Tuesday, January 7, 2014
However, since all adults have actually been adolescents--and lived to tell about it--many of us find ourselves drawn to these books. Many great books written before Hinton's novel could be included -- To Kill a Mockingbird, True Grit, Great Expectations. It doesn't take much thinking to come up with a long list. Two of my recent favorites are novels about young people with a more universal appeal.
When our school library ordered a copy of Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, I decided I ought to try her earlier hit novel Eleanor and Park first. The two title characters, Eleanor and Park, are an unlikely romantic couple. Park is the son of a former military man and his Korean wife; Park manages to keep a low profile and stay on the perimeter of the popular students at his school, including his next door neighbor and his girlfriend, who thrive on mocking or bullying other students. Eleanor is a ripe target. Not only is she the "new girl" at the school, but she has a headful of flaming read hair and pale skin. She wears outrageous clothes that don't effectively camouflage her weight, not because she is particularly rebellious, but because her mother can only afford to shop for her--when she has any money to spend--at Goodwill and thrift stores.
When the seat next to Park is the only one available when Eleanor gets on the bus for the first time--to the mocking jeers of the other riders--he is anything but friendly. Gradually, subtlety, they not only become friends, sharing his collection of comic books, but theirs becomes a genuine romantic relationship.
Park's adolescent challenges are the usual ones: His younger brother is bigger and more athletic. Park's father is also determined that his son must learn to drive his truck--a stick shift--before he can get his driver's license. This conflict is blown out of proportion in part, Park feels, because he doesn't live up to his father's expectations. While he has the normal parent-child conflict, though, his family is a solid, loving one. Eleanor's is anything but. She and her siblings live with their mom and her new husband, whose addictive behavior leads to fear and abuse.
While her relationship with Park offers her some solace from her home life, she has to keep it a secret, pretending she has a girl school friend who invites her over. While she keeps her misery secret from Park, he--and his mother--recognize the symptoms of a bad home life.
What is most refreshing about the book is that Park sees her just as she is--unusual, anything but the high school ideal for feminine beauty--yet he finds her beautiful. Rowell characterizes the adults--the teachers and counselor at school, and especially Park's family--more realistically than in many YA novels. (Often in YA novels, the adults all come across as nondescript as Charlie Brown's teacher: Wah Wah Wah Wah). Park's mother and father are flawed but genuine and loving.
In the other novel that seemed to land alongside Eleanor and Park, Louise Erdrich in The Round House, also presents a huge family crisis through the eyes of a young teenager. Joe is a thirteen-year-old Chippewa boy whose mother is raped by a white man. While a couple of his friends live in much poorer circumstances, Joe has a stable, comfortable home. His father is a tribal judge, a career the son is obviously headed toward in the future. His mother also works on the reservation--handling issues related to tribal enrollments.
Because his mother was blindfolded when the attack occurred, taken some distance away from the tribe's spiritual landmark The Round House, she is unable to say without question whether the crime was committed on or off the reservation, complicating the legal process. For a time, her mind and body shut down, refusing to let her remember enough to report details to the police.
Erdrich, herself from a Native American family, sets most of her major works on the reservations. She also writes convincingly from the point of view of a young male. The crude humor, the mischief and worse that Joe and his friends drum up, are hilarious, frightening, and always believable. In many ways, the narrative reminds me of some of the best of Sherman Alexie.
Both Erdrich and Rowell included strong families and complicated community relationships. Joe, Park, and Eleanor have--to varying degrees--a network of adults capable of helping them, yet they often lack the maturity or trust to accept that help. Even with mothers as victims in both novels, the young protagonists remain central; as a reader, I found I most identified with the boys in each of the novels. Both authors left me genuinely concerned about what would happen next in their characters' lives--much longer than I remember or care about the characters in many of the novels I read.