Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson (3 1/2 out of 4 stars)

There is a famous book from the 1800s called Jane Eyre in which an orphan rises above miserable conditions through hard and honest work, overcomes great hardship, and ultimately gains control of her life in a place and time that did not necessarily allow women that sort of autonomy. If Jane had lived on the frontier in Montana during the end of World War I, she might have been Hattie Brooks, the main character in Kirby Larson's novel Hattie Big Sky.

Hattie is an orphan who has been shuffled from cousin to aunt to cousin and ends up in Iowa with a mean and nasty aunt who wants her to quit school and go to work. Out of the blue, her distant Uncle Chester dies and leaves her a claim in Montana. If she can prove the claim (establish the land as her own by fencing and planting) the land is hers. She immediately sets off on her great adventure. As expected, life is harsh in Montana, and there are many obstacles to face, not all of them from the land. Hattie must also deal with a slick, underhanded (but good-looking and smooth) cowboy who wants her land. Most importantly, the author exposes one of the uglier sides of WWI in America: anti-immigrant racism, prejudice, and persecution. Today, Americans are asking themselves if security is worth giving up personal freedom and evaluating such legislation as The Patriot Act that asks people to allow that type of intrusion. This is a common theme in our history, and wartime is usually when conditions are ripest for blacklisting. Larson astutely examines our current policies as she looks at history, the quality of all good historical fiction.

This is a well-written book that rings true because it is based on the exploits of the author's grandmother, who actually lived Hattie's life. The writing moves along quickly, and Larson cleverly moves the story in time by writing letters to her friend/maybe-boyfriend overseas in the war and writing about being a single homesteader for her local Iowa newspaper. If you like adventure and people who conquer their problems and take control of their lives, read Hattie Big Sky.

The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages (3 out of 4 stars)
If your childhood is anything like mine was, you watch a lot of television. In the 1960s and 1970s when I was growing up, sitcoms were very popular. I admit that my love of a good plot is rooted in the comfortable, candy-coated plots of The Brady Bunch, The Munsters, Bewitched, and The Jeffersons. If you like a plot that feels like a sitcom, but a reasonably good one, you will enjoy Ellen Klages’s new novel, The Green Glass Sea.

The year is 1943, and two unlikely eleven-year-old friends are thrown together, much like the Brady kids at the beginning of The Brady Bunch. The setting is the Hill at Los Alamos in the middle of the desert Southwest. It is the home of the members of the Manhattan Project, the secret group of scientists trying to build the atomic bomb before the Nazis. Dewey Kerrigan is an engineering enthusiast who loves to invent gadgets; she reads the magazine The Boy Mechanic because “‘They didn’t make one for girls’” (142). She revels in getting engineering advice from scientists Richard Feynman and [Director] Robert J. Oppenheimer himself. Suze Gordon desperately wants to fit in with the pretty, Girl Scout, hair ribbon crowd, but she’s a bit too loud, a bit too big and awkward, and a bit too pushy for the in crowd’s taste. After circumstances force them to live together, the Truck (Suze) leaps upon an opportunity to publicly mock Screwy Dewey with all of the other girls watching. Suze knocks over Dewey’s box of gadget parts and scatters them across the floor. Dewey does not know how to respond; she is, after all, small, outnumbered, and living in a military base: “She thought of a dozen things to say, and said none of them. The other girls were watching, waiting to see if anything would happen. And Dewey knew if there were sides to be taken, the girls with the jacks would, for once, be happy to pick Suze” (157). Everything is secret on the Hill, and people must find ways to live together for the duration of the war. Through many challenges, some of them due to the natural tension related to the setting of the story, Dewey and Suze forge ahead together and discover the shape and texture of true friendship.

I enjoyed this novel in the same way I used to enjoy TV sitcoms. Fortunately, Ellen Klages does not have to write brilliantly to be effective. Although she resorts to a confusing method of changing tenses near the end of the novel to indicate that the narrative has shifted to Dewey’s mind, and despite one embarrassing plot anomaly in which Suze draws a line down the center of her room to separate her and Dewey just like The Brady Bunch and a hundred others, Ellen Klages delivers a good buddy tale amidst an exotic peek into the scientific community. Like Gennifer Choldenko’s Al Capone Does My Shirts, in which a twelve-year-old boy named Moose must go to live on Alcatraz Island because his father gets a job there, this novel transports the protagonist(s) to an unusual place with unusual rules. Klages correctly lets the setting do much of the work of driving the story. The liner notes indicate that the author is already working on a sequel to this novel, titled White Sands, Red Menace. I am looking forward to reading about how life goes on after the war for Dewey and Suze, when they have to live together in the “real world” of civilian life.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation--Volume One, The Pox Party by M. T. Anderson (4 out of 4 stars)

Let me begin by saying that M. T. Anderson's last book, Feed, is my favorite sci-fi book of the last few years, ranking in my all star list with titles like Rodman Philbrick's The Last Book in the Universe and Robert C. O'Brien's Z for Zachariah. Therefore, I was expecting science fiction (or some reasonable facsimile) when I picked up Anderson's excellent new novel. Instead, I got some of the most engaging historical fiction I have ever read.

Octavian is an African prince who is sold in Colonial America (around 1770) with his mother Princess Cassiopeia, formerly of the Oyo tribe. Son and mother are owned by a college of natural philosophy called the Novanglian College of Lucidity. The "philosophers" conduct experiments in all forms of science; even Octavian and his mother are experiments, which they will discover later. However, they are given a sophisticated, classical education and are treated to excellent food and clothing. Even though Octavian is not asked to perform slave-like duties during his early childhood, he must learn the realities of life for a person of color in colonial America from a fellow slave and mentor, Pro Bono: “He held out the written pass. ‘This is what they want us to be,’ he said. ‘They want us to be nothing but a bill of sale . . . they’re on the exploration of themselves, going on the inner journey into their own breast. But us, they want there to be nothing inside of. They want us to be writ on. They want us to be a surface’” (136). As the Revolutionary War approaches, funding for the college dwindles and new investors make increasingly uncomfortable demands of everyone, especially Octavian and Cassiopeia.

The story is told as a narrative, but it is frequently interrupted with letters, posters, and news stories that cleverly continue Octavian's story. M. T. Anderson can definitely write, and he shows off his skills in this brilliantly conceived novel. By setting his latest novels (this story was conceived as a two-volume set) during the Revolutionary War, he dually examines our participation in Iraq. By making the protagonist a slave classically trained by Europeans, he dually examines the role of racism, stereotypes and multiculturalism in our culture. I know you 7th graders are studying this period in history (and 8th graders still have it fresh in their minds), so this would be a great supplement to your understanding and appreciation for the difficulties of this pivotal time in America. But besides all of that, it's a great book.