“One Crazy Summer” and The Birth of Consciousness

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In just about every Diana Wynne Jones novel, there is a moment in which a child looks at an adult and realizes that behind that face is another person. A flawed person, a person with their own strengths, weaknesses, and failings. A complex person who is capable of anything.

It’s a moment of consciousness, and in “One Crazy Summer,” the growth of her consciousness is the subject of the entire novel. Her consciousness of herself as a young black woman, her consciousness of the historical moment she lives in–but most of all, her consciousness of her mother.

Abandonment is never an easy thing for a child to deal with. Abandonment by a mother, which is so unusual that it means constant reminders of the child’s strangeness, is perhaps even harder to deal with than a father’s abandonment. But to hold onto hate and resentment is poisonous, and it takes all summer for her to finally release her pent up frustration at her mother, to shout her blame.

That’s when she finally learns her mother’s story. That’s when she finally sees the person under “mother.” When she understands that to be a woman is not always an easy thing, and that sometimes adults have to choose between betraying themselves and betraying those who love them.

The question of names is a recurring theme in “One Crazy Summer.” Black Panthers choose new names and call each other “brother” and “sister.” Her mother has chosen a new name, and writes her poetry under it. And her mother refuses to use her youngest daughter’s name, because it was not the name she chose for her.

But her mother has to change too, and everyone must choose their own names. She makes the choice to tell her little sister what her first name was. She gives her little sister ownership of that name. And it doesn’t disempower her mother–instead, it makes them closer.

We are all who we choose to be. Those choices define us. And every kid has to learn that the adults in their lives have made choices. And to grow up is to understand why those choices were made. Why those names were chosen.

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Prague In Literature

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There has to be a graveyard. If there isn’t a graveyard scene, the book isn’t really taking place in Prague.

Prague is an odd sort of city, a melancholy, dark place. The greatest Prague writer was Franz Kafka–that tells you a lot right there. And every once in a while, Prague turns up in an unexpected place. When that happens, the way to tell if the author has actually been to Prague is to ask “is there a graveyard scene?”

Helen Oyeyemi, author of “What is Not Yours is Not Yours,” lived in Prague. I know that because I read an interview, but also because her book is full of eerie puppets in Prague graveyards. Jonathan Stroud, author of “The Golem’s Eye,” spent time in Prague. I don’t have a clue if he admitted that in an interview, but his protagonist went to the Prague Cemetery pretty quickly.

Certain places are alive in ways that are not quite understandable to the human eye. And when the feel of those places is captured in books–something special happens.

The Goats and the Power of Adolescence

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“The Goats” is a camp book, a wilderness book. In it, two teenagers are marooned on an island by their fellow campers because they have been marked out as “different,” “immature.” They are stripped naked and left to have sex. This will normalize them.

It’s a horrifically disempowering situation to be in. But the two protagonists of “The Goats” aren’t disempowered. They flee the island on their own steam. They get by themselves, without compromising their senses of honesty, for days. They find power.

The be a teenager is to feel powerless. Teenagers are victims of their hormones, victims of their own fears. They live in a complicated and difficult world, where any friend can become and enemy and vice versa.

In “The Goats,” the characters take ownership of their lives. They turn their own powerlessness into independence, turn their forced relationship into a source of strength. The start as victims, but emerge victors.

Charlotte’s Web and Death

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“No one was with her when she died.” That is the last line in Charlotte’s story. It’s a lonely, wrenching, heartbreaking line, as simple and perfect as the rest of the novel.

“Charlotte’s Web” is all about finding the story in the small lives. The pig who doesn’t want to be eaten, the scavenging rat, the soft-hearted little farmgirl. But the greatest story of all belongs to Charlotte, who lived both the smallest life of all, dying within the pages of the novel, and the longest, having saved Wilbur and having given birth to generations of spiders.

Yet, even so, her death is so very sad.

“The Traitor Baru Cormorant” and the Question of Realism in Fantasy

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Thanks to Game of Thrones, these days “gritty” and “realistic” fantasy are all the rage. If people aren’t swearing, having sex, and discussing their bowel movements, it’s not “realist.”

Seth Dickinson looked at this trend, turned his head, and found a way to make it cooler. “The Traitor Baru Cormorant” does describe some semi-graphic violence, but sex is almost completely absent, and explicit language rare. Instead, the book is concerned with the question of “how the world works.” How do empires rule? How are cultures changed and conquered? How can taxes and fiscal policy make and break kingdoms?

“The Traitor Baru Cormorant” is intensely realistic. It asks how, from the ground up, a rebellion can begin and end. How can people be affected. How can the world be made to turn in a particular direction. And it’s awesome.

George MacDonald and Originality

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I pride myself on having read a lot. I’ve dabbled in just about every genre, I know narrative structure and standard plot devices well enough that I am not often surprised by stories anymore. So, when I opened George MacDonald’s 1897 novella “The Light Princess,” I was not expecting something fresh or surprising. I was expecting an old-fashioned fairy tale.

I was wrong. I’ve never read anything quite like “The Light Princess.” MacDonald’s voice is completely original. His depictions of the prince and princess of a fairy tale are paradoxically (given the title) down-to-earth, normal people to whom fantastical events happen. And his idea–what if a princess were born who weighed nothing at all, and ran a real risk of blowing away in the wind–is both poetic and hilarious.

Nothing is quite like the stories George MacDonald wrote more than one hundred years ago. Nothing will ever be quite like them. And there are always surprises to be found between the covers of books.

Jo: The heroine of Little Women?

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Opening up “Little Women,” I thought that it would be a multi-protagonist sort of book. I was wrong. Jo is the protagonist.

Jo is the first one to speak, and the last sister to settle down and marry. Jo is the primary love interest of the “hero.” Jo is the best friend of doomed Beth.

It is Jo’s development as a person that makes the strongest narrative thread in the book. Amy and Meg also have arcs, but Jo makes more mistakes, has more adventures, acquires more true friends than either of them.

Jo is a tomboy. It’s the central fact of her character. All through the book, people compliment her on how much more womanly she’s becoming. But at the novel’s end, she is running around in the mud with a load of little boys, living and running a school for boys, mothering two boys herself. She lives in an entirely male world–she has become a woman, but on her own terms.

In a difficult and often painful world, all three of the surviving March sisters hollow out small oases for themselves and their families. But while Meg and John Brooke make a tiny world just for them, and Amy and Laurie make a porous and low-key world, Jo’s allies let her make a huge world for herself. In fact, Jo’s world–the school she’s founded, the family she’s made–is so strong and sprawling that it sucks other people in, makes them part of the family.

Jo is a complicated heroine, a woman at war with herself, at conflict with the very idea of the feminine nature that was held to be morally “good” in her time. It’s often said of heroines like her that “she’s a modern girl born in the wrong time and place,” but the truth is that Jo made her world into the right time and place by sheer force of will, personality, and love.