Wednesday, April 11

Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree

by Lauren Tarshis
Dial 2007

There's a crackling funkiness to this book that hooked me early on, the hissing anticipation of a very long fuse on an unseen firecracker. You watch and wait for that fuse to reach its powder keg and at the last minute it just stops.

From that you might assume that I was disappointed or that I didn't like this book. Generally that would be a correct assumption. Here though, the longer this book sits with me the more I'm beginning to believe that it very nearly achieved that difficult balance between a perfect anti-climax and a missing last chapter.

Emma-Jean is the deliberate, deceptively simple seventh grader who views life with the cool detachment of a scientist. She inherited her mannerisms either genetically or behaviorally from her father, a math professor, who has been dead a few years now. From her rational viewpoint everything can be studied and puzzled out, all problems have a logical solution.

In the bathroom a girl she is acquainted with named Colleen (she has no friends by her own admission, and none the worse for it either) is having a panic attack because her best friend Kaitlin uninvited her to a weekend ski trip to invite the queen bee Laura along instead. Emma-Jean takes in the information and the casual challenge that Colleen utters when she wishes something could be done about the situation. Emma-Jean sets about to lure Laura away from the trip so that Colleen can be re-invited. The plan is to create an official-looking document from the school inviting Laura to perform at a special ceremony for the basketball team, appealing to Laura's pride and vanity. By the time Laura figures out it was a prank the other girls are already well on their way and Laura is out for blood.

In her own subtle way Emma-Jean finds herself fond of one of these basketball players, a boy named Will, who one day she hears being slandered by a spiteful teacher. In no time she is on the case, solving the mystery behind this teacher's rage and setting about to help clear Will as well. At home, Emma-Jean and her mother have taken in a housemate named Vikram, another scientist, who may or may not have affection for Emma-Jean's mom. This idea comes to her later after she has set about finding Vikram a suitable mate in the form of her very understanding English teacher at school.

Emma-Jean's problem solving begins to turn when Laura deduces who was behind the prank and threatens to get both Emma-Jean and Colleen in trouble. The stress of having to face the wrath of Laura makes Colleen physically ill and, in an attempt to help, Emma-Jean has an accident that explains the book's title.

This is where things get dicey, as all the story elements begin to come together it is obvious that things will get cleared up and everyone will be happy. Except for Laura, who gets a good dose of Colleen's newly acquired self-confidence and is turned down at the school dance by Will. Emma-Jean does not get in trouble, Will is suddenly no longer the brunt of his teacher's anger, Vikram may or may not be the replacement for her late father, and the janitor who knows some of Emma-Jean's secrets and is himself one of her protectors lets her know that he is about to retire.

Badly handled, all of this would play a little too pat, but it doesn't make for a truly satisfying ending when all along you're waiting for things to blow. It isn't until Emma-Jean has her accident, and Colleen is dragged to her minister for a little confessional time, that I sensed things might be as satisfying as I'd hoped. After a short pep-talk, Colleen is finally able to move forward with confidence and that bothers me. Though it's Emma-Jean's story -- and she does get a little lesson in when not to meddle in others lives and how to accept the fact that she's a little distant -- it's Colleen who must make the greatest growth and (here's the problem) it doesn't come from within. Yes, she is helped to understand the idea of not being perfect, and that weakness is what being human is partly about, but to have her sudden strength given to her is a little too much like the Cowardly Lion's courage. We know it always had to be there, deep inside, but if it doesn't come out naturally then it isn't really a change of character, it's a device of plot.

I do think that Tarshis manages to capture a unique personality type in Emma-Jean, the "special" girl with the analytical abilities far beyond her emotions. The hints at a growing self-awareness within Emma-Jean would make for a fascinating character study once she's off to college, but for this book it's more quirk than anything. For seventh grade girls who deal heavily with the queen bee/wannabe social dichotomy the idea of a world outside the clique will seem foreign and weird. I don't imagine this book is for any of them but for those who may be on the cusp of having to decide whether they are in, out or beyond.

I think more than a few sixth grade boys could benefit from this story as well.
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