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Posts Tagged ‘O’Dell challenge’

40 acresI’m now in the Reconstruction phase of the O’Dell Awards, and the next two books make a natural pair. Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule by Harriette Gillem Robinet follows former slave Pascal and his brother Gideon as they fight for the land and freedom they were promised. Along the way, they befriend people both black and white, while struggling to avoid the notorious night riders.

In Shades of Gray by Carolyn Reeder, Will, a white boy in Virginia who loses his family during the Civil War, is sent to live with relatives he’s never met. Will is sure he’ll hate it. How can he respect Uncle Jed, when he refused to fight in the Confederate Army? Will’s cousin Meg is no better, constantly putting him to shame by easily doing the farm chores that Will, a city boy, isn’t strong enough to do. But after weeks of working beside his uncle, Will starts to respect the man–until Jed lets a Union soldier stay at their house.

shades of grayForty Acres offers the more complex story, and the book is better, too. While both boys struggle to find their place in the world, Will gets to do it in the safety of his uncle’s farm. Aside from a few run-ins with the neighborhood bully, he’s protected from external dangers. His main conflict–learning to understand and respect Jed–is emphasized again and again as various people have one-on-one conversation with Will to try to change his mind. The repetition got a bit dull after awhile, so it was a relief when the Union soldier arrives, bringing new complexity to Will’s life.

Pascal, meanwhile, has to deal with so much more. One of the saddest moment occurs at the beginning of Forty Acres, when Pascal wonders if he even understands what it means to be free. Does freedom mean owning his own farm? the chance to go to school? or being able to walk around without fearing the night riders? His personal journey merges seamlessly with the larger historical context, as he meets dozens of other emancipated slaves trying to rebuild their lives. The lucky ones, like him, manage to get their 40 acres. Others are rounded up by plantation owners and forced back into slavery under another name. It’s the variety of experiences, and their awareness of what’s happening in the world at large (like the moment they learn of President Lincoln’s death), that makes the book stand out.

Next up: Chickadee, by Louise Erdrich, will be the first O’Dell winner I’ve read since January that doesn’t involve the Civil War or its immediate aftermath.

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river between usAlong with Bull Run, Richard Peck’s The River Between Us and Patricia Beatty’s Charley Skedaddle complete the Civil War segment of the O’Dell Awards. One is set at the beginning of the war, the other near the end, and both focus on the civilian experience.

River may be Peck’s most depressing book, a far cry from his usual fare of plucky mice and witty grandmas. It uses an odd framing device whose purpose only becomes clear at the end, as a boy journeys to his grandparents’ house on the eve of World War I. In an extended flashback, Tilly, his grandmother, tells him the story of her teenage years during the Civil War. As in many of Peck’s novels, the conflict begins when a stranger comes to town: in this case, two mysterious women from New Orleans who disembark from a riverboat in rural Illinois. The glamorous Delphine and her quiet, darker companion, Calinda, set tongues wagging as Tilly’s mother invites them to board at their house. Gossip and intrigue soon turn to sorrow when Tilly’s brother Noah joins the army, and Tilly gets a close look at the ugly world beyond her small town.

As the title suggests, Charley Skedaddle is about a boy–just 12 years old–who deserts the army. Eager to join the Yankees after his brother is killed in action, Charley dreams of heroism until he pulls the trigger in the middle of battle. He flees, full of self-loathing for his “cowardice,” and finds refuge in the Blue Ridge Mountains with an eccentric old woman (Granny Bent) who could have stepped out of a Richard Peck book. It’s only through earning her trust that he begins to find his self-worth.

charley skedaddleEach novel explores the meaning of courage far from the front lines. River is full of secrets, and the act of keeping of them hidden is at least as brave as the revelations, which continue until the final page. Tilly’s family is not as it seems. Neither is Delphine, whose lazy, gauzy exterior hides tragic secrets from her past. Charley’s story is more of a traditional quest, as the hero learns to redefine his vision of bravery. The “glory” of battle and the dangers of his old street gang life pale next to his new mountain community, where subsistence farmers confront bandits, extreme weather and the occasional panther.

But both stories left me wanting more, especially from the supporting characters. Tilly’s life falls apart when a family member descends into madness. The problem comes with no warning and seems more of a plot device than something true to the character. Charley catches a glimpse of the local men hiding from conscription in the Confederate army. Their situation is such an interesting parallel to Charley’s that I would have liked to see them play a bigger role–yet they ultimately disappear into the background.

Where both books shine is their casual incorporation of historical context. In Tilly’s town, the sight of young men–neighbors–signing up for opposing armies gave me the chills. For Charley, the first shocking moment occurs when he learns that some men have enlisted multiple times to take advantage of the signing bonuses–and that the military now shoots anyone attempting this scam. Details like these fully transported me into the era, and I wish the authors had taken as much care with the secondary characters as they did with the historical facts.

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So, I may have cheated in the O’Dell Challenge by reading Bo at Ballard Creek before the other 8 books ahead of it on the list. I’ll save my real review for the right time, but for now I’ll tackle the persistent comparisons between Bo and the Little House books.

It doesn’t seem like a fair contest. After all, Bo has 2 adventurous fathers, eccentric neighbors, NatGeo magazines, lots of friends, and the excitement of a mining camp. Laura Ingalls has preachy parents, a goody-two-shoes sister and really boring Sundays. Still, both books contain episodic stories about a year in the life of a little girl growing up on the frontier. And the pictures offer plenty of parallels. Perhaps illustrator LeUyen Pham had Little House on her mind. Some of them even look like an homage to Garth Williams’ drawings:

Laura's family

Little House in the Big Woods

Bo's family

Little House at Ballard Creek: colder and wilder than the toughest Wisconsin winter.

Laura and Mary with their dolls.

Laura and Mary with their dolls.

Bo and Grafton with their teddy bears.

Bo and Grafton with their bears–gifts from the “good-time girls.”

Laura at a dance

Laura at a dance: finally, a chance to see people outside her immediate family.

Bo at a dance

Ballard Creek dance: Fourth of July with the neighbors.

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bo ballard creekThe announcement of the newest Scott O’Dell Award winner, Bo at Ballard Creek, was another reminder that I should really pick up the pace. I’ve read six O’Dell winners this year, and at this rate it’ll take me more than three years to finish the remaining 21 books.

So my goal this year is to read the next 10 books (I suppose this counts as my new year’s resolution?). That will take me past Bo and Chickadee (last year’s winner), and old favorites like Sarah, Plain and Tall and Out of the Dust.

To help push me along, maybe Jen could pledge to read 10 Newbery Challenge books too?

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bull runBull Run, by Paul Fleischman, has an ingenious setup: each chapter is a monologue told from the point of view of a different character, 16 in total. There are soldiers and doctors, artists and mothers, children, slaves, Union and Confederate generals. It reminds me of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, only more depressing, because with every chapter you know you’re getting closer to the actual battle itself.

It’s amazing how quickly Fleischman manages to convey what’s going on. Each chapter is just two pages long, yet somehow we get a sense of the character’s identity, conflicts, motivations, and the political situation around them. Some of the portraits are archetypes–like the woman who sees multiple family members off to war, or the boy who dreams of glory in battle and manages to tag along as part of the band. But the best characters are full of surprises: the photographer who exploits the soldiers’ fear of death to turn a profit, a black man who “passes” as white so he can join the Union troops, and the newspaper sketch artist who selectively draws certain scenes to maintain morale. My favorite, by far, is the cab driver who had to shuttle D.C. socialites to a grassy area overlooking the battle–because they wanted to eat a fancy picnic while ogling the action through binoculars. Yes, this kind of thing really happened. Bull Run was the first major battle of the war, and civilians on both sides were so sure of an easy victory that they treated it like a sporting match.

Fleischman goes out of his way to include details like that–odd and subtle facts that get left out of the sweeping Civil War narrative I remember learning in school. I had no idea that lots of soldiers tried to desert when their contracts expired, or that thousands died of disease in the camps before the battles began. The novel sometimes felt like great nonfiction in the style of Bomb–teaching history without feeling didactic. I suppose my biggest complaint is that even though each character was unique, 16 is just too many. I would’ve preferred 12 or 14 to cut down on the confusion, especially when some characters get more chapters than others and when their plotlines start to intersect. So, even though the book is quite good on its own, it would be even better to find some friends and stage it as a play.

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Elijah of Buxton FNL JKTinddGullible, jumpy Elijah was the first free child born in Buxton, a Canadian town settled by former slaves. He has a reputation for being “fra-gile” and wants to be brave–but it’s not easy when most people know him as the baby who did something unmentionable during a visit from Frederick Douglass. Elijah tries hard to grow up, and even manages to keep the tears in at certain times. He’s feeling quite proud of his courage until the real test comes, a catastrophe that forces him to venture into America, where he finally sees what his parents have run from, and the life he could have led without the sanctuary of Buxton.

What made this O’Dell winner work is that it doesn’t feel Historical. The events on the Underground Railroad, though necessary, take up a tiny chunk of the book. Most of the story takes place in Buxton, and so much of Elijah’s life–playing practical jokes, fishing in the woods, sneaking off to the town carnival–carries across all cultures and time periods. Yes, there is historical context, and awkward generation gap moments unique to Elijah’s story. It’s hard not to squirm when Elijah and his friends run off to play slavers and abolitionists just minutes after hearing his mother recall her harrowing escape to Canada. But these moments, while grounding the book in its setting, never weighed it down. They’re nicely balanced by Elijah’s bumbling, often hilarious attempts to understand adults, like the time he and his friend mistake the words “familiarity breeds contempt” for “family breeding contest.” Elijah of Buxton is not a book “for” minorities or about slavery–it’s a middle grade book, pure and simple. It’s a perfect choice from the O’Dell committee, and a great example of what Christopher Myers meant when he wrote about the responsibility of offering “more than slain civil rights leaders and escaped slaves, people whose lives are steeped in violence both literal and figurative…I want to give my readers spaceships, clowns, and unicorns, to depict whole human beings, to allow the children in my books to have the childhoods they ought to have, where surely there are lessons and context and history, but there is also fantasy and giggling and play.”

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TroubleDontLastTrouble Don’t Last by Shelley Pearsall

Eleven year-old Samuel has never left Master Hackler’s farm. He’s too timid to dream of running away until Harrison, an older slave, takes off on a warm night in 1859 with Samuel in tow. They journey north, from Kentucky to Ohio and the shores of Lake Erie, where Canada–and freedom–lies tantalizingly close. Although the plot is simple, even expected (I never doubted that Samuel would survive), Pearsall brings the Underground Railroad to life in a way I’ve never read before.

I’m used to tales of heroic, selfless abolitionists, but Pearsall’s characters are much more complex. Harrison and Samuel must often pay their way, because some of their guides are more motivated by money than the idea of freeing slaves. And not all white abolitionists see them as equals. One man treats them like research subjects; another warns them not to touch anything he owns. The runaways have no choice but to trust them or risk certain capture.

Pearsall balances their relentless physical journey with strong character arcs. We learn about Harrison’s past through his fevered ramblings, and though the trope gets overused (he falls sick several times), it explains what made him the way he is. Samuel matures from a terrified kid who sporadically considers returning to the “safety” of Hackler farm into a young man who understands what freedom means. In her author’s note, Pearsall says she wanted to highlight the “real heroes” of the Underground Railroad–the brave refugees who sometimes take a backseat to those who ran the network. She’s done exactly that, with unforgettable characters who set an extremely high bar for the next book in the O’Dell challenge (Elijah of Buxton), which, incidentally, is also about the Underground Railroad.

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Book cover of Jip, His Story by Katherine Paterson

The best part of Katherine Paterson’s Jip, His Story (set in 1855; and winner of the 1997 O’Dell Award) is the unexpected appearance of Lyddie Worthen, the mill girl from Lyddie. That book can’t be beat in terms of its depressing-ness (I found it sadder than Bridge to Terabithia, and that’s saying something), so when Lyddie appeared in Jip’s story, college-educated and a teacher, I couldn’t have been happier that she’d achieved her dreams at last.

But long before Lyddie shows up, we’re introduced to Jip, so-named because he fell off the back of a wagon as a baby and was taken to the poor farm (think London workhouses, but in rural Vermont) when no one claimed him. Jip knows nothing about his past, and life at the farm is tolerable, if not enjoyable. Because Jip has a way with animals, he practically runs the place, and his work is the only thing keeping the residents from starvation.

Jip, though a far cry from the feisty Lyddie, is strong precisely because he’s kind in the face of  poverty and brutality. He’s kind to the farm animals, kind to Sheldon, the simple-minded boy others treat as dumb manual labor, and he’s kind even to Put, the lunatic locked in a cage, who was shipped to the poor farm because the county didn’t want to pay for his stay at the asylum. Jip’s so busy being kind that he barely notices life hasn’t been kind to him–until others start to return the favor.

jipUnder Teacher’s (Lyddie’s) encouragement, Jip learns to read and believes he deserves more in life. Put, in his saner moments, helps out on the farm and becomes a true friend to Jip. Around the same time, a stranger shows up in town, someone who takes an unusual interest in Jip, but alternately repulses and fascinates him with his stories about a man searching for his long-lost son. It’s the kind of slick, oily kindness Jip could do without, yet he can’t help feeling hopeful.

The mystery of Jip’s past, the mysterious stranger, and the friendship of Lyddie and her fiance Luke Stevens all wind up in a wrenching, satisfying ending. The solution was so obvious, but it eluded me until 3/4 of the way through, and it was like that moment in Keeper when everything suddenly makes sense–except I should have figured it out sooner.

And the history angle? Even though Jip’s particular struggles are period-specific (poor farms have gone out of fashion, thank goodness), I couldn’t help but think about the news every time the book mentions education, public funding or mental health care. We’re still wrestling with the same problems, and that makes Jip’s story timeless.

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game-of-silenceAfter the disappointment of Streams to the River, River to the Sea, I was doubly grateful to read a Louise Erdrich book. Erdrich eased my mind right off the bat by taking responsibility for the historical content: She lists her sources and explains that the story is based on her own family history.

Silence begins where The Birchbark House ended: it’s springtime when 9-year-old Omakayas spies the dilapidated canoes struggling across the lake. The boats are filled with refugees–fellow Anishinabeg whose exile could spell doom for Omakayas’ own community. The entire book is shadowed by the threat of white settlers, but because this is from Omakayas’ point of view, we don’t dwell on the problem. In between the worrying there are mud fights and snowball fights; arguments with Ten Strike, her arrogant moose-killing cousin; and a clumsy attempt to understand her angsty, love-struck sister. It’s these daily details, of course, that make the final pages so heartbreaking.

I liked Silence better than Birchbark: maybe because I’ve had more time to get to know the characters, or because the book is unified by the looming threat of being forced off their land. In Birchbark, the main conflict didn’t start until halfway through. (more…)

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streamsWhenever I read historical fiction based on real events or people, I like to know where the facts came from. Did the author consult primary sources? or is it historical fiction in the sense of movies “inspired by true events?”

This becomes all the more important when the plot contains enough drama for five novels, as is the case for Scott O’Dell’s Streams to the River, River to the Sea, which is about Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who guided Lewis and Clark through much of their westward journey. The book starts with a kidnapping, when 15-year-old Sacagawea is taken by the Minnetaree tribe after they kill her mother. We’ve barely had time to absorb the trauma before Sacagawea is kidnapped again (by a rival Minnetaree village). Several random turn of events later (including a season of solitary life, Island of the Blue Dolphins style), she’s married off to a white trader named Toussaint Charbonneau, gives birth to a son, then she and Charbonneau are hired by Lewis and Clark. So off she goes on the 4,000-mile journey, during which she falls in love with Clark.

It’s hard to tell how much of this actually happened, because Scott O’Dell lists just two sources in the preface: The Journals of Lewis and Clark; and Lewis and Clark, Partners in Discovery. He doesn’t say if he read anything written by Sacagawea, or if she left any kind of written record. I have no problems with historical fiction that’s mostly fiction, but when it happens, I expect the author to be up front about it. (more…)

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