Wednesday, March 16, 2016

"Bone Gap:" Original and Fresh YA Magical Realism

Before I get too far into this, I must admit that "Bone Gap" by Laura Ruby was VERY hard for me to get through.

It's not because this book isn't a book one it's more that I am not a fan of magical realism.  I prefer my reality to stay reality and my fantasy to stay fantasy.  When everything gets twisted together I get somewhat agitated.

But here's the deal -
Ruby's book is original.  It's fresh.  It's lyrical and it has stayed with me.  It was a National Book Award Finalist as well as a Printz Honor Winner and those awards and numerous accolades make sense.

At the center of the story are two brothers - Sean and Finn O'Sullivan who live on their own after a tragic accident that took the life of their father and then the subsequent departure of their bereft mother.  Sean vows to take care of his younger brother, Finn, who is odd even for a small town full of a menagerie of trippy characters.  Finn is often beat up by the Rude brothers and called "Moonface" or "Sidetrack" because of his spaced out demeanor.  His saving grace seems to be that he's beautiful just like his mom.

When a gorgeous Polish woman named Roza suddenly turns up in their barn with injuries and no story, the brothers quickly fall in love with her - one in a romantic way and the other in more of a brotherly sort of way.  When Roza suddenly disappears one year later, no one wants to believe Finn's story that she has been taken by a man whose face he can't describe.  Sean believes that everyone wants to leave them, but Finn knows that they need to find her and save her.

Based on the tale of Persephone who gets taken by Hades into the underworld, the realism of small town life gets tangled with black mares, pomegranate cookies, barren gardens, talking corn fields, and prosopagnosia.  Ruby's own poetic style interspersed with a honey laden, young love story make the novel even more dream like.

I appreciate the craftsmanship of the complexities and layers of this tale.  At it's heart is love and how we view the people that we fall in love with and who love us back, and how that changes the way we view ourselves.  It's also about the interconnectedness of small town life full of gossip and secrets - the gaps we fill with stories and those that we leave open for others to discover, as well as the gaps that sometimes swallow us whole. When Charlie Valentine tries to explain the mysteries of Bone Gap to Finn he tells him, "Because we don't have your typical gaps around here.  Not gaps made of rocks or mountains. We have gaps in the world. In the space of things. So many places to lose yourself, if you believe that they're there.  You can slip into the gap and never find your way out.  Or maybe you don't want to find your way out."

It's quite beautiful when I think about it, but I slogged through the reading of this novel vs. enjoying the tale unfold. At times I thought I should abandon it in favor of the other books in my towering bedside stack.  But I stuck with it, and I'm glad that I did because I keep thinking about the story and the characters, and I want to read more about Persephone.

If you want something that isn't ordinary or expected, with a mystery, a love story, and a modern twist on a mythological tale, "Bone Gap" is going to be your new favorite book.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

"Fever 1793": An education about yellow fever

Sometimes I am astounded about my lack of historical knowledge.

I consider myself a rather intelligent person who has an advanced degree plus years of extra schooling and workshops, and 15 years of classroom experience.  Unfortunately, I had the worst ever high school history teacher three years in a row.  His idea of teaching was sitting at his desk and going on tangents of his choosing with his hands behind the back of his head and his feet propped up on his desk.  Occasionally, he'd break out an ancient slide show while many students slept through it. I always volunteered to read the slides aloud for no other reason than to keep myself awake.

I've learned all of my history through self study and through reading historical fiction.  When I read a great one, I do more research to find out even more about a specific period of time.  During the time I taught, I did the same thing; I immersed myself in the history of whatever novel we read.  For "The Great Gatsby," I had the students study famous people of the time and then come to a "Shindig for Smarties" dressed as those people and interacting as them during Charleston contests and mingling.

Recently, my daughter Raina came home and told me about Laurie Halse Anderson's book, "Fever 1793." She said, "You've got to read this book, Mommy.  It's totally gross and totally amazing."  How could I pass up that perfect book review?

I happened to own a copy (leftover from my days in the classroom), so I cracked it open at lunch and didn't stop reading for over an hour.  I finished it that evening before I went to bed.  It's YA (maybe even considered middle reader) so the pace of the storyline is fast and furious.

The story revolves around 14 year old Mattie Cook who is stubborn and lovable.  She lives with her mother and grandfather in the year 1793 in the capital of the new United States, Philadelphia.  Her mother owns and operates the Cook Coffeehouse, and Mattie helps her as much as she can.  News starts to spread about a disease enveloping the city during one of the hottest and buggiest summers ever and people start to panic and flee the city.

The book quickly becomes a survival story when the disease infects Mattie's world and she needs to use all of her courage and instincts just to stay alive.

My daughter was absolutely correct in her review of this book being both totally gross and amazing.  Laurie Halse Anderson knows how to draw her readers into a story.  This is the first historical fiction book of Anderson's that I have read, but I have others on my shelf-  "Chains" (which was a National Book Award finalist in 2008 and won the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction in 2009) and "Forge".  "Fever 1793" received numerous awards including the ALA Best Books for Young Adults.

It's worth the praise and worth the education.  Anderson thoroughly researched the epidemic and included quotations from actual documents and diaries of the time period at the beginning of each chapter.  My scholastic version of the book even includes more historical information at the very end of the book, so after I read it, I felt like I had received a better education than my high school history lectures.

More than anything, by the end of the book, I was so thankful to be living with modern medical techniques.  We still have epidemics to contend with in our modern era, but hopefully we can learn from the not so pretty outbreaks in our history.