE.

The creature channels his inner mob boss and tells Victor that he had better spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder and vowing that he will be there on his wedding night, and not to enjoy a piece of wedding cake. The creature leaves and Victor, understandably shaken, goes to visit Henry Clerval; when Victor arrives on the Irish beach, he discovers Henry’s corpse and is accused of Henry’s murder. Victor is imprisoned for the murder and when he is acquitted, his father takes him back to Geneva to recover from his mental breakdown.

Elizabeth, the Frankensteins’ ward, marries Victor when he returns home. That night, Victor tells Elizabeth to stay in their room while he goes out to confront the creature, but he can’t find it. He returns to the house when he hears Elizabeth scream and he realizes that the creature did not intend to murder Victor at all. He sees the creature through the window and, as he approaches the window, the creature points at Elizabeth’s lifeless body.

At the shock of Elizabeth’s death, as well as the deaths of William, Justine, and Henry, Victor’s father dies. Victor has now lost everyone close to him and vows to devote the rest of his life to finding and destroying the monster. He follows him to the North Pole, which is where he was rescued by Captain Walton.

Walton next writes that he believes Victor’s tale and wishes that he had known him in his better days, as he is now a wreck of a man. A few days later, the ship is trapped in ice. Victor dies right before the ship is to head back to England and Walton hears a strange noise coming from Victor’s room. Investigating the noise, Walton is startled to find the monster, as hideous as Victor had described, weeping over his dead creator’s body. The monster begins to tell him of all his sufferings. He says that he deeply regrets having become an instrument of evil and that, with his creator dead, he is ready to die. He leaves the ship and departs into the darkness.

There have been many interpretations as to the meaning of Shelley’s work — is Frankenstein a commentary on the dangers of science or the importance of parenting? Mary Shelley had experienced a difficult miscarriage before writing this book, and would experience life-threatening marriages after its publication. Her husband/baby daddy, Percy Shelley, was not very sympathetic to her maternal woes, especially as he had several affairs (including an affair on his first wife with Mary, oops), leading scholars to believe that the purpose of Frankenstein was to highlight the importance of raising the children/monsters that you sire. There is a responsibility of parents to make sure that their children and fed, clothed, and not terrorizing villagers and setting their houses on fire.

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The most famous of the movie adaptations is arguably the 1931 Boris Karloff movie, as well as it’s subsequent sequels, spin-offs, and parodies. While it is loosely adapted (Victor’s name is changed to Henry, the monster is given a criminal brain due to the incompetence of his assistant, the monster goes on a killing spree, including killing a little girl who’s throwing flowers into a lake or something, I don’t know, just a lot of killing and villagers storming the laboratory with pitchforks), it is what the general public thinks of when they think of Frankenstein — greenish skin, bolts on the neck, flattop haircut, lots of grunting. Also part of the pop culture — referring to the monster as Frankenstein. It’s wrong and you shouldn’t do it. I mean, you can do it, but you might be mocked and/or thrown into a lake.

Comment » | classic books, Uncategorized

Thug Notes

October 16th, 2013 — 8:24am

I have never been more excited to hear the term “what it is” than when watching Thug Notes.

Thug Notes is a series of classic literature summary and analysis, all spoken in slang and “gangsta” vernacular and it is BRILLIANT. I cannot stop watching them. I was introduced to them through The Great Gatsby video and have been sharing them with my students ever since.

Over the summer, I found some of the novels I had forced my students to pretend to read, and I sent them the link to Lord of the Flies, so they would be able to pretend they had read them even better. Sparky Sweets, Ph.D, provides a legitimate analysis and commentary that had my students saying, “ohhhhh, so THAT’S what you were talking about!”

Yes, students. Behind the tattoos and basically everything else about us, thugs and your English teachers are the same.

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31. Animal Farm by George Orwell

October 10th, 2013 — 10:12am

Animal Farm was published in 1945 by George Orwell. As previously discussed, Orwell loves himself a dystopia — in this case, the dystopia is exploring the world of Communism and the rise of Stalinist Russia under the guise of animals.

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On Manor Farm, everything is going along as farms generally do, though Farmer Jones is known to be a tad bit cruel — he sometimes gets drunk and forgets to feed the animals, so that’s not the best animal ownership. Old Major, an old boar, gathers all of the animals together and tells them that he had a dream that animals controlled their own fates, as humans are parasites on the animals — they don’t do any work yet get all of the gain from the animals’ work. He calls his ideas “Animalism,” and the farm animals all agree that would be a wonderful way to live. They end their meeting by signing a song taught to them by Old Major called “Beasts of England,” all about the animals’ greatness.

When Old Major dies, two pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, take up Old Major’s cause, organizing the animals against Farmer Jones, who leaves the farm when the animals attack him and his workers. The animals renamed the farm Animal Farm. They adopt the Seven Commandments of Animalism:

1. Whatever goes on two legs is an enemy.

2. Whatever goes on four legs, or has wings, is a friend.

3. No animal shall wear clothes.

4. No animal shall sleep in a bed.

5. No animal shall drink alcohol.

6. No animal shall kill any other animal.

7. All animals are equal.

Everything goes well on Animal Farm — all of the animals work, though they begin to notice that the cows milk is disappearing. Snowball is educating all of the animals, while Napoleon takes the puppies born to the two dogs on the farm and teaches them in secret, to the point where the animals don’t remember their existence. Mollie, the pony who enjoyed the finer things in life and had ribbons in her hair, leaves the farm when she is made to work, while Boxer, the carthorse, takes up the slack, making “I will work harder” his personal motto.

A schism between Napoleon and Snowball emerges, especially over the building of a windmill to bring power and productivity to the farm — Snowball is for it, Napoleon is against it. During a debate in front of the animals, Napoleon gets up and whistles, and a pack of dogs come charging at Snowball, chasing him off the farm. The animals realize that Napoleon has been training the puppies into his personal security team. Another pig, Squealer, convinces the animals that Snowball has been against them the entire time and that Napoleon has been singlehandedly working for the success of Animal Farm.

Things get bleaker on the farm. The animals begin to notice that the commandments are changing, small adjustments made to them until they’re finally changed to one single commandment: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Boxer becomes hurt and Squeaker tells the animals that Napoleon has arranged for Boxer to be taken to an animal hospital, but Benjamin, the cynical donkey on the farm, reads the side of the truck that comes for Boxer and sees that Boxer has been sold to a knacker for slaughter, and the money is going to buy whiskey for the pigs.

Years pass, and the pigs begin to walk on two legs, wear clothes, and carry whips. Napoleon also begins doing business with local farmers and invites them all over to a dinner, where he tells them that he’s changing the name of the farm back to Manor Farm. The other animals, who look in the window at them, realize that they can no longer distinguish between the pigs and the men.

Animal Farm is a condemnation of Stalin and his regime, as Stalin was allied with Churchill and Roosevelt during World War II and was looked upon favorably by the British people, much to Orwell’s distaste. He wrote Animal Farm to show the brutality of the Communist Party, and parallels can be made to every character:

Old Major – both Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, the fathers of Communism.

Napoleon – Joseph Stalin, who led the Soviet Union from 1930 until his death in 1953.

Snowball – Leon Trotsky, a rival of Stalin exiled from Russian and assassinated on Stalin’s orders in Mexico in 1940.

Squealer – the Soviet press, which Stalin controlled throughout his rule.

Minimus – the takeover of art by propaganda in a totalitarian state that aims to control what its citizens think.

Boxer – the male working class and peasants of the Soviet Union.

Clover – the female working class and peasants of the Soviet Union.

Mollie – the selfish and materialistic middle-class.

Benjamin – those who were aware of Stalin’s unjust and oppressive policies but did nothing to try to stop them.

The Dogs – the Soviet secret police.

Moses – organized religion.

The Sheep – the duped citizens of a totalitarian state.

Mr. Jones – the Russian Tsar in the early 20th century.

Mr. Frederick – the Fascist Germans/Adolf Hitler.

Mr. Pilkington – the Allies before World War II, particularly the British.

Mr. Whymper – capitalists who got rich doing business with the USSR.

It’s the symbolism stuff that English teachers’ dreams are made of. Just think of the essay topics!

Comment » | classic books, Uncategorized

Young Adult Fiction

August 13th, 2013 — 5:13pm

…..or, How I Spent My Summer Vacation.

For years, I have turned my nose up at young adult (YA) fiction. I have been a voracious reader for my entire life, and hadn’t read young adult book since my childhood — even when I was a young adult (in this case, meant to be a teenager), I was reading books from the “adult” stacks in the library. To me, young adult meant Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret or other books I’d read as a kid.

Once I hit college and became an English major, I turned into that annoying snobby reader — I was an English major, I’m reading the classics, I don’t have time for teenager nonsense. (Harry Potter notwithstanding. I will always fight for my right to Harry Potter.) While in college, I lived with a girl who wanted to be a young adult author, so she read a lot of young adult fiction and recommended that I read a book series about vampires and werewolves that she said was SO GOOD. It was Twilight, and good it was not. The writing in that book sent me back to my college reading lists happily.

It got worse when I became a high school teacher. I spent my day surrounded by teenagers, I did not want to spend my off time reading about their problems. I got enough teenage angst in the day, thank you!

Last year, I began my masters degree in library science. In order to ease myself back into the academic life, I took a class called Literature for Youth, because it seemed easy enough — read some books, write some papers about them. And kids books, how bad could it be.

The reading list was TWENTY-SEVEN PAGES LONG, full of a combination of children, juvenile, and young adult fiction and nonfiction. As I was teaching pre-AP English 2 at the time, I chose a lot of YA books (and pawned off a lot on my students, telling them to read them and let me know if they were good). I figured it would be easy enough.

YA has come a long way since my adolescent years. For one thing, it’s a genre unto itself, which has developed over the last ten years. As much as I roll my eyes, Twilight really did change the role YA plays in the bookstore or the library. YA is taken seriously as literature now and has a lot of great books — and some not so great. There is a HUGE supernatural presence in YA (Barnes and Noble has a separate YA shelf for paranormal romance, gag), but a lot of them are very well written and very compelling, with wonderful characters and plotlines.

Not all of them focus on romance, which is refreshing. Many of them explore themes that are important to teenagers (and adults, as there is a reason that they’re called “young adult” — teenagers go through the same issues that adults go through, they’re just plagued with hormones that make the smallest problem seem like a life or death situation) and, if read with an adult that’s close to them, can open up conversations and make it easier for them to identify with the world — yes, even the paranormal romance.

There are few guides out there to understanding and writing YA fiction, but here are a few things I’ve noticed from my (limited) exposure to YA:

1. YA is predominately written in first person, which can sometimes get a little tiring (but teenagers are self centered and probably won’t notice). YA also predominately comes in trilogies or series. Be warned — when I read Libba Bray’s The Diviners, I had no idea it was the first in a series and I was PISSED to get to the end and find that it continued in a yet-to-be-published book. PISSED.
2. There’s almost always a romance. Even in books that aren’t labeled as a romance, there will be a romance.
3. About 75% of the time that romance will be a love triangle.
4. The main character will usually feel inadequate and not understand why the other person likes them. A lot of, “But I’m so hideously ugly, how could anyone ever love me!?!??!?!” to which the other person will respond, “You are so beautiful, I wish I could make you see it!!!!!!!!!!!” Which happens in adult romances, too. So maybe that’s just a romance genre thing. Whatever it is, it can be annoying.
5. There is usually a very good lesson to learn, even if it’s hidden or thematic. YA can serve as a modern Aesop’s Fable, but with a lot more pining. Some books (such as those by Laurie Halse Anderson or Ellen Hopkins) are overt in their messages, some (like Libba Bray’s The Great and Terrible Beauty trilogy which focuses on the strength of girls/women) can be more subtle.
6. The books that I find the most enjoyable are the ones that are dystopian/paranormal in nature rather than focus on a more modern world with typical teenage problems. That’s just a question of taste, however.
7. Almost every new book/series will be compared to something that has come before it. I’ve noticed this more in YA than in any other fiction category. Books will be advertised as “the new Harry Potter,” (Shadow and Bone) “the new Hunger Games,” (Divergent) “the new Twilight” (City of Bones). Ignore that and just enjoy them for what they are.
8. YA books are easy to read without being too juvenile. There is a difference between a juvenile book (meant for ages 8-13) and a YA book (meant for ages 14-18). There are different issues for these kids. Wait ’til Helen Comes is for a different audience than Divergent — there’s a different maturity (and vocabulary level) associated with each book. That being said, YA books shouldn’t send you to the dictionary to look up every other word. If it is, you may need to take an SAT vocabulary refresher.
9. YA books are the new movie craze. Think about it — Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Percy Jackson, City of Bones, Divergent, Beautiful Creatures, The Fault in Our Stars, The Giver, Vampire Academy, A Great and Terrible Beauty, Unwind, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children — these are all YA books to movies that are either already out or are scheduled to come out/start production in the next year. And these are just ones that I can think of off the top of my head.
10. While YA is a good place to go to be reminded that good conquers evil, YA does not shy away from real life situations and heartache. People die, people get sick, people are victims to horrible accidents. While good does triumph, sometimes it hurts and you feel like you can’t possibly go on but you know that you have to — and that’s just literature reflecting life.

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Beach Reads / The Awakening by Kate Chopin

August 5th, 2013 — 6:03pm

I recently read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening for book club. In The Awakening, published in 1899, Edna Pontellier is living an average life with her husband, Leonce, and her two sons in New Orleans, Louisiana, when she is “awakened” to her true self by falling love with a young man, Robert, while summering on Grand Isle. Edna realizes that she has been denying herself of a life by settling for a man she doesn’t love and children that she’s sacrificing her self for, as well as a society that will never allow her to truly live her life the way she would like.

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When the book was published, it (and its author) was very scandalous and controversial. The Awakening is a book that focuses on women’s issues without condescension or judgement — Edna is who she is, without apology or explanation. Her struggles are some that women in the 21st century struggle with, as the demands on women have not changed since the 19th century — women are expected to keep the house, raise the children, support the husband, and now are also expected to have a successful career at the same time, and all with a smile on their face. The idea that women could possibly want more than what they have or dislike their role in society or be sexually attracted to someone that was not their husband or have an affair and sex with someone that they didn’t love, much less that Kate Chopin (who was a single mother of six, mind you) would write about these things, was too much for audiences (men) to bear, and the novel was censored upon its publication.

While not necessarily a “light summer read” that most people would choose for their poolside reading, the novel takes place on the beach and has some wonderful imagery and descriptions of the ocean.

The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.

If that doesn’t make you want to book a trip to the ocean, I don’t know what will.

I live on the Gulf Coast, so I know that not every experience at the beach is a happy one — the same sun, sand, and surf that we enjoy in the summer can be a devastating hurricane or a shipwreck, also. Still, nothing says “summer” than a beach read, and even in the winter months a book about the beach is familiar and somehow makes you warmer.

Some good ones (read them in the next few weeks of summer or when you need a vitamin D blast in the winter):

Summer Sisters by Judy Blume
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger
The Art of Keeping Secrets by Patti Callahan Henry
In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen
Swim by Lynn Sherr
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

July 8th, 2013 — 11:57pm

I don’t know how this book isn’t on the 100 Best Novels list, but I’m assuming that it’s on someone’s 100 Best Books list, so I’m going with it.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston was published in 1937 and is lauded for being an outstanding work of African-American feminist literature both by and about a woman. Hurston grew up in Eatonville, Florida, which was one of the first all-black towns in the United States, and her father became the mayor. Throughout her life, Hurston remained influenced by her life in the South, even after moving to the North and becoming associated with the Harlem Renaissance — Hurston traveled through the South, collecting stories and serving as a cultural anthropologist. With Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston actually was criticized for her portrayal of African-Americans living their lives in happiness and without any struggles that were plaguing the rest of her Harlem Renaiisance contemporaries. Richard Wright reviewed the book by saying, “Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the “white folks” laugh.”

Ouch.
TheirEyesWereWatchingGod

Their Eyes Were Watching God gets a lot of flak for Hurston’s portrayal of her characters satisfied with their lives, yes, but also for the use of vernacular dialect, which is so strong that it takes a lot of concentration to follow what the characters are saying.

“Please God, please suh, don’t let him love nobody else but me. Maybe Ah’m is uh fool, Lawd, lak dey say, but Lawd, Ah been so lonesome, and Ah been waitin’, Jesus. Ah done waited uh long time.”

I mean…..what?

This isn’t very good poolside reading, which is unfortunate as that’s where I read a majority of this book (hey there, summer vacation!). My book club had chosen this book for June and I had procrastinated so poolside it was!

The book begins with Janie Crawford walking home and being observed (and gossiped about) by the neighbor women sitting on a porch. Her best friend, Pheoby Watson, sees her and goes to her house to find out where she’s been and where her younger husband is, as she’s arrived alone. Janie decides to tell her so that she can relay the tale to the other gossiping women. She begins with her childhood, which seems a strange place to start when the question was “where have you been for the past two years?”

Janie was raised by her grandmother, called Nanny, who is a former slave, after her own mother runs off and leaves her. Nanny was raped by her white master and thrown out by his wife after she gives birth to Janie’s mother, and then Janie’s mother is raped by her teacher, so Nanny doesn’t have the most trust in men. When Janie is sixteen, she is overwhelmed by her developing sexuality (which she compares to a blooming pear tree) and kisses a neighbor boy, much to Nanny’s chagrin when she discovers them. Nanny decides that she wants better for Janie, whether Janie wants it or not, and marries her off to Logan Killicks, an older farmer. Janie wishes to marry for love, as she was inspired by the bees pollinating the pear tree, but Nanny isn’t trying to wait around to see Janie be used and abused by a man — she wants what she could never have, security and happiness, and seeks an established man who can take care of Janie.

Nanny dies shortly after the marriage, which is lucky, as Janie finds herself stuck in a loveless marriage, as Logan wants a worker rather than a wife. A man named Joe Starks walks by the farm one day and he and Janie flirt. He’s a smooth talker and she’s been starved for attention, so she leaves Logan and marries Joe, who she calls Jody. Jody has heard of a town in Florida that is being run by Negroes, and he means to go down and buy some land there.

When Janie and Jody get to Eatonville, they find that it’s without leadership and the residents themselves have no ambition to make the town anything other than a few sporadic farms. Jody buys land from the neighboring landowner and starts building a town, creating a store and a post office, and serving as a landlord, as he parcels out the land that he’s bought. He’s a natural politician and soon becomes the mayor, postmaster, and storekeeper. Unbeknownst to Janie, she has a place in Jody’s world, but it’s not one she anticipated — she’s become a trophy wife, as Jody won’t let her associate with the other people in the town. On the surface, she submits to Jody’s vision, but her internal monologue remains as passionate and spirited as ever.

Twenty years go by and Janie is thoroughly disenchanted with the lonely life she lives with Jody and she finally asserts herself one day in the store when Jody insults her appearance:

“Naw, Ah ain’t no young gal no mo’ but den Ah ain’t no old woman neither. Ah reckon Ah looks mah age too. But Ah’m uh woman every inch of me, and Ah know it. Dat’s uh whole lot more’n you kin say. You big-bellies round here and put out a lot of brag, but ’tain’t nothin’ to it but yo’ big voice. Humph! Talkin’ ’bout me lookin’ old! When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life.”

Jody is so embarrassed and pissed off by Janie making fun of him in front of some men from the town that he beats her, moves into a downstairs room, and refuses to talk to her. It’s then that Janie notices that Jody is starting to look older, thinner, and sicker than he was before. Jody refuses to let Janie into his sickroom, until she has enough and forces her way in. She berates him for the way she’s treated her, and as she’s telling him what a terrible husband and person he’s been, Jody dies. As she realizes he’s dead, she lets her hair down (as tying up her hair had been one of Jody’s rules for her, to keep men from lusting after her gorgeous hair) and contemplates her new freedom.

After Jody’s funeral, Janie relishes her independence — she ignores suitors, as she enjoys being in charge of her life for the first time in forty years. However, one day at the store, a younger man comes in to the store and talks to her. His name is Tea Cake and he’s twelve years younger than her and is just dreamy. He’s also unemployed, but that doesn’t matter to Janie, who sells the store and goes with Tea Cake to Jacksonville. The book suddenly becomes How Janie Got Her Groove Back.

They get married in Jaacksonville, but it isn’t all wedded bliss — one night, Janie wakes up and the money she has kept secret from Tea Cake is gone, and he doesn’t return all day. Janie is sure that Tea Cake has only married her for her money, but he comes back the next day — it turns out his theft of her money was a moment of weakness, but Tea Cake is an accomplished gambler and wins all of her money back and then some. Oh, okay.

After Jacksonville, they travel to the Everglades (or as it’s called in the book, “the muck”) to work during the bean harvest season. They have a spartan lifestyle, but Janie finally has the love that she’s always wanted. But alas, disaster strikes — two years after their marriage, the Everglades are struck by a hurricane that becomes lethal when it hits the dyke of Lake Okeechobee. As they’re trying to survive the flooding, Janie grabs the tale of a cow that is already inhabited by a dog, and Tea Cake gets bit by the dog as he’s saving her from the dog’s attack.

They survive the hurricane and go back to the Everglades, but about three weeks later, Tea Cake starts feeling ill and acting strangely: he gets headaches, fevers, he can’t drink water, he wakes up in the night with savagery that manifests by hurting Janie. Janie calls a doctor, who tells her that the dog that bit Tea Cake must have had rabies and given him the disease. That never ends well.

Sure enough, Tea Cake gets sicker and sicker and has increasing bouts of madness to the point that Janie checks to make sure that her rifle is loaded. Tea Cake becomes convinced that Janie is cheating on him and he comes at her with a pistol. He points the gun at her and when she realizes that he isn’t going to put the pistol down, she grabs her rifle and they shoot at the same time — Tea Cake’s bullet hits the wall and Janie’s bullet kills Tea Cake. She cradles his body and weeps.

Rabies or no rabies, Janie has killed Tea Cake and is put on trial for his murder. The town is split between the black and white citizens — the black people oppose her and think she should be found guilty, where the white people find her justified. Sure enough, the all white jury find her innocent and let her go.

She took a room at the boarding house for the night and heard the men talking around the front.

“Aw you know dem white mens wuzn’t gointuh do nothin’ tuh no woman dat look lak her.”

“She didn’t kill no white man, did she? Well, long as she don’t shoot no white man she kin kill jus’ as many niggers as she please.”

“Yeah, de nigger women kin kill up all de mens dey wants tuh, but you bet’ not kill one uh dem. De white folks will sho hang yuh if yuh do.”

“Well, you know whut dey say ‘uh white man and uh nigger woman is de freest thing on earth.’ Dey do as dey please.”

Janie throws a lavish funeral for Tea Cake and invites all of Tea Cake’s friends — when they show up, they apologize for wanting her to be thrown in jail, but Janie’s too heartsick from the loss to care. They ask her to stay in the muck with them, but she can’t face it without Tea Cake, and decides to head back to Eatonville with a package of seeds she plans to plant in memory of Tea Cake.

There Janie wraps up her story to Phoeby, who is thoroughly impressed; Phoeby promises to not let anyone criticize Janie. Janie tells her that she knows the women in the town will gossip about her, but she doesn’t care — she feels sorry for them as they don’t know what love really is and that they have not truly lived for themselves.

“…Love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”

When Pheoby leaves, Janie thinks about Tea Cake. At first, she remembers his body and is upset, but then she thinks of all that Tea Cake has given her and realizes that he’ll never be gone when she can remember him and he will always be with her. He showed her the horizon, and now she feels at peace.

This book is considered a feminist book, which is valid — Janie is discovering her identity as a woman with her own thoughts and feelings, and the struggles that she overcomes by men who don’t allow her to be a person — it’s no coincidence that her first two husbands’ names are Killicks and Starks. Tea Cake, though he’s a much better husband to Janie in that he loves her and doesn’t stifle her in that he encourages her to pursue her interests and try new things, is guilty of a major no-no where it comes to women — at one point, he hits her.

Before the week was over he had whipped Janie. Not because her behavior justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss. Everybody talked about it next day in the fields. It aroused a sort of envy in both men and women. The way he petted and pampered her as if those two or three face slaps had nearly killed her made the women see visions and the helpless way she hung on him made men dream dreams.

Um……….no.

Now, I know this book is about a different time and culture, but the idea that Tea Cake, the man who is the love of her life and the person who makes her feel like a natural woman and the wind beneath her wings hit her because he needed to show POSSESSION?! That is the same sentiment that made Jody tell her to keep her hair pinned up. Not cool, Tea Cake.

Other than that, Janie accomplishes personal growth by the end of the novel, if not because she has experienced love, then because she has become so self assured and self satisfied that she doesn’t care if people gossip about her. That is truly what every woman strives for.

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Module 15: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

December 9th, 2012 — 6:18pm

To Kill a Mockingbird was published by Harper Lee in 1960. It is loosely based on Lee’s childhood and memories she has of her father and a case he defended when she was 10 years old. Since its publication, it has been frequently banned in public schools and libraries for offensive language, racism, and blunt discussion of rape, but it has also produced one of the most honorable and loved characters in fiction in Atticus Finch.

SUMMARY

The novel is narrated by Scout Finch, a young girl who lives in Alabama with her brother, Jem, and father, Atticus, along with their housekeeper, Calpurnia. It details several years in Scout’s childhood during the Great Depression and focuses on experiences related to two very different people in the town of Maycomb, Alabama — Boo Radley, who is a recluse and mysterious figure in the town, and Tom Robinson, who is a black man accused of raping a white woman.

Boo Radley is a legend in the town who is the subject of many rumors, the worst being that he is a prisoner in his own home after getting into trouble with local boys. He is rumored to have gone crazy — one story that Scout and Jem have heard is that one day Boo was sitting on the floor cutting papers with scissors when he calmly reached over and stabbed his father’s leg with the scissors. No one had seen Boo Radley since and it’s a game among the children to run past the house and avoid the pecans that fall out of the trees in the Radleys’ yard, sicne they’re poisoned. Atticus instructs Jem, Scout, and Dill (their friend who visits his aunt in Maycomb every summer) to leave Boo alone when he catches them daring each other to run up and touch the Radleys’ porch.

On their way to school one day, Scout notices something shining from the knothole in a tree in the Radleys’ yard and discovers that someone has left small presents, including chewing gum in foil, yarn, and dolls shaped like Jem and Scout. Scout thinks that Boo Radley has been watching them from his window, and thinks that maybe he isn’t so bad after all.

During this time. Atticus is appointed the lawyer for Tom Robinson, who has been accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman from a poor family. Atticus accepts the case and defends Tom as he’d defend any other client, much to the disbelief of the town. Scout finds herself getting into a few fights at school when other children taunt her and call Atticus a “nigger-lover”. Atticus maintains that defending Tom is the right thing to do, which Scout and Jem agree with.

Atticus does not want Scout, Jem, and Dill to watch the court proceedings, so they sneak into the colored balcony and watch with the black citizens of Maycomb. Atticus proves that Mayella and her father, Bob Ewell are lying — Mayella and Bob say that Tom hit her on the right side of her face and held her down as he raped her; the doctor also testifies that the right side of Mayella’s face had been beaten. However, Tom Robinson is physically incapable of having hit Mayella on the right side of her face, as his left side is paralyzed from an accident when he was a teenager and the muscles in his arm were ripped up when his arm got caught in a cotton thresher. Atticus proves that Tom was trying to help Mayella, whom he felt sorry for due to her economic circumstances and friendless nature, when Mayella made sexual advances on Tom; Bob Ewell came home to see her flirting with a black man and beat her.

Despite the proof in front of them, the jury convicts Tom and finds him guilty. As Atticus leaves the courtroom, the people in the colored balcony stand as he passes. Dill, overcome by how rude the prosecuting attorney is, runs out of the courtroom crying. Jem and Scout follow him and run into the town drunk, who reveals that the bottle he drinks out of is actually soda — it’s easier for people to accept how he lives (with his black wife and children) if the townspeople think he’s a drunk and therefore not responsible for his actions. This is one of the first occasions that Jem and Scout that people and situations aren’t always as they appear.

After Tom’s conviction, he is sent to jail, and despite Atticus’s promise and work on an appeal, Tom is shot and killed when he tries to escape. The editor of the paper compares the conviction and killing of Tom Robinson to the killing of a mockingbird, which is a metaphor that Scout is familiar with — when Atticus gives Jem a gun, he tells him that he can shoot anything except for a mockingbird, as mockingbirds are innocent songbirds and only exist to bring beauty to the world. Scout realizes that Tom, and perhaps Boo Radley, are like mockingbirds.

Even though Tom is convicted, Bob Ewell is humiliated and upset with Atticus for revealing all of his faults in court. He vows revenge and spits in Atticus’s face when they meet on the street. On the night of the school play, when Jem and Scout are walking home (Scout in a ham costume), they are attacked in the dark. Scout is shoved to the side and can’t escape her ham costume, so she can only hear noises, which include a lot of scuffling and then heavy breathing. When she manages to break free of the ham, she sees a man carrying an unconscious Jem to the Finch house.

When she gets to their house, Atticus is calling a doctor. The doctor arrives and gives Jem a sedative and sets his broken arm. The sheriff, Heck Tate, arrives and tells Atticus Finch that Bob Ewell has been found stabbed with his own knife. When the sheriff and Atticus ask Scout what happened, she notices the mysterious man standing in the corner of Jem’s room and realizes that it’s Boo Radley who saved them.

Atticus and the sheriff decide that it is in both Jem and Boo’s best interest to claim that Bob Ewell fell on his own knife in the struggle with Jem — they know that if the word gets out that Boo saved the Finch children, the women of the town will bring him casseroles and fawn over him, which would be torture for the reclusive Boo. Tom died for no reason and now the man who was responsible is dead, is how the sheriff sees it.

Scout walks Boo home and he disappears into his house. Scout reflects that she never sees him again after that. She considers what life must be like from Boo’s perspective. She’s sad that she and Jem never repaid Boo for the gifts he left for them in the tree. She stands and looks at the street from the Radley house and imagines the town how Boo saw it. When she gets back to their house, Atticus is sitting by Jem’s bed and is reading a book, so she asks him to read to her. As she is falling asleep, Scout mumbles about a character in the book to prove that she’d been listening, but it also juxtaposes her encounter with Boo Radley:

“An‘ they chased him ’n‘ never could catch him ’cause they didn’t know what he looked like, an‘ Atticus, when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things…Atticus, he was real nice…”

His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me.

“Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

IMPRESSIONS

I love this book. I really can’t talk enough about how much I love it and will be searching for the rest of my life for a man exactly like Atticus Finch and when I find him I will marry him.

The book paints a truthful picture of a Southern town and the racial injustice that exists. I’ve never understood why people, Southerners in particular, try to ban or become offended by portrayals of racism in America. It DID exist and people WERE ridiculously horrible to each other. It’s the same with the Holocaust deniers — why? It takes away from the picture of Southern hospitality, perhaps that’s it. However, this book showcases a spectrum of prejudices, as it details the prejudices of both whites against blacks and whites against whites of a lower economic and social classes.

To Kill a Mockingbird is on banned lists for offensive language and racism. The offensive language, I found, is nothing that would make one blush, other than the talk of “niggers” and “nigger-lovers” and the discussion of the rape of Mayella Ewell.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

In her first novel, Harper Lee writes with gentle affection, rich humor and deep understanding of small-town family life in Alabama. … It is an easy going but narrow minded community, whose foot-washing Baptists feel perfectly free to denounce Miss Maudie Atkinson, a passionate garden-lover (for whom the scent of mimosa is “angels’ breath”) because “anything that’s pleasure is a sin.” At the other extreme stand men like Atticus Finch, a high-esteemed lawyer and legislator and the embodiment of fearless integrity, magnanimity and common sense. … The dialogue of Miss Lee’s refreshingly varied characters is a constant delight in its authenticity and swift revelation of personality. … [but] The praise Miss Lee deserves must be qualified somewhat by noting that oftentimes Scout’s expository style has an processed, homogenized, impersonal flatness quite out of keeping with the narrator’s gay, impulsive approach to life in youth. Also, some of the scenes suggest that Miss Lee is cocking at least on eye toward Hollywood. Movie-going readers will be able to cast most of the roles very quickly, but it is no disparagement of Miss Lee’s winning book to say that if could be the basis of an excellent film.
New York Times

Two other novels have turned up which may be classified as respectable hammock reading, if anybody reads in hammocks anymore. Walk Egypt by Vinnie Williams is well-written soap opera, and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is sugar-water served with humor. . . .

To Kill A Mockingbird is a more successful piece of work. It is frankly and completely impossible, being told in the first person by a six-year-old girl with the prose style of a well-educated adult. Miss Lee has, to be sure, made an attempt to confine the information in the text to what Scout would actually know, but it is no more than a casual gesture toward plausibility.

The book’s setting is a small town in Alabama, and the action behind Scout’s tale is her father’s determination, as a lawyer, liberal, and honest man, to defend a Negro accused of raping a white girl. What happens is, naturally, never seen directly by the narrator. The surface of the story is an Alcottish filigree of games, mischief, squabbles with an older brother, troubles at school, and the like. None of it is painful, for Scout and Jem are happy children, brought up with angelic cleverness by their father and his old Negro housekeeper. Nothing fazes them much or long. Even the new first-grade teacher, a devotee of the “Dewey decimal system” who is outraged to discover that Scout can already read and write, proves endurable in the long run.

A variety of adults, mostly eccentric in Scout’s judgment, and a continual bubble of incident make To Kill A Mockingbird pleasant, undemanding reading.
The Atlantic

LIBRARY USES

I would force every patron of the library to read this book if I could. There are so many uses — book talks with teenagers, displays for banned book week, displays for summer reading, excerpts to introduce studying civil rights and Jim Crow in history classes.

REFERENCES

Adams, P. L. (1960, August). Review of to kill a mockingbird. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.cardinalstage.org/critical-responses-to-the-nove

Lee, H. (1960). To kill a mockingbird. New York, NY: J. B. Lippincott & Co.

Lyell, F. (1960, July 10). One taxi town. The New York Times.. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/learning/teachers/archival/19600710tkamreview.pdf

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