February 18, 2016
(+++) VOYAGES OF SELF-DISCOVERY
Skinnybones. By Barbara Park. Yearling. $6.99.
Skinnybones 2: Almost Starring Skinnybones. By Barbara Park. Yearling. $6.99.
The Kid in the Red Jacket. By Barbara Park. Yearling. $6.99.
Storm in the Valley. By Lee Passarella. Enigma Press/Ravenswood. $9.99.
Cold Comfort, Ill Wind. By Lee Passarella. White Stag/Ravenswood. $9.99.
In light of the longstanding hit that Barbara Park (1947-2013) had with her Junie B. Jones books, it was probably inevitable that she kept looking for a boy-oriented success that would do as well as those girl-oriented ones. She never quite found it, but she certainly kept trying, as with her stories of Alex Frankovitch (the Skinnybones books, originally dating to 1982 and 1988) and Howard Jeeter (The Kid in the Red Jacket, originally published in 1987). Both Alex and Howard are reasonably likable, reasonably typical preteens, engaged in typical preteen hijinks and having typical preteen angst and worries – well, typical in comparatively sanitized, suburban-setting books, at any rate. Park tries hard, in fact rather too hard, to make the boys amusing and even endearing. One of the first occurrences in the first book about Alex, for example, involves his response to a school assignment to bring in a picture of what you are going to be when you grow up. Alex brings a picture of the leprechaun used to advertise Lucky Charms cereal, and when the teacher asks why he wants to be a leprechaun, he says he does not want to be one – he wants to be a pilot – but he is going to be a leprechaun, and the assignment said to bring a picture of what you are going to be, not what you want to be. This is an elaborate “Alex is really short, but his parents keep assuring him that he will grow soon enough” scene, and it does not work very well, because it seems too complex and too forced – as does a lot of the plotting in the Skinnybones books. The first of them has Alex striving mightily to be a good baseball player and never managing to be one, but ending up successful in a different way when an entry he sends to a contest about cat food is chosen as the winner and he is going to get to appear in a TV commercial. Almost Starring Skinnybones is the sequel, in which Alex has a whole series of misadventures while trying to prove that if he isn’t a great baseball player, he can certainly be a big TV star. “Real life is almost never like the movies,” Alex discovers in what passes for a revelation here. He hates what he has to do in the commercial, and his friends think the whole thing is awful, and so he decides that he needs to find some other way to impress everyone. That situation leads to Alex’s part in the school play, A Christmas Carol, in which he wants to be Scrooge but is cast at Tiny Tim and decides to make life impossible for the boy who is cast as Scrooge – until, in a not-quite-believable scene, Alex realizes he is being, well, mean, and he helps the other boy do a great job, becoming in the process, in a teacher’s words, a “quiet hero. The very best kind.” But Alex is not quite satisfied with that, and almost turns mean again at the book’s end, but then manages not to turn mean, and this is supposed to be somehow very satisfying to readers. But it really smacks of too much authorial manipulation and not enough natural flow from Alex’s personality. In the Junie B. Jones books, Park managed to make the actions result largely from Junie’s personality. Here, though, things just happen because the author needs them to, and Alex does not have very much personality at all.
The same is true of Howard, although The Boy in the Red Jacket explores some themes a bit more seriously than the Skinnybones books do. Howard’s family has moved across the country, and Howard is feeling upset and displaced. He is stuck in a new school where he does not have any friends and in a neighborhood where nobody knows him or wants to spend time with him, except for a six-year-old girl named Molly who has had some difficult times: she lives with her grandmother because her parents have divorced and, rather unbelievably, gone their separate ways – both of them without her. Molly is typecast as an annoying little sister (except that she is not Howard’s sister), and Howard is just plain mean to her, which takes care of readers developing much empathy for him despite the undoubted difficulties he is facing because of his family’s relocation. It may be that preteen boys will find Howard’s discomfort with Molly and his nastiness to her appealing, but Park herself seems unsure, since in one crucial scene she has Howard and another boy tease Molly mercilessly by taking her doll away from her, while a third boy – one with whom Howard would like to be friends – gets disgusted and walks away. So Park realizes, and presumably wants readers to realize, that Howard is not a very admirable character. But then he becomes one toward the end of the book, which makes for a pleasant turnaround if not a highly believable one. In Howard’s case as in Alex’s, the nice actions that follow the not-nice ones smack of authorial necessity rather than any feeling that maybe one protagonist or the other has somehow matured or come to his senses. Park paces the Alex and Howard books well, and her writing is, as always, quite easy to read. But these books have a forced feeling about them: they do not flow naturally, their positive endings do not tie clearly to what has come before, and there is little sense that the central characters have grown in any significant way. The boys have changed, yes, but that is because Park wants them to change, not because they actually seem to have learned anything about themselves or about life.
The circumstances and the concerns underlying them are far more dire in Lee Passarella’s two Civil War novels for young readers, Storm in the Valley and Cold Comfort, Ill Wind. The coming-of-age aspects here are those of a much earlier and much more perilous time than anything to be found in contemporary books by Park and similar authors – although there are some parallels, notably the focus on the binding ties of family and how they matter even when family members are separated by distance and traumatic events. Passarella is not interested in revisiting the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the causes of the Civil War: his characters are of the Confederacy, but his focus is resolutely on their personal situations and their response to battlefield events, not on the grand strategies and political/moral issues through which the war is typically viewed. Those may matter to the leaders in Washington and Richmond, but what matters to brothers Monk and John Tyler Philips, and to all those with whom they come in contact, is day-to-day survival under difficult and often deadly circumstances. Passarella does not dwell on such matters but does not evade them, either. For instance, in Storm in the Valley, when a character named Matt is injured by a wood splinter after a cannonball hits a fence, another character says that Matt is hurt. “‘Hain’t nothing,’ Matt grumbled in answer, but when he put his hand up to the bloody trail, he realized that the wound was something. Later, the surgeon would dig an inch-long piece of wood out of his cheek.” More strongly, in a scene that may be difficult for sheltered contemporary readers to take, Passarella evokes the atmosphere of a military medical facility of the time: “Outside the cabin that they used for a hospital, a pile of severed limbs grew higher and higher as the day progressed. Hands, feet, arms, legs: bloody though they were, they had a strange blue cast – a waxy, foreign look to them, as though they weren’t real. But in fact, Monk knew they were all too real.”
Storm in the Valley and Cold Comfort, Ill Wind are coming-of-age novels, novels of self-discovery, and thus stand in a long line of war-based books that includes The Red Badge of Courage and The Naked and the Dead and many, many others. Passarella calmly accepts the horrors of war and the meaning it develops through generations: Monk’s uncle, who raised him, served in the Mexican-American War, and the impetus for the book’s separation-of-brothers theme lies in Monk being a drummer boy while John Tyler, who is older, is a cadet at the Virginia Military Academy. A family with strong roots both in the military and in Virginia may be one to which modern young readers can relate even though the Philips family situation likely differs markedly from that of people reading their story. Separation and reuniting remain the crux of both books: in Cold Comfort, Ill Wind, for example, the brothers meet on a battlefield but are soon pulled apart again after John Tyler is wounded. Passarella knows his Civil War history, knows, for example, what happened in Staunton, Virginia, at the battle of New Market, and what occurred later at Petersburg. Famous names from the conflict appear repeatedly in the books: Generals Early and Sheridan, Lee and Grant. But they are not the prime movers of the action or major players in the nitty-gritty of battle after battle: like the political leaders of North and South, the high-ranking officers use the lower-ranking characters on whom Passarella focuses largely as pieces on a chessboard, with Monk and John Tyler as pawns, however honorable they see themselves and their cause as being. As the tide turns decisively against the Confederacy in Cold Comfort, Ill Wind – the Shenandoah Valley battles of the earlier book go better for the South – Monk, the books’ primary protagonist, starts to look out more for himself and his best friend and comrade-in-arms, Bummer Crosse. The worries of the mid-19th century may be unfamiliar to today’s young readers – at one point John Tyler thinks about whether a fellow soldier may “get chewed up by Yankee minié balls or come down with cholera or some such” – but the worries of family members about each other will be familiar ones. Cold Comfort, Ill Wind ends inconclusively, indicating that Passarella intends to create a third book in this series; that also makes sense in terms of the sequence of Civil War battles about which he writes. The language and circumstances of the characters may take some getting used to for readers today, but those who do become involved in these two books will surely want to find out what happens to the Philips boys – whose eventual fate is unknown, although that of the Confederacy is becoming increasingly certain.