Sunday, May 27

Feathers

Jacqueline Woodson
Putnam 2007

I've been floundering with this book for over a week now, trying to figure out what exactly it is I want to say. Twice now my attempts to review the book have quickly become examinations of the 1970's and why it feels like we're seeing more books set during that time and what, if any, relation all this has on our current political landscapes and whether younger readers really want to read about all this as "period" reading.

At it's simplest the story come from the wrong-side-of-the-tracks family. A boy with long hair transfers mid-year to the new school on the bad side of town, literally on the wrong side of the tracks. Being the new kid, the odd fish, makes him the easy target for the bullies and because he looks white and the other students are a rainbow of browns he is instantly viewed with suspicion. The Jesus Boy, nicknamed because of his hair and serenity in the face of his non-violent approach to life, causes unease because some of the kids begin to wonder if he isn't Jesus come back to test their faith. When finally pushed to the edge by Trevor, the class bully, JB finally lets lose a verbal assault that disarms Trevor but proves JB is like the rest of them, capable of cruelty and anger. JB's secret is that he was adopted by black parents who moved across the tracks because life wasn't any easier for them on the other side. Kids are egalitarian in their cruelty.

The story is told from the point of view of Frannie who, along with her deaf brother Sean, give us another perspective on being outsiders. Frannie doesn't feel she fits in with those around her who are more deeply connected to their church, and her brother Sean makes a connection between his deafness being a separate world that keeps disconnected. Frannie wants to believe as her friends do but she sees too many contradictions to settle her rational mind; Sean knows that no matter which side of the tracks he lives on he'll always be an outsider to the hearing world, a world he can never be a part of unlike his sister who can travel in his world through sign language.

The title comes from Frannie's book-long inquiry into a poem by Emily Dickinson which begins with the line "Hope is a thing with feathers." Indeed, it makes me wonder what Woodson herself hopes for both within the book and without.

Setting the story in the 1970's allows for a certain distancing from the idea of a segregated society, but the the ideas that lie beneath are as real today as they might have been 30 years ago. Somewhere between then and now American society has recreated new divisions and seems desperate to reclaim old one. Politics, religion and even music have moved to their respective sides of the track and don't take kindly to outsiders attempting to pass or blend in.

So why go there? Are we seeing an increase of writers who came of age during those times who feel the resonance so strongly with our current climate? The 70's are equally alive in Barbara Kerley's Greetings From Planet Earth so I'm wondering if this is a trend or a blip or just coincidence.

This perhaps moves outside the parameters of the review, but sometimes the universe sends a message and you have to puzzle it out the best you can. For a very long time now I've been wondering what to make of my particular generation, a shoulder generation who are alternately claimed as being either the tail end of the Boomers or the front end of Generation X. To my knowledge this generation is not formally recognized by marketers or the media and my experience has been that those born between 1958 and 1963 have a general sense of feeling left out. It was while I was at my wife's graduation ceremony this week that I had another old idea brought back to the surface. It was under the guise of referring to a graduating class as a karass, a term invented by Kurt Vonnegut, taken from Cat's Cradle (published in 1963 coincidentally), which is defined as "a team that do[es] God's Will without ever discovering what they are doing."

I'm beginning to feel as if my karass is making itself known in children's literature.
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