Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

American Indian Cultural Festival

A lot of the work of being an author is the dull and dry sitting at a desk (even when that desk is in a tree) and writing day after day. But every now and then an event comes along that you know you’ll remember forever. The American Indian Cultural Festival in The Dalles last week was just such a moment. It was a celebration of literature and poetry and music and dance. It involved a group of books that I admire and authors I feel honored to share the stage with: Elizabeth Woody, Oregon’s Poet Laureate, Craig Lesley, acclaimed author of contemporary western literature, and National Book Award winning writer Sherman Alexie.

I was lucky enough to spend time with an adult book club and share a poetry reading with some truly outstanding young poets. I got to hear the culture club from Lyle school in Washington give their very first performance in the Sahaptian language with traditional dancing. They were simply amazing. I’m so proud of all they’ve accomplished in a year. I meet with some avid writers in the North Oregon Juvenal Detention Facility, and best of all I got to dance with the Taholah drum group from the Quinault Reservation. My favorite part of the whole thing was the series of classrooms who came to hear me and the Taholah drum group speak. They had all kinds of great questions about the culture and art of the Quinault and Makah and the practice of tribal whaling. It was the sort of mind-opening conversation that cultural festivals are made for. I am very grateful to Julian Peterson and Marko Black and all the tribal dancers from Taholah who shared their songs and prayers and dances so generously, and who invited the students to dance and drum along so whole-heartedly. I know those are memories the students will always cherish.

Thank you to Jim Tindale the librarian at The Dalles School District who made this all happen in conjunction with the great booksellers at Oregon’s oldest bookstore Klindt’s who sold all the books and hosted many of the events. Tina Ontiveros is the manager at Klindt’s and Joaquin Perez is the owner. The fundraising for this event was truly a community affair with donations coming from area schools and libraries, educational foundations, local congregations, Oregon’s poet laureate program, the Wasco County Cultural Trust, the Ford Foundation, the Meyer Memorial Trust, and the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde. It’s inspiring to see so many community members come together in support of literacy and the cultural understanding of our local American Indian communities. Thank you!

The Great Reads Campaign

The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance (NCBLA) has just launched  GREAT READS, a new project aimed at connecting kids with great books. A GREAT READ can be a page turner, a funny-bone tickler, a wild adventure ride, a slow drift down the river, a snuggle-under-the-covers. A GREAT READ may, or may not, be great literature, but sharing GREAT READS is the best way to turn kids into lifelong readers.
I was very honored this year to be asked to participate in this literacy project. I had no trouble at all picking a book I wanted to share. It’s Echo by Pam Munóz Ryan. I reviewed the book on the blog earlier this year.
Here is my contribution to the book recommendations of the NCBLA Great Reads program. It was great fun to see several Portland authors also in this group. Susan Blackaby, Heather Vogel Frederick, Eric Kimmel, Virginia Euwer Wolff, and Graham Salisbury.
You can see all the other Great Reads posters at  thencbla.org. There’s a ton of great literacy resources on the website, so whether you’re a teacher wanting to promote reading in your classroom or just a family looking for the next great read aloud, I hope you’ll give it a look.

Middle Grade Monday book review: The Great Trouble by Deborah Hopkinson

I’m going to try to read all the books that are on the 2015-16 OBOB list with me and I’m so happy to start with a wonderful book by my friend and fellow Portlander, Deborah Hopkinson. This is a story after my heart because epidemiology was my 9780375848186mother’s field. It’s an account of how the enterprising Dr. Snow and a couple of street urchins proved that a cholera epidemic that a broke out in Victorian London was caused not by the heavily polluted air but by the contaminated water in the Broad Street pump.

Three things for a kid reader to love:

1. Any kid who lives Bones or CSI or other tv crime scene procedurals will love this. It’s full of real nitty gritty details of how to prove that disease is water-borne when the water tastes fine and the air stinks. Great fun, and not “teach-y”

2. Cool historical maps of the epidemic are in the back matter. Love Maps!

3. The narrator, a kid who goes by the name Eel, is appealing and keeps the events on a very human scale. In finding and answer to the riddle of the Broad Street pump, Eel finds a home and protection and education for his beloved little brother.

Something for the writer to think about:

Any story about an epidemic is going to be tragic and this one doesn’t shrink from death. However, and this is the important distinction to me, it doesn’t revel in death or glamorize suffering. It’s a fine line to walk and I think it’s handled beautifully. Well worth a read just to see how Deborah gets the balance just right.

Also I’m going to tag this as a diverse book in terms of class. It addresses very directly the injustices Eel faces because of his economic status. It’s easy to over-look or romanticize the poor. Here’s a book that in my opinion does them justice. The low-income characters are a mix of good and bad actors and the upper-income characters are an equally mixed bag in terms of personal virtue. Bravo!



Middle Grade Monday book review: ECHO by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Ordinarily I just take the jpeg of a book cover from the internet, but for this one I just had to take a picture of the book with my Hohner vest pocket harmonica. It’s smaller than the instruments referred to in the story, and I haven’t played it in ages, but it reminded me how much I loved having music in my pocket as a child. Echo is hard story to sum up briefly but it’s got the best flap copy I’ve read in a while so here’s that.

IMG_1610 (3)Lost and alone in a forbidden forest, Otto meets three mysterious sisters and suddenly finds himself entwined in a puzzling quest involving a prophecy, a promise, and a harmonica. Decades later, Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California each, in turn, become interwoven when the very same harmonica lands in their lives. All the children face daunting challenges: rescuing a father, protecting a brother, holding a family together. And ultimately, pulled by the invisible thread of destiny, their suspenseful solo stories converge in an orchestral crescendo. 

Richly imagined and masterfully crafted, ECHO pushes the boundaries of genre and form, and shows us what is possible in how we tell stories. The result is an impassioned, uplifting, and virtuosic tour de force that will resound in your heart long after the last note has been struck

3 things for a young reader to love

1. This is a really intriguing mix of realistic historical and fantastical elements. There’s lots to learn about the history of the 20th century here but wrapped as it is in a mythic prophesy, it doesn’t feel “teachy” yet it brings to light some really interesting and dark and difficult aspects of American and German history.IMG_1612

2.There is some truly beautiful book craftsmanship here: decorated pages, a lovely cover under the dust jacket, and three songs with harmonica notation in case you want to learn the music from each section of the book.

3. It’s long! I know some people are going to look at that as a disadvantage in the supposedly attention deficit MG market, but I disagree. MG readers have time to read. Some of them love long books, love the seriousness they imply, love getting wrapped up in a tale that carries them along for hours and hours. And yet there’s nothing here IMG_1611to edge it up to YA. This is the perfect book for that tender-hearted teenaged reader who is not interested in sexual relationships and blatant violence. It’s also great for that really young high level reader who needs a challenge and a story with substance but isn’t up for YA content.

4. Okay I cheated 4 things. It’s diverse, seamlessly interweaving Jewish, Irish, Japanese and Hispanic experiences.

Something for the writer to think about

Prologues and epilogues are routinely discouraged by writing instructors and there are good reasons to be cautious about including one. But here’s an example of one that has been done beautifully. It’s a bold choice to mix the fantastical elements of the prologue and epilog with straight up historical fiction in the other three sections. I think it works brilliantly here making it a true bridge to the more complex and layered stories they will read as adults. And the book has something lovely to say about the nearly magical power of music to give the musician comfort and courage. I’m not a big believer in predictions, but here is a book that’s going to be on lots of best book of the year lists.

Writing Outside your Culture: thoughts on The Madman of Piney Woods

MadmanPineyWoodsI read The Madman of Piney Woods, the latest book by Christopher Paul Curtis, this fall because I am working on a novel with two protagonists and I wanted to study how a real master of the craft handled the inherent difficulties in dual narration. But I become distracted from my initial goal by the story of Alvin “Red” Stockard. If you are looking for a more traditional review, this book got starred reviews at both the Hornbook and Kirkus. I’m going to take a look at the story from the perspective of cultural authenticity.

I’m a person of Irish descent who’s read a lot of Irish history. I read Irish writers regularly, play Irish music, and have a long involvement with the Irish music and dance community in the Pacific Northwest. I’m making an assumption that Mr. Curtis is not Irish, although many black people in North America do have some Irish heritage. Mr. Curtis didn’t mention his ethnic heritage in his bio or author’s note so I’m going to assume that he’s chosen to write outside of his personal cultural experience for the character Red.

The first thing I noticed in reading Red’s section of the book was that his voice sounded unlike any Irish person I know. Accent and turn of phrase is tricky, even when you know it well. Most readers would not be taken aback by Red’s word choices or turn of phrase, but I found them outside of my experience of the Irish. I also found a couple of idioms that sounded off to me. The phrase to twirl the cat, is unfamiliar but a similar phrase not room enough to swing a cat is one I’ve heard in several places and has a completely different connotation than the one Mr. Curtis refers to in the book. It would be easy to conclude that he’s guilty of lazy writing; HOWEVER, an idiom is a slippery thing, prone to multiple and regional meanings and inclined to change over time. In a story set a hundred years ago, it’s quite likely that the idiom I’m familiar with did not exist in its present form or had several meanings right from the start. Likewise the accent Mr. Curtis is portraying may well be one with which I’m unfamiliar. I speak regularly with people from Donegal, Clare, and Cork. I’ve recently been to Dublin. Accents differ in all four places and I’m sure there are accents I’m unfamiliar with. Even my extensive reading of Irish authors does not make me an expert of every Irish dialect. Other aspects of the book are well researched so I’m going to assume this accent was also based on appropriate readings and recordings.

Characterization and cliche are another area of concern in the book. Though it is not in vogue to remember, racism has often be directed at white people. Try searching on the term “Irish” in an image directory and see what you get. Here are four things that turned up amid a sea of shamrocks on Google Image. Unknown images images-1 images-2

As you can see we get the unflattering sports mascot, the depiction of drunkenness, the quaint and pastoral people wearing green, and a display of domestic violence. These were among the top twenty-five images containing people. I decided to leave out the lewd Halloween costumes, the magical druids, the leprechauns, and the beer. For comparison take a look at what a google image search gives you for French or British or even African American. It’s a pretty striking difference. I don’t want to get into a debate about who has it worse in terms of mainstream depiction of their ethnicity. There are no winners in that game. Just making an observation.

The Madman of Piney Woods contains some cliches and overly broad characterizations of the Irish. None so egregious as the images above, but cliches none the less. The most obvious ones are Alvin’s red hair, domestic violence, the grandmother’s anger and bitterness, and the father’s too-good-to-be-true sagacity. So what to make of all that.

Red hair is rare, occurring in only about 4% of North Americans. Even in Ireland, only 10% of the population have red hair. It’s an easy way to telegraph Irish-ness without giving a more thoughtful and nuanced description–red hair is the feathered headdress of the Irish. On the other hand, further description would get into skin tone and comparative coloring to the black characters in the story and that’s a linguistic minefield. I’d probably make the same choice myself.

Domestic violence is a crime long associated with the Irish and I was sad to see that characterization repeated in this story. On the other hand, in 1901 the beating of children was more common among all races and class of people, and not on anyone’s radar in the way it is today. And Mr. Curtis did not equate the violence with Irish-ness but clearly laid the blame on the ravanges of alcoholism or PTSD from a traumatic migration experience. It’s not “nice” but it’s fair and authentic to the period.

The dynamic between the saintly dad and evil grandmother was a bit over the top for my taste. Red’s father was very Atticus Finch-like in his goodness, and he was even in the legal profession. The grandmother’s bitterness also seemed a bit one-note to me. I’d have like to see a more developed version of this character. For example a woman in her position would have attended Mass as assiduously as she avoided the racist grocer. I found it odd to find so little mention of church. Most Irish of the era whether Catholic or Protestant had a lot of cultural identity and social support wrapped up in church-going. A view into that part of the Stockard family’s life might have made them all seem more rounded and realistic. That said, in many families with an abusive member, the other adult in the situation compensates for it with heroic kindness and a hard won wisdom about human nature.

And here are some things I found completely realistic and true to the Irish-American experience.

The connection between Irish and African music is longstanding, and in my opinion, a great benefit to the cannon of North American music. When I hear Reggae, I hear a slow and soulful version of the traditional hornpipe. In Gospel music I find much in common with Irish ballads. Contemporary Irish music is full of influences that echo it’s development alongside African-American music That connection was beautifully portrayed in the climactic scene where Red sings to the Madman of Piney Woods.

The racism towards Black Canadians by Grandmother O’Toole was also true to what I’ve heard and read about the Irish immigrant experience. Black freedmen and Irish immigrants were often scrambling for purchase on the lowest rung of the economic ladder which tended to put them in conflict. I wish the history were otherwise but it isn’t. I think the discomfort that the prejudice is likely to generate is ultimately helpful in terms of the conversations it might inspire about how fear and hatred arise.

And finally what I really loved about the story was its willingness to show in careful (but not overwhelming for a young reader) detail the horrors that many migrating Irish experienced. Our current experiences with Ebola provide a very striking parallel to the Irish who were quarantined on ships carrying Typhus. (What a terrific book discussion that could be!)  The Irish immigration experience is not a story that comes into the school curriculum very often or very accurately. It’s seldom the subject of a kid’s book. I was very grateful to see it portrayed so sensitively here.

Ethnic diversity in children’s books matters and I’m thrilled that someone outside of the Irish writing community was willing to take on this topic and bring it to light with compassion. I’m happy to see that the book has been well-received by critics who might have quibbled over details of authenticity or who has the “right” to tell an Irish story. Details matter but intention matters too. I want lots more books with ethnically diverse characters, not just the few that can pass the narrow gate of some critic’s opinion of their authenticity. Because here is the most uncomfortable truth of all. Even though I’m of Irish heritage, it’s no guarantee that I would write a more “authentic” story. My experience of being Irish is specific and narrow. I have biases about my own history, and any writer working from their own heritage faces risks of censure from within their own community.

Sometimes the view of an outsider who is willing to do solid research and the hard work of empathy is just as valid and maybe even a bit more objective. Thank you Mr. Curtis for a thoughtful and bravely told tale.