Written in Stone. By Rosanne Parry. Random House. $16.99.
Every Day After. By Laura Golden. Delacorte Press. $15.99.
There is a subgenre of the coming-of-age genre for preteens and young teenagers in which the authors explore not modern-day coming-of-age issues but ones that applied in the past, often in locales and circumstances with which modern young readers are unlikely to be familiar. That is the subgenre into which these two novels fit. The general idea, here as in many similar books, is to bring a touch of the exotic to stories that will be emotionally recognizable to the young readers of today in many of their issues, if not in their specific situations. Rosanne Parry’s focus in Written in Stone is the Pacific Northwest in the 1920s, and specifically the effects of events of that time on Native Americans. This is a story of whaling, but it is quite unlike Moby-Dick in its focus and emphasis. Like a great many novels in this subgenre, it paints an idealized picture of the life of “outside” groups such as Native Americans, showing them as close to Nature and living in harmony with their surroundings, while the evil characters – generally in the persons of white Europeans – are disturbing Nature’s balance and will pay in some way at some time, if not necessarily within the book itself. The 13-year-old protagonist here is Pearl, whose dream of hunting whales as her father did – taking them one at a time, expressing gratitude to them for giving their lives for the life of the Makah tribe – has been shattered. Her father has been lost on a hunt, and the whales themselves have pulled back from traditional hunting areas because those places are now filled with steam-powered ships whose harpoon cannons harvest multiple whales, doing so with great power but without gratitude. It falls to Pearl to seek ways to preserve the culture of the Makah, the skills and the stories, while others seek to rebuild the tribe’s way of life now that the whales are gone. As usual in these books, little attempt is made to present the dialogue in the language of the times – that would make the story harder to follow – but references are made time and again to feelings and beliefs of the time in which the book is set. For example, when Pearl’s relatives talk of making masks and carvings to sell to keep the family going, Pearl reacts with horror: “I could not believe what I was hearing. They would let a stranger come in and buy things, ceremonial things?” She reacts with childlike wonder and enjoyment to elements of the natural world, such as porpoises being fed by her grandma: “It was impossible not to laugh at their chubby, frowning faces.” And she shows contempt for the arrogant white men who fail to understand and appreciate Makah life, such as a certain Mr. Glen, who is interested in artifacts and claims, because of his work in photography, that he, like the mask makers, is an artist: “That was the whopper of all lies. Mr. Glen had the artistic sense of a banana slug.” Eventually, and not without heartache, Pearl finds methods of keeping the old ways alive and vital, and she ends up, as often for the protagonists of these novels, sadder and wiser. Readers are of course supposed to identify and empathize with the “good” Native American culture and revile what is more likely to be their own – a pitfall of all books like this, but one that tends to evaporate in light of the sensitivity with which the story is told.
The first novel by Laura Golden is sensitive, too. The old-time setting here is quite different: it is the Depression, and Every Day After takes place in Alabama, where 11-year-old Lizzie’s family has, like so many others, been hit hard by the collapse of the economy. The town where the book takes place has the apt name of Bittersweet, for that is the feeling of the book itself, from start to finish. Lizzie’s once-supportive family has shattered, her father leaving to search for work and her mother spiraling into sadness so profound that she cannot take care of herself, much less the household – so the work falls to Lizzie, who is also dealing with her own preteen issues, which include (typically for a book like this) a bratty rival at school who has taken over Lizzie’s position as the top student and has also muscled in on Lizzie’s relationship with her best friend, Ben. Lizzie’s rival, Erin, turns out to have major issues of her own, and the book builds to a climax in which Lizzie not only has to sell something precious to her to make it possible to keep their house, but also has to hear Erin’s secret and then do her best to make Erin, if not a friend, at least no longer a hated opponent. “I know it’s hard to trust people, but I guess we have to try, or else we’ll end up alone,” Lizzie tells Erin in the climactic scene, and trusting people, which includes being willing to ask for help, is much of what the book is about – with Lizzie growing up in the course of it but really being wise beyond her years throughout. There is no formulaic happy ending here, but there is a not-unexpected conclusion in which Lizzie, despite all the adversity, is able to help her mother, finds that she has grown significantly and even understands why her father had to leave, and at the last is able to reconcile the painful lessons of the story with the necessities of life. The poor economy of recent years may make it easier for some young readers to relate to what goes on in Every Day After, even though the depth of the Depression is beyond what any young person today has encountered. Lizzie’s pluck and steadfastness, her ability to see the best in others – or at least try to – and her overall niceness combine to make her an attractive central character, if scarcely a surprising one: what flaws she has are so obviously minor that she stands head and shoulders above everyone else here, including the other good people. This is not a particularly original book in its story arc, and tales of the Depression have often been told before – for all age groups – but Golden does manage to convey some sense of rural life in that difficult time, and readers who are close to Lizzie’s age will find her a strong and interesting character.
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