March 12, 2009


Alligator Bayou. By Donna Jo Napoli. Wendy Lamb Books. $16.99.

Carolina Harmony. By Marilyn Taylor McDowell. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     It has become increasingly fashionable, in books for preteens and young teenagers, to dig down to traumas of the past in order to offer historical fiction that authors think will resonate emotionally with young people today. The reasons for this are obscure, but perhaps the ability simultaneously to escape from modern-day difficulties while learning that the past has lessons that still apply in the 21st century is an element of authors’ and publishers’ thinking. Books in this historical-fiction category tend to follow familiar patterns, establishing the time frame and explaining how people lived then while focusing on the emotional lives of the families profiled – and subjecting them to all sorts of difficulties from which the young protagonists eventually emerge stronger and more capable of handling life.

     That is the pattern of both Alligator Bayou, for ages 12 and up, and Carolina Harmony, for ages 9-12. Donna Jo Napoli’s book is set in 1899 in the small town of Tallulah, Louisiana, and its focus is a family of Sicilian immigrants who do not quite look like the white people of the town – but certainly not like the black ones, either. So 14-year-old Calogero (“Calo”) Scalise and his uncles and cousin have even more trouble than immigrants usually do as they try to adapt to a strange country with strange customs (including Jim Crow laws) and strange ways. The bayou atmosphere of the book is established through midnight alligator hunts and other touches of local color; the unremitting prejudice is established both through the white townspeople’s belief in the inferiority of the Sicilians (even if they are not quite black) and through the introduction of a black girl named Patricia who is far too intelligent and sweet to be believable, but who is a common type in modern books of this sort, where the downtrodden are always nobler and better than those who repress them. There are noble and suppressed Indians in Alligator Bayou, too, and one member of the Tunica tribe tells Calo about his people’s legend of finding the seasons (thanks to two alligators, one red and one blue), while Calo – the book’s narrator – remarks that as a Catholic he knows “the world is full of miracles and mysteries,” but he doesn’t believe the Tunica ones. What he does believe, and what he should believe, become issues for Calo as he and his relatives “fraternize” with blacks and get beaten up by the inevitable ignorant and nasty white youths. Calo discovers that even the “educated men” – white men, that is – are ignorant and nasty – and never more than one step from violence. And it is violence that ultimately forces Calo to make choices that will carry him into adulthood – and away from the childhood he has known. The nuanced portraits of Calo, Joseph (the Tunica) and Patricia are in stark contrast to the one-dimensional portrayals of the many bad white people in Alligator Bayou, but that is part of the pattern of historical fiction of this type.

     The pattern is a bit different in Carolina Harmony, the debut novel by Marilyn Taylor McDowell. This is set closer to the present time than Napoli’s book, in 1964, but for 21st-century preteens, that seems as long ago as Elizabethan times. The setting is the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, where an 11-year-old girl – also named Carolina – has lived through too many tragedies in her young life: the death in an accident of her parents and baby brother, Caleb; a year spent with her Auntie Shen (who then “took sick”); then a series of foster homes. She lands with the Harmonys, Mr. Ray and Miss Latah, but bad things happen with them too, including a farming accident and the arrival at Harmony Farm of a boy named Russell, whom Carolina mistakenly considers a friend. This era is developed as a time of moonshine, of continuing prejudice against those who are “different” (such as Miss Latah, a Cherokee; and there are “white” and “colored” water fountains), of harsh treatment of runaways such as Carolina, of reform schools and hopping trains to get away to…somewhere else. But Carolina brings all her fears, worries and troubles with her wherever she goes, and even though she is sure wishes don’t come true – hers certainly haven’t – she eventually discovers faith, sees a vision of an angel that makes her feel re-connected to her family, and realizes that she must return to Harmony Farm to face her past. Auntie Shen’s comment, “Sometimes the heart does the praying for us,” is the ultimate affirmation here; and if the sentiment seems overly simplistic and the problems faced by Carolina seem rather too contrived, that is in keeping with the overall tone of this historical novel that reads as if it is set not so much in the mid-20th century as “once upon a time.”

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