Monday, November 3, 2014

Coming-of-Age Classics (Girls, Part One)

Titles:  Jacob Have I Loved (Katherine Paterson)
            Summer of My German Soldier (Bette Greene)

Ratings:  0 stars out of 3 possible, "D/F"
               Not Recommended

Audience:  Teenage Girls ages 15 and up

Both books have a number of things in common:  award winners (Newbery for Paterson, National Book Award finalist for Greene); state-side WWII setting; female protagonists dealing with adolescent emotions and dysfunctional families.  For me, both also fall into the category of Classics You Don't Have to Read.

Jacob Have I Loved follows Louise Bradshaw as she grows up in the shadow of her talented twin, Caroline.  Louise ("Wheeze") is a tomboy living on Rass Island in Chesapeake Bay who loves to crab and fish with her best friend McCall ("Call").  In contrast, Caroline is musically gifted and the family makes many sacrifices for music lessons and schooling on the mainland in Baltimore.

As I read the book I couldn't decide if I was more disturbed by Louise's descent into teenage angst and selfishness, or by her grandmother's increasingly senile attacks comparing her to the favored Caroline.  Worst of all is Paterson's take on the family's Methodist religion.  When Grandma quotes Romans 9:13 ("As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated"), Louise accepts her seemingly predestined fate:  "There was, then, no use struggling or even trying.  It was God himself who hated me.  And without cause.  'Therefore,' verse 18 had gone on to rub it in, 'hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.'  God had chosen to hate me.  And if my heart was hard, that was his doing as well."

Later on:  "I did not pray anymore.  I had even stopped going to church.  Father said I was old enough to decide for myself.  God was my judge, not (the family).  He meant it as a kindness, for how could he know that God had judged me before I was born and had cast me out before I took my first breath?  I did not miss church, but sometimes I wished I might pray."

To add insult to injury, best friend Call marries Caroline at Juilliard after the War.

The ultimate non sequitur comes at the abrupt end of the novel when Louise receives her degree in nurse midwifery and goes on to marry an Appalachian widower with 3 children of his own.  This unbelievable plot twist leaves the reader confused and dissatisfied.

While Louise's parents were more supportive and loving than she often realized, the protagonist in Summer of My German Soldier faces a much more grim situation.  Patricia ("Patty") Bergen is the oldest of 2 girls of a Jewish family who owns a department store in small-town Arkansas.  Again, favoritism is at play, more real than imagined this time, and the family favoritism is ironically juxtaposed against the civil rights, racism, and prejudice of the day.

Patty is verbally and emotionally abused by her parents, with only the black family maid to soothe and encourage her.  Patty finds one other friend to confide in when she discovers a Nazi prisoner of war escapee hiding in the Bergen's garage.

Anton Reiker is a gentle, educated German whose family opposed Hitler.  He and Patty have several thought-provoking conversations before the inevitable manhunt takes place.  For the role Patty plays in harboring a P.O.W., she must serve her sentence at the Jasper E. Conrad Arkansas Reformatory for Girls.

That, however, is mild compared to the beatings she suffers at the hands of her cruel father.  Twice in the novel he attacks Patty and the descriptions, while brief, are disturbing.  Here is a sample of the aftermath:

"And then they came, ugly and unexpected, those violent little cries that seem to have a life of their own.  Short yelps of injury mingled with anger and defeat."

The parents have their own verbal fights:

"You know, Goddamnit.  You know!  And I hope to hell you croak on it!"
"I don't know!"  screamed my mother.  "And I don't know why you're so mean and miserable."

Desperate to be loved by these dysfunctional parents, Patty becomes a creative liar:

"Hey, Mother, you want to know something?  Last Saturday I sold $25 worth of clothes and stuff to just one customer!  (Liar.  My best sale was barely 18 bucks.  Damn it, conscience, go away!)"

In sum, the book is about the irony of persecution.  The whites persecute the blacks and the Asians; the Americans persecute the Germans; the Protestants and Nazis persecute the Jews; and Harry and Pearl Bergen persecute their own daughter.

That would be the nature of man, as well as the historic state of affairs.  The problem is that this book, and perhaps Judaism itself, doesn't offer a redeeming thread to its players.  There is a sequel, Morning Is a Long Time Coming, that I'm afraid to read.

The only advantage to reading these two novels is in learning what NOT to do as a parent.  These books convicted me of my own harshness and reminded me how sensitive children are to favoritism of any type.  If our children are to learn kindness, gentleness and equality, they need to learn it at home.  The world alone cannot teach those values adequately.

These two books appear perennially on recommended/classics book lists.  I hesitate to recommend them to any young lady, unless she is particularly mature.  Perhaps they might serve to inform some teens that their home life isn't really all that bad?  Would these books offer much hope to girls in similar circumstances, or would they drive them over the edge?  Would you really want to give these books to a teen who already feels confused, depressed, or isolated?  Do you keep your firearms in a locked cabinet?

For alternatives to these books, consider Catherine Marshall's Christian classics, Christy and Julie.

These books offer strong female protagonists built on women from Marshall's own family history.  They also deal with real, historical events:  turn of the century education in Appalachia, and the Johnstown Flood re-cast in 1934.  The main characters overcome adversity and mature in their Christian faith in realistic, relatable ways.  Don't be put-off by the sappy romance covers.  These books have real meat and depth to them.

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