Tag Archives: Giving Voice to the Voiceless

Book Review: Sold Accomplishes Much

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I purchased Patricia McCormick’s award-winning book, Sold, for Hillary Homzie’s Giving Voice to the Voiceless class, and while I did not end up completing the course due to time and financial restraints, I kept the books. This one for its free verse form and unexpected topic piqued my curiosity. Sold follows Lakshmi from her village in the Nepalese Himalayans across the border into Indian, where she is sold to a brothel. Ultimately, Lakshmi escapes the brothel with the help of an American.

Before I get too in depth into the structure and storytelling, there is one quibble that stands above the rest. This story is incomplete—for me. I read the last page and turned it to look for the next only to find a page of acknowledgements. Lakshmi runs to an American man who has brought with him policemen to help him help Lakshmi out of the brothel. We do not see Lakshmi leave. We have no guarantee that she safely arrives at the safe and clean sanctuary. Especially in a book that has been warning us of the wickedness of American men, I needed to see more. I needed to have Lakshmi truly safe before the story ends.

Now, there are reasons—that I can see—for ending the story mid-story. It leaves Lakshmi in peril like so many women still are in peril, and it leaves the reader to finish the story, to do what he or she can do to help these women.

But as a reader, as a human, I still wanted more closure in this tale, for this woman.  I would have liked to have seen her Ama with a tin roof.

This interview posted on McCormick’s website actually addresses a lot of my other concerns with the book. Why have an American man rescuing this Nepali woman? Why tell the story in free verse?

McCormick says that she chose an American hero because her primary audience is American, and she wanted her audience to see themselves as able to make a difference to these women. She admits though that given the opportunity, she would make her heroes the local Indian men and women. I notice too that for the upcoming film (release date March 2015), produced by Emma Thompson and directed by Jeffery Brown, a Caucasian woman rescues Lakshmi—or so it seems from the trailer.

The story is told in vignettes (which take the form of free verse) because McCormick found it too “daunting” to tell all of Lakshmi’s story. She liked the fractured format and she thought that the white space would encourage pause and reflection in her readers.

Poetry is rarely marketed for teens, although several authors, notably Ellen Hopkins, have enjoyed success with stories told in verse for teens. Hopkins like McCormick in this novel, tackles big social issues in her books: drug usage, prostitution, and mental illness. I’m not familiar with enough teen books in verse to comment on the correlation between verse and tackling social issues.

I think that—apart from ending her story too soon—McCormick told her story well. The form did not make for a confusing narrative, and I think—for me—the brevity of the poem scene helped make this book more accessible. This is a difficult subject, a heartbreaking subject, and one that can be difficult to read about. Because the encounters with Lakshmi’s horrors were brief, they were endurable, and for being endurable, the book made an apt vessel for McCormick’s message of social awareness. Within that form–a mere 263 pages of poetry, so not a great time commitment–McCormick is able to create well-rounded and vivid characters—as much as most prose novelists. McCormick too is able to create a full sense of place.  I think this book is well worth the time to read it.

****

McCormick, Patricia.  Sold.  New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2008.  First published 2006.

This review is not endorsed by Patricia McCormick, Hyperion Paperbacks for Children, or Disney Book Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Review: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda is a Poorly Formatted, Solid Story

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I found a copy of Tom Angleberger’s The Strange Case of Origami Yoda used some time ago, and recognizing that it sold well and was therefore probably something that I should read, I took it home. It sat unread on my shelves until I thought that I’d be able unexpectedly to see Angleberger. I hurried through it, reading nearly half of it in two hours before leaving for the supposed signing. By the time that I left for the signing, I was so far into the book that I couldn’t very well stop. I finished it in two days. So take my review with those things in mind.

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda is written as if by a number of different characters reporting on encounters with one character, Dwight, and his finger puppet, Yoda. Several different fonts are used to distinguish the characters, though some characters share fonts, and all of the fonts are similar enough in style for the font changes themselves to not interfere with the flow of the novel as a whole.

The text and format of the book as collected narratives, however, do make it disjointed, and that I think is what keeps it from shining for me. If there had been less acknowledgement of its form within the texts, if the characters hadn’t kept referring to the book and complaining about being asked to write in it, I would have been less thrown from the novel with each new chapter.

Each report is headed by a drawing of the POV character. Illustrations pepper the report as well. In their loose, sketchy style, the illustrations remind me of those that I’ve seen on Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, though Kinney’s are somehow both better at conveying emotion and more cartoonish. Kinney’s books also sell enormously well, and I have to wonder if the similarities between the two illustration styles contribute to Angleberger’s success.

A few quick notes: I will be the first to admit that trying to capture the essence of my characters in drawings is one of the hardest things, but I recognize that I am not a professional artist and plan on accepting help—or foregoing illustrations more likely. Angleberger accepts help from Jason Rosenstock with whom he has co-illustrated the book. I don’t know which illustrations are Angleberger’s and which are Rosenstock’s, but I suspect that the more professional illustrations are Rosenstock’s, so I applaud Angleberger accepting some help, but maybe he didn’t accept enough or was overenthusiastic about having illustrations at all. On the whole, the illustrations may make the books seem less frightening to a young reader, but they don’t for me add anything to the plot or to my understanding of the story. Applause for the text there. (Though I would argue that an overreliance on illustrations might signal too little confidence in children’s imagination and in the strength of the text. “How can you read this? There’s no pictures.” “Well some people use their imagination.” It’s not as though Angleberger is describing unique experiences—apart from perhaps the origami Yoda itself, and that is illustrated on the cover by Melissa Arnst.)

So overall, I don’t feel as if the format of the book as collected narratives or the inclusion of illustrations were particularly good choices and feel that these choices may have limited my enjoyment more than enhanced it. However, the content is solid.

This is a school story, and its focus is on the everyday challenges of interacting with classmates.

Dwight is unpopular. He does odd things like wear the same t-shirt for a month. This book was not part of the curriculum for Giving Voice to the Voiceless, but I think that it easily could have been. There’s no explicit mention of any neurodevelopmental disorder that might explain the quirks in Dwight’s behavior, but I suspect that Dwight might fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, explaining his difficulty relating to his peers, the difficulty that he has in speaking to them, and the ritualistic behaviors in which he engages.

While Dwight is unpopular, the finger puppet that accompanies Dwight gives wise advice to Dwight’s classmates, some of whom believe that the puppet may even be able to predict the future.

The premise of the book is to determine whether or not this is the case—though that mystery is never solved—and the end makes it seem less about Yoda and more about Dwight—particularly Tommy’s relationship and reaction to Dwight. The book takes the form of an apology. Tommy decides after examining Dwight and Yoda that he’d “rather be on Dwight’s side than Harvey’s. Dwight is weird, but I guess I’ve started to like him, and I hated to let him down. Somehow I didn’t mind letting Harvey down” (138).

Tommy’s relationship to many of his classmates changes over the course of his study. Harvey begins as one of his better friends, and Dwight as just the odd kid of the class. Dwight is able by standing out more than usual by the adoption of his puppet to influence the whole of the school for the better, bringing partners together, exposing bullies, healing peer relationships, and making traditionally disappointing school events more fun.

It’s a story of the power of the outcast and of acceptance, and I really like the conclusions that Angleberger and his characters come to.

This book has a great title, and it’s a good middle-grade read for its morals, but I really wanted to be blown away by this book. I wanted it to deserve its bestseller status. Especially as Angleberger is now among those local authors that I might one day have a chance to meet in a relaxed setting.  I wish that I could be more pleased with the book’s format.

***1/2

Angleberger, Tom. The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. Illus. Tom Angleberger and Jason Rosenstock.  Cover art by Melissa Arnst.  New York: Amulet-ABRAMS, 2010.

This review is not endorsed by Tom Angleberger, Jason Rosenstock, Melissa Arnst, Amulet Books, or ABRAMS.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Art of the Con: A Drowned Maiden’s Hair Magically Maintains My Interest

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, excepts, videos, downloads, and author's bio.

Spoilers.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama is a historical fiction with elements of magical realism by Laura Amy Schlitz and is outside of my usually indulged fantasy genre.  I bought it for a graduate course, quit the class, then read and finished the book despite.  That in itself is a pretty good review.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair is written from the point of view of Maud Flynn, an orphan adopted by three spinster sisters, the Hawthornes, who hold séances for rich patrons to maintain their lifestyle.  Maud lives as a “secret child” with the sisters and is asked to take part in their séances, acting the role of one particular child, Caroline Lambert.  Sneaking out the house, Maud meets Mrs. Lambert, Caroline’s grieving mother, whom she begins to like despite herself, and whom she begins to feel guilty for conning.

During a séance, an accidental fire destroys the Hawthorne’ house.  The Hawthornes and Mrs. Lambert flee, leaving Maud locked in a cabinet behind.  Maud escapes and stumbles away from the burning house, and in exchange for her honesty, is helped by the owner of a carousel that both Caroline and now Maud have become fond of riding.

At first Mrs. Lambert despises Maud along with the sisters who have conned her but Mrs. Lambert comes to realize that Maud has reminded her of her daughter, Caroline, and Mrs. Lambert forgives Maud and offers Maud the loving home that she has so desperately wanted.

This is the external plot, but its morals are of discerning truth and untruth and appearances from reality; the true plot is Maud’s confusion about whom to trust and whom to distrust and what to keep secret and what to reveal.  Perhaps as a result, the adults in the tale who are manipulating or using Maud seem significantly more interesting than Maud herself, and Maud, though she acts and acts against the orders of the adults in charge of her, seems more catalyst for their reactions and a foggy lens for the reader than she does a heroine who acts throughout the story.  Though she was nice enough, Maud didn’t leave that much of an impression upon me, and I think that I remained with her to see whether or not Mrs. Lambert would be tricked and then to ensure that the sisters got their comeuppance.

The class for which this book was an assignment is called Giving Voice to the Voiceless.  Maud is forced by the Hawthorne sisters to maintain her silence and hide her identity, not through fear of physical violence as with Sarah Byrnes in Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes but through fear of rejection, out of a belief that by behaving and doing all that the sisters tell her to do Maud can win love.  Maud’s voicelessness is what the Hawthornes require and desire, and it is a boon to them.  Her voicelessness hurts Mrs. Lambert.  Whether or not it is a boon or harm to Maud is difficult to say without a lengthy discussion.  Her singing voice first wins her the Hawthornes’ attention and they take her away from the orphanage where she’s been living.  Her voicelessness ensures her continued situation with the Hawthornes, where she is provided with better food and more elegant clothes than she has ever been allowed and more personal attention, though whether she is more genuinely loved by the orphanage’s staff than by the Hawthornes is again up for debate.  By remaining voiceless as the Hawthornes implore her to be, Maud distances Mrs. Lambert, who could provide her with an even better living situation and genuine love in addition.

Along with Maud’s enforced voicelessness, the Hawthornes employ a mute servant, whom they call Muffet.  Maud befriends Muffet and begins to teach her the words for objects and later to read.  Muffet and Maud together make the journey from voicelessness into a voiced and into a loving home.  Schlitz seems to be very firmly of the opinion that voice and truth and honesty are virtues.

Maud’s is a supremely innocent close third voice, but I think I’d have liked her better if more of her impertinence had come forward in her voice as well as in her dialogue rather than being most prominently displayed in the labels of adults.

***1/2

Schlitz, Laura Amy.  A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama.  Cambridge, MA: Candlewick, 2006.

This review is not endorsed by Laura Amy Schlitz or Candlewick Press.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Nothing Dazzling About the Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin

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In probably a rare moment of wisdom, common sense, and listening to my body, I’ve dropped the graduate class that I was taking.  I plan still on reading some of the required texts—on my own time when I feel in the mood to do so—and I will, if I review those books here, still tag them as being part of Giving Voice to the Voiceless.  I may also do some of the writing exercises.

Josh Berk’s The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin is the last book that I read on the syllabus’ schedule before my giving my notification (so to speak).  The book chronicles the extraordinary events that happen in the public high school of a small, Pennsylvanian coal-mining town shortly after Will Halpin transfers from his local deaf school because of what he describes as deaf culture politics (for wanting to be part of the hearing culture as well as the deaf, he is shunned).  On a class field trip, Pat, the star quarterback and son of a wealthy casino owner, is killed when he falls down a mineshaft.  Will’s friend Devon, the only person with which Will really communicates at a school that largely doesn’t understand sign language or the ways in which they can help Will communicate and understand, pulls Will into a Hardy Boys type investigation.

As a child, I read more Boxcar Children books than my mother cares to remember, and The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin became reminiscent of their plots—tracking down clues by somewhat dangerous means, often by defeating suspicious adults.  Written for an older audience and being a stand-alone instead of a series, Hamburger Halpin was less about kids overcoming adults than The Boxcar Children, and dealt more with the peer group and finding one’s place among it.  Hamburger Halpin also delved deeper into more adult and teen themes and ideas (I’m literally talking about sex, drugs, and rock and roll) than The Boxcar Children ever did.

[SPOILERS] As Will teases Devon when Devon comments:

“[…] I can’t believe that everything turned out exactly like a Hardy Boys book.

“HamburgerHalpin: except for the part where the quarterback had a sex liaison with one of his educationalists

“Smiley_Man3000: Oh yeah.

“HamburgerHalpin: and then the prom queen got knocked up and pushed him down a coal shaft

“Smiley_Man3000: Well there is that, but…

“HamburgerHalpin: and then the police arrested frank” (244-245) [END SPOILERS]

As Will relies heavily on technology (instant messages on computer and handheld devices) to communicate easily with Devon, The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin may quickly become outdated.  I would have said that its references to Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys would have made it feel a little dated already, being uncertain that today’s kids still read these series with any regularity, but I actually did have a giggle of three girls come to me this week to beg to be shown where to find Nancy Drew.

Will’s deafness really only served, for me, to make him a good lip-reader, and therefore a good partner to have when watching surveillance tapes.  Otherwise, Will’s deafness just gives him a reason to have a difficult time in school (any number of other reasons would have served) and a second reason (in addition to his weight, with which Will actually seems surprisingly comfortable, so props to Berk on that point) to be outcast at school.

Neither plot nor prose wowed me, but Hamburger Halpin may interest fans of kid detectives when those readers reach their teens and will be good to recommend for teen mystery readers, though the first 116 pages are given to a bildungsroman and investigation of life for a deaf teen rather than to a mystery and whodunit.

There was something more genuine and interesting about the bildungsroman and Will’s perspective on everyday life than the mystery for me, but I gave up my Boxcar Children obsession long ago and have not adopted another detective series since unless you want to include Harry Potter (which I don’t think that I would).

**1/2

Berk, Josh.  The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin.  New York: Ember-Random, 2010.

This review is not endorsed by Josh Berk, Ember, or Random House, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Out of My Mind Flies But Falls at the End

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Some spoilers.

The first book on our reading list for ENG 561: Giving Voice to the Voiceless is Sharon M. Draper’s Out of My Mind, one of the nominees for the 2014 Nutmeg Book Award and high on my mental shortlist for the award.  Out of My Mind is the story of a middle-school girl with cerebral palsy, extremely intelligent but unable to speak without the aid of a machine (which she obtains only midway through the story) and unable to complete basic tasks like dressing or feeding herself.  Out of My Mind chronicles Melody’s struggle to fit in and to express herself to a world that largely sees only her disability.  Extremely intelligent with a photographic memory and synesthesia besides, Melody enters a quiz bowl competition, surpassing her classmates in trials, providing her with the opportunity to show the world her intelligence or at least her ability to comprehend, compete, and retain information.  But because her disability makes her classmates uncomfortable, her chance is stolen, and her inability to communicate effectively, swiftly, and without aid leads to further tragedy, which ultimately is resolved happily enough, but was quite a gut punch from Draper to her readers.

Out of My Mind is written in a simple past first person.  The book reveals itself at the end to be the work of Melody, written as an autobiography for class.

Out of My Mind falls for me into one of the pitfalls of sports fiction (though I had to laugh a little when I looked over what sports fiction I’ve read): dull and plot-miring over-explanation of a sport that is a catalyst but the understanding of which is not really crucial to the plot.  Meg Wolitzer in The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman hangs by her fingertips from this cliff’s edge, but Draper teeters by that same precipice when she lists questions and answers for the quiz bowl in her fiction.  Luckily, a quiz bowl question is briefer than a list of 101 two-letter words, and I was more forgiving of Draper, who also seemed to recognize this problem and, as quickly as she could, moved Melody past inserting the questions into the text.

Otherwise, Out of My Mind is a well-written text, employing many tricks of the trade and leaning towards poetic prose without frequently tumbling into a brier of flowery language.

As a story about voice and voicelessness, Out of My Mind is fascinating, with voice and voicelessness oscillating between being voluntary and involuntary, frustrating and a defense mechanism, even for Melody, for whom for all her life prior voicelessness has been the only option.

Melody is prone to bouts of teenage-ness and this helps to make her real.  In Melody’s struggle to fit in and be understood by her peers, Melody’s cerebral palsy and voicelessness become another hurdle, but the struggle itself is a standard middle-grade trial, one to which I think we can all, at almost any age, relate, and this too helps to make Melody a relatable and real character.

[SPOILERS] Ultimately, Out of My Mind did not have the ending that I wanted for it.  I would have appreciated if it had ended when Melody and her quiz bowl team won the state competition, but Draper saw fit to increase the angst for Melody.  Left behind by her quiz bowl team, Melody feels betrayed, and her disability again becomes stark for her just when she had seemed to surmount it, but she refuses to be defeated by her teammates’ perceived cruelty (I genuinely feel that the team while they can be faulted for excluding her from their shared breakfast cannot have hoped to leave Melody behind).  She demands to go to school despite poor weather and the fraying health and energy of her parents.  In the rain and her distraction, Melody’s mother does not see Melody’s younger sister, and Penny is struck by the car.  Though Penny emerges from the accident with a few broken bones but no lasting damage, I felt that Draper’s point about Melody’s difficulties to communicate had already been conveyed, and while this was (almost) the most dramatic of ways in which her inability could be conveyed, it may not have been necessary to the plot, and really only seemed to fill the space (unnecessarily) between Melody’s disappointment and her moment to confront her class while giving Melody a second time to worry that Penny might be “damaged” mentally as Melody is.  Angst. [END SPOILER]

***1/2

Draper, Sharon M.  Out of My Mind.  New York: Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2010.

This review is not endorsed by Sharon M. Draper, Atheneum Books for Young Readers or Simon & Schuster, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Challenge: Legal Theft: Abigail Amid the Mass (828 words)

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This is actually the legal theft piece the original first line of which Gwen from Apprentice, Never Master stole from me to write her piece for Thursday, “Basilica.”  It was supposed to go up September 13.  I’ve started the piece that I was supposed to have done for Thursday (September 12) using the line that I stole from Gwen.  That will be up as soon as I have completed all the homework due by noon.

I don’t like going to my grandparents’ church.  My parents know this, but we still have to go once a month to keep my grandparents happy.

Theirs is a more traditional service with lots of pomp and circumstance.  The organ shouts out a hymn’s tune beneath trills and rills, and a choir of older voices leans strongly towards the soprano with only a few baritones and basses for support.  Dad tells me that the priests come out in flowing robes stitched with gold, a little boy carrying a cross walks before them to the altar, which is a grand affair itself.  This parade of finery is lost on me; it’s meaningless, and it seems unnecessary.  If I can worship without seeing any of this, everyone else should be able too as well.  “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  That’s one of my favorite verses.  I try not to smirk as I sit in the pew, thinking about all these people who have to see to believe, who need gold and a parade of costumed men to worship God.  No one wears robes outside of church, but worship doesn’t end on Sunday around one o’clock.

The church my parents and I go to usually is different.  Modern, my grandparents call it, and an effrontery when they think I’m not listening (which is ridiculous; I’m always listening).  I asked my dad what effrontery meant, and he told me that my grandparents think that our church doesn’t worship God right.  He told me to ignore them and worship God however I wanted to.  He told me that God wouldn’t mind as long as I did worship Him.  Personally, I get a lot more out of the blaring rock music with drums that change the rhythm of my heartbeat than I do from a priest chanting in Latin.  Who even knows what the priest is saying?  I mean, I know they know—or some of them do, the older people—some of them must—but they can’t understand it, and they can’t really think about it, can they?  Certainly I can’t.  The ave, Marias and the pater nosters might as well be Martian to me.

My mom nudges me, pushing at my forearm a bit, and I know it’s time to kneel.  I shuffle forward on the bench and lower myself towards the floor, putting a hand out to catch the pew in front of us and finding the tiny, cushioned ledge with my knees.  My grandparents’ church requires a lot of aerobics too.  Sit, stand, sit, kneel, stand again, now kneel, now you can sit.  No one likes to kneel—or I can’t think why anyone would like to kneel—but I especially don’t.

My church doesn’t care if we sit, stand, jump around, or dance in the aisles.  Sitting is easiest for me.  After coming back from my grandparents’ church, I almost want to dance in the aisle with the Abigail, who giggles and squeals as she does, imitating the amens and hallelujahs; I just want to let go and celebrate having fewer rules.

She dances every week, so her parents sit in the back near us, though seating’s not assigned.  After introducing herself to me, Abigail told me that I could dance with her anytime, but most of our interactions have been during the meet and greet moments that our church pauses for.

She says hello every week.  “Hello, Simon,” she calls, and then I hear her say, “Hi.  I’m Abigail,” and every week there’s a new voice saying, “Hello, Abigail.”

I don’t have Abigail’s exuberance, and meeting new people can be hard.

Abigail doesn’t ask much, didn’t ask much of me.  It’s why I can smile at her and call back, “Hi, Abigail.”  She’ll even come up to me when I tell her to, and talk to me if I want her to, and she doesn’t ask why I don’t go to her.

Everyone’s chanting around us now—my mother too—making their mouths move through the pattern of those foreign, Latin syllables that are just nonsense to me and memorized by them.  I catch a few words: “Pater noster” is “our Father,” and I think “malo” might be “bad” like in Spanish.  “Jesu Christ” is definitely “Jesus Christ.”  “Gloria” is almost certainly “glory.”  But for every word I can guess at, there are a hundred more that I can’t understand at all.

At the priest’s “Offerte vobis pacem,” my mother signals me to stand.  People turn towards us offering a “pax,” a handshake, a “hello,” the English a welcome relief.  I stick my hand out and allow it to be taken.  I’ve learned this is easiest.  I say “pax” when it’s taken.

I think about Abigail introducing herself to everyone, and it’s easier to smile at these strangers who don’t tell me their names and don’t stay for more than a quick, unenthusiastic greeting.

And I just want to say that this is in no way meant to insult any form of worship.  I actually really enjoy a liturgical service and contemporary rock worship music, but personally I agree with Simon’s dad:  God won’t care how we worship.

This is actually, too, an excerpt from a longer piece that I wrote for class.

Book Review: Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes Is a Bildungsroman and Issue Book for All

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Let me preface this review with a life update:  I’m back in grad school!  I’m about to embark on my first ever online course: ENG 561: Giving Voice to the Voiceless, a literature class taught by the Hillary Homzie.  We will be reading books where the writer has given voice to an otherwise voiceless child or teen, whether that child is physically incapable of speech, she is forced to be silent by adults, or her situation is such that her voice cannot be heard, and examine the techniques and forms used by these writers in trying to genuinely capture a voiceless voice to be able to emulate these in our own writing.

This class is going to consist primarily of realistic fiction, and a lot of it will be darker.

Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is not the first book on our reading list, but it was the first that I was able to get my hands upon, again, having found it at my local used bookstore.  It is a hard read.

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is narrated by Eric “Moby” Calhoune, a once fat middle school student, now a somewhat slimmer high school swim team star.  Eric’s best friend is Sarah Byrnes, a tough and clever girl who has been outcast because of the severe burns that mar her face.  Those burns she claims to have gotten when, as a toddler, she pulled a boiling vat of water off the stove.  At the beginning of the novel, Sarah Byrnes (who goes only by her full name because she is aware of its irony and would prefer others to ridicule her on her terms to her face rather than behind her back) has ceased talking and ceased responding to the world at large.  She is living in a psychiatric ward, where Eric visits her.

The bildungsroman follows Eric as he tries to negotiate the secrets that he learns and the pain that he experiences.  Apart from Sarah Byrnes’ apparent withdrawal from the world, Eric is in a new class where they discuss relevant contemporary issues (abortion and religion are the main issues to which Crutcher devotes scenes), is striving to ready himself for the state swim championships, gains a girlfriend as his mother gains a boyfriend….  Issues that arise in the class force him to reevaluate his rival, who is a legalistic Christian.

Crutcher incorporates more of a villain and more of plot into his bildungsroman than some (Salinger) have done, and I greatly appreciate that for its good-versus-evil battle familiarity.  I think that this and the broader spectrum of issues with which Crutches deals (abortion, child abuse, the dangers of a narrow worldview and a worldview that allows only perfection, suicide; issues that should be talked about, dealt with) make Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes more readable than some others and rescue Staying Fat from the casual label of “boys’ book” that I would throw at it on the grounds of it being a bildungsroman from a male perspective.  I believe that Staying Fat is readable, enjoyable, and helpful to both genders.  Another “well done” to Crutcher.

As per giving voice to the voiceless:  Crutcher uses voicelessness in two ways: first as a disability or effect of abuse (as with Sarah Byrnes, Jody Mueller, and Mark Brittain) and second as a shield against abuse or hurt (as with Sarah Byrnes and Carver Middleton).  This paradoxical dichotomy lends an original voice and complexity to the very idea of voicelessness and makes the novel both more enjoyable and interesting.

The epilogue resolves what it can and allows for a generally happy ending to a heavy and dark read, while acknowledging that high school and the beginning of college are a time of flux and it cannot be tied in a neat bow.

***3/4

Crutcher, Chris.  Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes.  New York: Greenwillow-HarperTempest-HarperCollins, 2003.  First published 1993.

This review is not endorsed by Chris Crutcher, Greenwillow Books, HarperTempest, HarperCollins Children’s Books, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.