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.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Rinaldi, Ann. The Letter Writer (3 stars out of 4)
The setting for The Letter Writer, the latest historical novel by Somerville resident Ann Rinaldi, is antebellum Virginia, not the best model of the promise of America. The plantation system, with its complex, brutal arrangement of workers, house men and women, and personal attendants, demeaned everyone involved with its inhuman machinations. Whippings, floggings, and beatings abounded, and plantation owners were often cruel, insensitive, and spoiled creatures, worried more about their political futures or their latest dresses for the ball than about the 60 human beings who lived on their land. It was worse in the deep South, but it was bad enough in Virginia. In this tense climate, Ms. Rinaldi has woven a moving drama about the consequences of one decision, and the irony that every young person learns with pain or embarrassment: sometimes the people who seem like enemies are allies, and doing what seems to be the right thing can sometimes have tragic consequences.
After spending most of her first eleven years as a spirited but useless stepchild, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy father lost at sea many years before, Harriet Whitehead finally has a job: writing letters for her nearly-blind stepmother. Through this letter writing, Harriet begins to come of age and understand the complex workings of an 1831 Virginia plantation. She also learns of the slave preacher Nat Turner, who Mother Whitehead wants to repair and refurbish the plantation’s furniture. Mother Whitehead, like herself, seems to be tolerant and humane when dealing with slaves, but Harriet’s stern half-brother Richard, the local pastor and the leader of the family after their father’s disappearance, sees wickedness and sin everywhere. When Harriet is caught, quite unladylike, picking cattails with her half-white attendant, Violet, Richard disciplines them and makes his true feelings known: “‘Somebody has to put the fear of God onto them . . . Slaves have no morals’” (11). When Nat Turner is finally hired at the Whitehead plantation, Harriet is granted an opportunity to help him (and secretly conspire against the inhumane forces of the time) by providing a copy of a map of the area. When Harriet’s only confidante and pen pal, her Uncle Andrew in England, expresses concern over Mr. Turner’s intentions, Mr. Turner assures her, “‘I am a fisher of men . . . I am going to stop at plantations and preach of the God that loves us’” (80). Even
Cloanna, an old slave who supposedly has “the vision” of knowing the most secret information, warns Harriet point-blank not to turn the map over: “‘Destroy it . . . Somethin’ bad gonna happen round heah, and I want no part of it’” (87). Instead, Harriet follows her heart and tries to be a part of something bigger than herself or the plantation. Giving Mr. Turner the map begins a process that ends disastrously, and Harriet must live with her actions and try to move on.
The Nat Turner story is stained with mystery and blood, but the calm yet brutal murderer seems oddly modern. His story of fanaticism and pent-up rage feels like a page out of post-Kennedy America, and like many of the protests of that era, the effects of his actions were long-ranging, not immediate. Ann Rinaldi seizes on the awkward immediacy of the topic to tell another effective coming-of-age story with an exciting historical background. Harriet Whitehead learns everything can change in an instant, and that it is surprisingly easy to misunderstand and misinterpret her world. In this era of financial worry and political unrest, this truism has seldom been more pertinent. The Letter Writer by Ann Rinaldi is another solid effort that paints a colorful, dynamic, but disturbing portrait of antebellum America and its struggles to be free.

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