"Young Protagonists Deal With the Difficulties Thrown at Them"
December 24, 2000
by Bella Stander
Technology may have been simpler way back when, but life certainly wasn't easy--especially for people who had to earn a living. Here are some novels for young adults that show the rougher side of "the olden days."
by Kathleen Karr
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
With the staccato rhythm of fists against a punching bag, 15-year-old Johnny Woods recounts his struggles to find a way out of the tenements and sweatshops of 1885 Manhattan. His drunken Irish-born father having taken off, Johnny has to help support his mother and five younger siblings, who toil for pennies making artificial flowers in their wretched two-room flat.
On a whim, Johnny enters a boxing match at a local saloon, hoping to win a precious $5. Prizefighting being illegal back then in New York, he instead earns a six-month sentence to The Tombs. But the punishment turns out to be the making of him, for fellow prisoner "Perfessor" Mike O'Shaughnessy, a former middleweight champion, puts the boy in training and gives him the moniker of "Chopper." Once out of jail, Johnny fights--literally--to preserve his integrity and make a better life for himself and his family, with thrilling results.
Kathleen Karr can cram more grit, character and action into 169 pages than most authors can in a work twice as long. As in Man of the Family, she brings alive a bygone era, when people worked unimaginably long and hard, and children routinely took on adult responsibilities. Besides offering a knock-'em, sock-'em story, The Boxer provides an insightful and thought-provoking introduction to such topics as 19th Century city life, economics and sweatshop labor.
by Laurie Halse Anderson
(Simon & Schuster)
In Philadelphia, in August 1793, narrator Mattie's cozy world suddenly comes crashing about her ears when a yellow fever epidemic breaks out. Everyone who can flees town, and business dries up at the coffeehouse that the 16-year-old tends with her widowed mother, paternal grandfather and the black cook, Eliza.
Then Mother succumbs to the fever and insists that Mattie and Grandfather go to a friend's farm. But they're brutally denied passage through the countryside when he is mistaken for a fever victim. So the two make their way back to Philadelphia, which has become a scene from hell: still stifling hot in October, the dead and dying everywhere, crime rampant, and little food and no money to be had. Things go from bad to worse until the first frosts return things to normal--except that Mattie's life has been irrevocably altered.
Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Speak, paints a gripping picture of a fever-panicked citizenry and its ghastly medical practices, and highlights the unsung heroism of members of the Free African Society. Unfortunately, the narrative's veracity is undercut by a farcical tea party, anachronistically casual social relations and such descriptions as Mattie's picking wild raspberries in September (during a drought, no less) and buying fresh local peaches in late October.
by J.B. Cheaney
Following King of Shadows and The Shakespeare Stealer, this is yet another novel about a young man who winds up acting in William Shakespeare's theater company. Here, upon the death of his mother in 1597, 14-year-old Richard Malory sets off to seek his fortune in London and solve the long-ago disappearance of his father.
In attempting to track down a certain attorney, Richard meets a mysterious man who recommends him to a job with a dockside wine merchant. After an unsettling visit with his father's dour sister, Richard is attacked in the street and shadowed at work. His new friend, Star, persuades him to apprentice himself to her employer, the lead actor in a company that includes the two Shakespeare brothers. Dangerous complications ensue as Richard stumbles onto a Catholic conspiracy to overthrow the queen.
J.B. Cheaney vividly presents the sights, smells and sounds of late 16th Century London and particularly brings the theatrical world to life. But the language veers disconcertingly between archaic and modern: One character will say " 'tis" and another "it's"; Richard is told about his new role: "Father will quiz you on it. You may con the rest at the Theater." Cheaney also plays fast and loose with historical facts, keeping the actors' aristocratic patron, Lord Hunsdon, alive a year longer than he really lived and making The Winter's Tale an early Shakespeare play, rather than one of the last.
But the biggest stumbling block is that the convoluted plot hinges on the minutiae of religious-political power struggles--something most readers today won't know about, nor much care.
Lost in Time
by Hans Magnus Enzensberger
In this German import by the author of The Number Devil, 14-year-old Robert discovers to his wonder and dismay that the blurry vision he has been experiencing leads him to travel in time.
First, while watching an old Russian movie on TV, he's transported to 1956 Novosibirsk, Siberia, where he's apprehended as a German spy and taken to Moscow. He escapes and sneaks into a movie theater, only to land in 1946 Australia, where a brother and sister take him to their luxurious home on an enormous sheep ranch. Next Robert ends up in his own hometown in 1930 Germany, on the trail of his Australian hosts' Jewish mother as a young woman. Then it's 1860 Norway, 1702 Austria, 1638 Alsace and finally 1621 Amsterdam before Robert figures out how to get himself back home.
Each journey offers a fascinating and detailed glimpse of how people lived, worked, thought and struggled (sometimes violently) in a particular time and place. The major problem is that, except for the second and third vignettes, there is no connecting thread among Robert's travels, nor seemingly any raison d'etre for them at all. They stop just as arbitrarily as they start, with no great lessons learned, other than those in history. Individually, Robert's journeys would make fine complements to a social-studies course, but together they don't add up to a cohesive and satisfying novel.
© 2000 Bella Stander