November 18, 2010


The Coming of the Dragon. By Rebecca Barnhouse. Random House. $16.99.

Moon Over Manifest. By Clare Vanderpool. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

Nancy and Plum. By Betty MacDonald. Illustrated by Mary GrandPré. Knopf. $15.99.

The Baby-Sitters Club #4: Mary Anne Saves the Day. By Ann M. Martin. Scholastic. $5.99.

     Reaching back into the past, whether for old stories, atmosphere or simply to reissue an older work reflective of the time in which it was written, can produce some very interesting new books. The best of this particular group of novels for preteens looks back the farthest, all the way to Beowulf, the first English-language epic poem – although its Old English is scarcely recognizable to any modern readers except specialists. Rebecca Barnhouse, as it happens, is one such specialist, having read the original Beowulf when studying Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in college. And she has absorbed a great deal of the feeling and intensity of the thousand-year-old poem, using the work’s grand conclusion – which is far less known than the famous scenes in which Beowulf kills the monster Grendel and Grendel’s unnamed mother – as the basis for a story of blood and battle, feuds and heroism. Does she update and change the tale for modern tastes? Yes, often very substantially. But the flavor is right, and the last third of her book takes place entirely after Beowulf’s death and his naming of Wiglaf – who has always been called Rune in this book – as his heir. Barnhouse focuses the book on Rune, making him a foundling of whom other characters are suspicious, then an awkward 16-year-old whose skill with weapons never quite measures up to that of other fighters. But when Beowulf fights to defend his kingdom from the dragon that awakes when a slave steals a single cup from its hoard, Rune alone stands with the king after all the other men flee in terror – an act of cowardice that was far more terrible at the time of Beowulf than in much later years. The dying Beowulf reveals that Rune is his last surviving relative (in a scene embellished from the original); at Beowulf’s funeral pyre, Rune speaks a modern English version of the words that actually end the original poem; and all in all, Barnhouse does a remarkable job of weaving the ancient story into and through the modern novel. She re-emphasizes quite a bit, especially by including female characters (notably the seeress Amma, whose name means “grandmother”). But in her expansion and rewriting – and orientation of the story for modern teenage readers – Barnhouse makes the story live in all the ways that count. The rough justice of the time, the terrors inspired by the dragon, the betrayals and feuds, all ring true; and although Rune’s attempt, as Beowulf’s successor, to create peace is not in keeping with the culture of the age or the contents of the original poem, it helps make the story much more effective for modern readers. Barnhouse has done an excellent job of showing how and why Beowulf remains a great work – and how effectively many elements of it can still be communicated today.

     The Coming of the Dragon is historical fiction only in the loosest sense, but Moon Over Manifest fits the genre perfectly, and is in its own way just as effective. Set in 1936, but with many chapters occurring in 1918 as long-buried town secrets are slowly revealed, the story is built around on 12-year-old Abilene Tucker and her attempt to learn of her family history by visiting the town where her father spent his childhood. The result of Abilene’s innocent search through the now-faded town is the uncovering, bit by bit, of a series of secrets that residents have long kept buried, through design or thoughtlessness or both. With the chapters from 1936 set in one type face and those from 1918 in another, with newspaper excerpts and visits to the mysterious Miss Sadie (a recluse who knows more of the past than it may be wise for her to reveal), Abilene and several friends blithely ignore repeated warnings to let things be, and find themselves dredging up stories of a World War I spy, deaths both in the town and in the war, Spanish influenza, the mystery of a boot with a foot still in it, the decision by Kansas to ban alcoholic beverages before Prohibition began, and much more. Clare Vanderpool clearly knows her history – she says in a note after the story that many elements of it come from her own family background – and has a way of making both the characters and the setting come alive, despite how different things were in 1936 and 1918 from what today’s young readers know and experience. What is not different is Abilene’s personality: her spunky stick-to-itiveness is what holds the book together, keeping readers rooting for her success and worried about the dangerous paths she is taking (including one that is actually called the Path to Perdition). By the end, when Abilene learns why her father was always called Jinx in his younger days, Abilene has not only grown and discovered much about herself – typical elements of a book for preteens – but also found out more about the past of the town of Manifest than she ever expected to learn. It has been a journey quite a bit longer than the railroad trip that brought Abilene to town in the first place – and one that 21st-century readers will find exciting to take along with her.

     Some books that reflect times gone by were actually written in what was the present at the time they were created – as in the cases of Nancy and Plum (originally published in 1952) and the new paperback edition of the Mary Anne Saves the Day (original published in 1987). Both these (+++) books are pleasant, nicely written and focused on young girls who find their own ways to handle the problems of their everyday lives. Nancy and Plum – by Betty MacDonald, who is best known for her books about Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle – tells of two orphan sisters, devoted to each other, who live at a boarding school run by the cruel Mrs. Monday, and are determined to escape. This story of a Christmas that seems as if it will be dour indeed (the girls’ parents have died in an accident and their guardian, Uncle John, is never around), the book soon turns into one of unexpected kindnesses and some positive pronouncements that come across as rather simplistic. At school, for example, Miss Waverly tells Plum that it is all right that the girl has no new shoes, since she goes barefoot in summer anyway, and even though she and her sister miss the teachers then, “‘in summer you have the birds and the flowers and the trees and the crickets and the fireflies and Buttercup’s calf. You don’t need people.’” This and similar naïve sentiments may be hard for today’s young readers to accept at face value, as MacDonald surely intended them to be taken. But the happy ending is certainly welcoming, and Mary GrandPré’s new illustrations, done with her usual sensitivity, add to the warmth. As for Mary Anne Saves the Day, it too has elements that seem a trifle naïve more than 20 years later, but the basic story of strained friendship among the four girls in the Baby-Sitters Club – and of how Mary Anne, never a leader, rises to the occasion when she must take care of a sick child, then rises to it again to bring the girls back into accord – still resonates. The search for parental prom pictures and the reference to The Odd Couple (as if everyone will immediately know what that is) tend to date the book, but its underlying message of solidarity among good friends, and of getting past fights that seem important when they occur but are trivial in the greater scheme of things, gives it continued relevance and interest.

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