May 22, 2008


The Hope Chest. By Karen Schwabach. Random House. $16.99.

Warriors: Power of Three—Book Three: Outcast. By Erin Hunter. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      Outsiders who want very much to belong lie at the heart of both these books, despite the tremendous differences in their topics and storytelling styles. The Hope Chest is historical fiction, set mainly in 1920, when women’s suffrage was all the rage – and causing all the rage among the “Antis” who opposed the “Suffs.” To layer on an extra level of emotional complexity, Karen Schwabach makes one of her protagonists a young black girl, caught smack in the middle of the Jim Crow era while also hoping against hope that maybe people of her gender and race will one day soon get to make their voices heard at the ballot box. Schwabach gets her points across mostly through stereotypes. Eleven-year-old Violet is plucky, determined to find her older sister, Chloe, who bucked the conventions of the time and the family by moving from Pennsylvania to New York City instead of getting respectably married and settling down. Violet learns that Chloe has headed for Tennessee to fight for women’s right to vote, so she has to follow her there, where Chloe does such scandalous things as dancing with men. Meanwhile, Myrtle, who is “colored,” has to endure slights large and small. And the characters who deliver them speak mostly in clichés: “I know what it looks like to you Northerners, the way we do things in the South. Our special customs. But we have a very harmonious relationship between the races down here. Very harmonious.” Or, as the Antis discuss a way to make the upcoming vote on women’s suffrage go their way, “All we need is for the Jew to disappear for a week or so. That’ll throw the Suffs into…a tizzy.” Schwabach includes some real people in her book, although the main characters are fictional; she explains at the end which are which, and also offers background on World War I, the flu epidemic of 1918, and the timeline for the 19th Amendment (which granted women the right to vote) and beyond. She has clearly done her research, and she writes in a straightforward style that should appeal to preteens with an interest in American history; but her characters never really come alive as individual people, and it is hard to care about them in more than a generic way.

      The characters in the various Warriors sagas are not human at all – these intertwined stories are about clans of intelligent cats – and it can be hard to tell many of them apart. But the central characters in Erin Hunter’s books do have their own personalities, and with the third book in the Warriors: Power of Three series, those personalities emerge more strongly than ever. The meaning of the word “outcast” is considered from many angles here. It refers to one of the three grandchildren of famed Clan leader Firestar – Jaypaw. Unlike Lionpaw and Hollypaw, Jaypaw knows about a secret prophecy that seems to promise the three young cats great power and the Clans great peril. “Outcast” also refers to the Tribe of Rushing Water, a cat group organized differently from the way the Clans are and subjected to unforeseen and dangerous pressures. Jaypaw meets the Tribe when he journeys to the mountains in search of more information about the prophecy. But when he encounters ghostly ancestral cats, from whom he seeks help, he does not learn quite what he wishes: “‘Yes.’ The old cat breathed out the word. ‘Three will come, kin of the cat with fire in his pelt, who hold the power of the stars in their paws.’” Then the ancestors urge Jaypaw to bring the Clan cats to help the Tribe, and the Tribe members themselves argue about the need for help – the Tribe is starving – and the need, perhaps a greater one, to maintain their independence and way of life. In scenes of battle and healing, Hunter continues to explore her themes of power and civilization, using cats as surrogates for human epic heroes. At the end, Jaypaw decides at last to share the prophecy with Lionpaw and Hollypaw – setting the scene for the next book, in which perhaps all three will feel like outcasts.

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