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.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Miner’s Daughter Gretchen Moran Laskas (3 1/2 out of 4 stars)--
Gandhi said, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.” Those who are close to this issue know that Gandhi was right; many of the negative attitudes and assumptions students, parents, and community members frequently hear and ultimately adopt stem from socioeconomic sources. However, when YA authors attempt to deal with this issue, the discussion too often devolves to drugs, bling, and demeaning female stereotypes. Wisely, Gretchen Moran Laskas deals with the issue of poverty and how to climb out of it through a Depression-era West Virginia mining town and its bleak surroundings and desperately struggling residents. Ms. Moran Laskas’s poignant new novel The Miner’s Daughter follows the journey of one young woman’s family and its descent into, and redemption from, a life of misery and poverty.
Willa Lowell is sixteen and miserable. She lives with her parents and four other brothers and sisters in a small shack in a West Virginia mining town run by (and now practically abandoned by) a company called Riley Mines. It is 1932 and the Depression is in full force; the mines do not offer much work, and any work that is available is difficult and dangerous. Not only is the situation bleak, the actual town is as well: “She was used to a world of ashy grays; the brightness bleached from the town as thoroughly as the colors faded from the clothing on their backs” (17). Willa attempts to brighten her days by reading at Miss Grace’s Mission, a new library set up for the miners and their families, and by learning about literature and life from Miss Grace. When Willa’s father Waitman and brother Ves must go away to find work, Willa dresses like a boy so she can work on the truck that transports workers to the fields at harvest time to pick fruits and vegetables (the job pays food alone but the Lowells need to can food for the winter or starve). During her work Willa befriends Johnny Settle, a friend of her brother, and they explore first love together: “When they lay side by side in the grass, their hands clasped, looking up at the stars, it was easy to imagine that they were somewhere else, even other people. Willa had come to feel this way whenever Johnny was about—as though she had stepped out of her faded, worn-out self and into a shiny new one” (152). Despite his charms, Willa will not allow herself to be defined by a young miner’s puppy love, and when the family gets an opportunity to move to a New Deal planned community called Arthurdale, she must choose between a bleak past and an uncertain future.
With The Miner’s Daughter, Gretchen Moran Laskas has recreated the experience that many of us reveled in during our childhoods: the discovery of the power of words. From Willa’s declaration early in the novel, “‘Words matter. People act like they don’t . . . But they do. At least they matter to me’” (20), to her realization later that “Words are powerful” (99), and during her desperate plea to the Muse that “Surely . . . if I could just memorize enough words, if I could put them in the right order, I would figure out just what I’m supposed to do” (170), she gradually empowers herself through words and inner strength in order to rise above the socioeconomic forces that threaten her. Ms. Laskis’s backdrop for this journey of linguistic discovery serves to increase the tension of the characters as well as highlight Willa’s achievement of mind over matter, and sometimes even over food, clothing and shelter. The Miner’s Daughter is a fine addition to Depression-era YA literature and joins such fine works as Out of the Dust, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and Bud, Not Buddy as a testament to the harshness of the human struggle against a hostile world as well as the triumph of the human will over any circumstances.

Raining Sardines by Flores-Galbis, Enrique (3 out of 4 stars)--

Young adult fiction does not normally require me to scamper over to a literary encyclopedia or online database to look up terms and genres, but when the title of Enrique Flores-Galbis’s first novel Raining Sardines actually started happening in the story and I was dumbfounded, I knew I needed to understand more about Magic Realism. Although Flores-Galbis emigrated from Cuba when he was nine, his writing is greatly influenced by 20th Century Latin American writers. Sadly, in retrospect, multiculturalism in my early 1980s undergraduate English department meant that we studied American and British literature, so I was lucky to have read Goethe and Dostoyevsky, let alone excellent Latin American authors such as Colombian Gabriel García Márquez and Chilean Isabel Allende. I was happy to expand my literary and geographical horizons a bit with this quirky novel. Although the style was awkward at times, Flores-Galbis’s pre-Castro story of community, friendship, and respect for family and the land does emerge and weave its way through a reasonably satisfying story.
The novel begins when best friends Ernestina and Enriquito swim out in the water to meet a fortune teller, Aguas Clara la Divinadora, who is floating on a couch, sipping tea and telling stories. Clara speaks mysteriously at times, but she seems to know many things about the children’s futures. She gives cryptic (but ultimately valuable) advice to Enriquito: “With the tip of her finger, she traced a swirling shape in the center of his forehead. Enriquito heard her say, ‘One to forget, two to remember.’ Clara smiled and winked at him. ‘Believe in your dreams. When the right time comes, if you listen, you will hear me’” (8). Their dreams begin to manifest themselves in reality when Ernestina and Enriquito discover a hidden valley in which the finest Paso Fino wild ponies dwell in peace, untouched by the stain of colonialization. Unfortunately, rich, greedy, and callous Don Rigol, whose daughter Alysia is a snobbish, bratty thorn in Ernestina’s side, is clearing the mountain, and they will soon find and capture the ponies. A locket that belongs to Alysia but might have originally belonged to Enriquito’s family may hold the key to many unresolved issues that linger over the town about who owns the mountain and its contents. However, Don Rigol does everything he can to prevent his deceptions from emerging, so it becomes Ernestina’s and Enriquito’s sacred responsibility to become the revealers of the truth in the end, just like Aguas Clara la Divinadora in the beginning.
I confess to a bit of confusion at the start of Raining Sardines by Enrique Flores-Galbis; just as Ernestina and Enriquito felt awkward floating on a couch with Aguas Clara, I felt uncomfortable floating in uncharted literary waters. However, after about thirty or forty pages I got my sea legs and stopped trying to interpret everything like an English teacher. Once I simply enjoyed the often captivating imagery and stopped trying to figure out what everything symbolized, I started appreciating the colorful characters and settings more and worried about whether I was “getting it” less. Descriptions like, “Ernestina, spinning in the sun-splashed intersection, looked like she had been dipped in honey” (62) indicate that Flores-Galbis has the artist’s eye, and in fact, he is a painter and art teacher. Whether or not our students (and staff) appreciate this unique Latin American genre, they will recognize and probably enjoy this standard good guy-bad guy, David vs. Goliath tale. Particularly, Spanish speakers and learners may appreciate the liberal smattering of Spanish words and phrases throughout the novel.