This week's chapter of Shelf Discovery covered the "Read 'Em and Weep" books--books that made us cry, or at least very, very sad. I loved books like this. I was kind of a morbid adolescent, who liked to sit around thinking deep thoughts about things like death. Two books in particular stuck out of this chapter's listings, books I read over and over and over again.
I found on rereading that they held up well. In fact, they didn't just hold up, but they resonated with me on a completely different level as an adult, especially as a parent. As Shelf Discovery author Lizzie Skurnick notes in her intro to this chapter, "What we have, instead, is a bunch of straightforward works that address, head-on, the difficulty of the world--revolutionary not because they show how it's different for the young, but because they show how often it's not." Later she says, "But as much as I'm interested in pinpointing the 'lessons' of these books, these authors, thank God, are doing nothing of the kind. Instead, they are fully caught up in the narrative, in drawing characters whose actions are as surprising or disappointing to us as they are to the, who do the best they have with what's left over, the kind of redemption no one welcomes but everyone has to accept." It seems to me you could use that to describe some excellent literature for adults.
Beat the Turtle Drum by Constance Greene was my first book of the week. Spoiler alert--if you didn't already guess it from the theme of this post--there's a major death in this book.
The death is of Kate's younger sister. Kate is almost 13, Joss just turned 11 when she falls from a tree to her sudden death. I'm trying to think of how to describe this slim (119 pages) book. It's told very simply from Kate's perspective. She wants to be a writer and so, like Harriet the Spy, she writes down as much as she can. Unlike Harriet, she's mostly kind in her assessments, but like Harriet, she doesn't make excuses for people.
Two-thirds of the book is in the month leading up to Joss's birthday. She's saving her money to rent a horse. Kate details their summer together, their interactions with other kids, Joss's devotion to setting up the garage just right for the horse she gets to keep for a week. Everything is told in a very straightforward way. This is just an average family, going about its average life. Then Kate says: "For the rest of my life, if ever again I'm totally happy, which is doubtful, or completely sure I'm immortal, I'll be afraid that something terrible is about to happen. Because that's the way it was that last week with Joss."
And that's when my personal bout of waterworks began. I never cried when reading this as a kid. I think I romanticized the idea of death. I'd been to funerals, but they were all of old people, mostly people I didn't know very well. Now, as an adult who's had to attend funerals of people who died far too young, and with kids of my own, this story devastated me. In reading about the author, it seems the story drew from personal experience with her sister. There's no happy ending here--how can there be?
The title comes from a poem by Ian Serraillier: "O dance along the silver sand,/And beat the turtle drum,/That youth may last for ever/And sorrow never come."
I think this is a book that should be read by all ages, and especially for tweens/teens who have experienced a similar loss.
Hey! That's Kristy McNichol on the cover! Remember her? I'm sure I saw the movie of this, but I don't remember it. The book, though--it's another one I read a thousand times as a kid. I can't honestly say it held up quite as well as Beat the Turtle Drum, though.
Patty Bergen is a Jewish, 12-year-old misfit whose parents really don't seem to like her. She lives in a small town outside of Memphis during WWII. A bunch of German prisoners of war are brought to a nearby work camp. One of them escapes, and Patty finds him, and in him, the friend she never thought she had.
However, being a German POW in a small US town, the chances of him escaping entirely are not that good, and there you have it.
What seemed like a romantic, noble tale when I was 12 at times now seems melodramatic and manipulative. There's very little subtlety in this book. Patty is long-suffering; her parents are simply awful (there's one scene that's supposed to explain her father's behavior, but it's soap-opera-ish at best); the family's black maid, Ruth, is the stereotypically loving black maid; and Anton, the German escapee, is just about impossibly good, really wanted no part of the War, kind of in a "why can't we all just get along?" kind of way.
It is certainly interesting that we have a WWII story featuring a Jewish girl harboring a German military escapee, who doesn't seem to have any grudges against Jews. In Lizzie Skurnick's discussion of the book in Shelf Discovery, she says: "Patty--and Ruth, and Anton--all have a funny kind of courage that is never recognized, the kind that never gets anyone the kind of medals brandished by the soldier herding the POW prisoners into the truck. Like the Jews in the concentration camps, they're not persecuted for what they do--they're persecuted for what they are. But somehow, horever much they are hated, they are still not people who can hate." I agree with this assessment, but wish the complexity implied in it had been one of the book's greater strengths.
With both books, I think as a kid I romanticized them, but as an adult, they're horrifying for different reasons. Beat the Turtle Drum is, of course, every parent's nightmare. There's nothing worse than the thought of your child dying. Summer of My German Soldier was more horrifying in a literary sense--as in, "I loved this back in the day? Really??"
Verdict: read--if you can--Beat the Turtle Drum. Summer of My German Soldier, well...I'm not as enthused.