December 08, 2011


Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London. By Andrea Warren. Houghton Mifflin. $18.99.

A Month of Sundays. By Ruth White. Farrar Straus Giroux. $16.99.

The Birthmark Trilogy, Book Two: Prized. By Caragh M. O’Brien. Roaring Brook Press. $16.99.

     Unhappy and even unpleasant stories, whether real or fictional, are often used to provide young readers with positive feelings – and perhaps make them think. Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London is about as sad a tale as will be found anywhere. It is far more meaningful for those who already know Dickens’ work, which may not be the case for all readers of this book; but Andrea Warren explains enough about Dickens’ writing to help even those unfamiliar with it understand what he did. And because she eventually works around to A Christmas Carol, the Dickens work that young readers are most likely to know, she makes a strong connection with her intended audience. By telling Dickens’ story in modern language, quoting from him judiciously but not including long passages of his rather overworked (by modern standards) prose, Warren shows that Dickens was a crusader with a pen – someone who suffered severe privation in his own youth, never forgot it, and used his early connections with the poor of London to produce a series of novels that not only told stories but also shone a bright light into the dim recesses of Victorian England, where hunger and abuse were rampant. It will be very difficult for readers, at least in the beginning, to accept just how awful conditions were for so many children in Dickens’ time, but as Warren piles example upon example, story upon story, it will quickly become clear that the undoubted splendor of the Victorian age was built in part on the backs and bodies of Britain’s youngest and most vulnerable people. The pictures in Warren’s book do a great deal to bring the story home, showing the poor trying to earn a living or simply stay alive, Dickens’ involvement with them, the occasional major benefactor (such as composer George Frideric Handel and Foundling Hospital founder Captain Thomas Coram), and some of the works that slowly, slowly improved the plight of the poverty-stricken – such as William Hogarth’s painting Gin Lane, a depiction of drunkenness that helped lead to laws to limit alcohol sales. Dickens’ personal connection with those he championed is emphasized and re-emphasized: “He had painful memories of his mother being faced with the choice of moving herself and the younger children into the workhouse or into John Dickens’ small prison cell – and choosing prison because the workhouses were so much worse.” “As a schoolboy Dickens had seen plenty of mistreatment of students. …He wrote that his own headmaster at the last school he attended ‘was by far the most ignorant man I have ever had the pleasure to encounter and one of the worst-tempered men perhaps who ever lived.’” This is a book about Dickens as crusader – and his method of crusading, through writing, would have given him the title of “muckraker” at a later time. In his own time, though, there was no author quite like him: immensely popular, attuned to what masses of readers (and non-readers, to whom others read Dickens’ books) would enjoy and appreciate, and having a laser-like focus on the ills of his time and possible methods of correcting them. Dickens did not believe later ages would read his books, which dealt so closely with contemporary issues; but his work survives – despite its frequently overdone prose and a strong tendency to repetitiveness, caused by the fact that much of it was published in serialized form. It is the underlying humanity of Dickens’ writing that has kept people reading it – a fact that comes clearly through in Warren’s well-researched and well-written book.

     A Month of Sundays is fiction, but here too the intention is for lessons to be learned through considerable sadness. Ruth White’s book is about 14-year-old April Garnet Rose (always called Garnet), who lives with her mother (her father has left them) and is left with her Aunt June in Black Rock, Virginia, while her mom goes to Florida to look for work. The time is the late 1950s, and a great deal of the focus is on religion: Aunt June believes everything happens for a reason, so Sunday after Sunday, she takes Garnet to different religious services. There is a highly personal reason for Aunt June’s quest: she has cancer. For her part, Garnet does not like being dragged along, but accepts the necessity, and soon encounters true believers of various sorts – and a miraculous healing. But then things get complicated, as Garnet learns that the story of her father’s abandonment of her mother may not be true after all; and Garnet also finds herself with strong feelings for a boy named Silver. Complexity leads inexorably to tragedy, and Garnet finds herself questioning all she has heard and been told about religion and God. At the end, she has no definitive answers, and realizes that there aren’t any. Garnet is left in the same state as Coleridge’s “a sadder and a wiser man” in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: she has learned how much she does not know, how much is not knowable, and how important it is to make human connections with the full understanding that they may not last and that God’s ways may never be clear to human beings. A Month of Sundays is filled with heavy subject matter and is, in truth, somewhat heavy-handed in presenting it. Its sensitivity and willingness to tackle difficult subjects earn it a (+++) rating, but this is less a book to enjoy than one from which to absorb lessons.

     Prized, which follows Birthmarked in Caragh O’Brien’s dystopian trilogy, does less overt teaching and preaching and offers more adventure – but it too makes an attempt to handle difficult material, in this case by placing moral and ethical quandaries in an alternative-world setting. Sixteen-year-old midwife Gaia Stone, on the run with her baby sister from the Enclave, is captured in this novel by the people of Sylum (think “asylum,” with irony) – a society in which men outnumber women, but women rule; and the leader, Matrarc Olivia, sets down and enforces very strict laws (a kiss is a crime, for example). As often happens in trilogies, this second book complicates the story without really advancing it very much. Perhaps the most significant happening here is the reappearance of Leon from the Enclave, whose “expression was openly hostile” when Gaia has a chance to talk with him. “‘You’re a girl in a place where the girls rule,’” he tells her, adding that he is “‘sure you’ll find it very convenient.’” And at that point, “Their positions were reversed, she realized, as neatly and completely as a flip of a card. In the Enclave, he’d been a person of privilege and power, while she’d been a poor midwife from outside the wall, entering it only to become a prisoner of Q cell, and finally a fugitive.” Even readers who do not understand all those references to the first book – and really, Prized is not highly understandable except as a sequel to Birthmarked – will note from this passage that the role reversal is a lot of what is going on here, with Gaia trading one sort of dystopian society for another. That is one major issue explored in the novel. Another is violence and its justification, if any, as in the case of Malachai, who has killed his wife but whose situation is not as straightforward as Gaia originally thinks: “‘She’d abused him for years, and then he found her hurting their nine-year-old son. He couldn’t let that start.’” Later, when Gaia (likely to the surprise of few readers) is kissed, many things begin to come to a head: “‘Whether you agree with it or not, it’s the law here that a man can’t touch you until you’ve made a choice to marry him.’” The unfairness of the societal structures, highly evident from the start of the book, becomes clearer and clearer to Gaia as the story progresses, and as Gaia’s situation becomes more contorted, she has to face a frightening decision involving the Matrarc herself. The book is about choices, law, obedience, rules: “Her relationship with the Matrarc had been a labyrinth of submission and rebellion, coercion and pleading.” By the end of Prized, Gaia has learned what she prizes and who prizes her, has grown in some new ways, and is ready to face the next stage of life. The outcome is scarcely surprising, and there is enough conventional plotting and dialogue in the book to keep it at a (+++) rating. But readers who enjoyed Birthmarked will certainly want to read Prized to find out where things have gone, and where they are likely to go in the upcoming conclusion of O’Brien’s trilogy.

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