(Note: this is part of my "If I were a librarian" fantasy in which I would always have ideas for the next great book to hand to a reader.)
I read Anne Frank's diary several times as a preteen, but Sharon Dogar offers something new here with a book that imagines what life in the annex--and after--might have been like for Peter van Pels. I loved how Dogar showed the evolution of their relationship, especially how she got inside what it might have been like to be forced together in a way, to know that this might be the only chance at love. Apparently there has been some fuss about Dogar sexualizing Anne Frank, but I think that objection has more to do with what people don't want to think about teens--and their own children--than to do with any inconsistencies between Dogar's portrayal and the Anne of the diaries. For more, please read my post, "Teens are (sexual) people, too."
Still, the most powerful part of Annexed for me comes in Part II, which imagines Peter's experience in the camps. The narration is choked with numb despair, but it is beautiful and gripping.
Finally, a word about shyness: I appreciated how Dogar captured Peter's personality and worldview, how she gave him a powerful, distinct voice in spite of his difficulty expressing himself to others. The narrative pulses with his will--and his right--to live.
A minor issue: The only gripe I had was with the chapter headings (e.g. "Peter Dreams of Lisa," "Peter Is in Love with Anne"). They seemed unnecessary and intrusive, but perhaps that wouldn't be the case in a paper book rather than in audio; the reader's eyes might fly right past these markers. Speaking of: I listened to Annexed on audiobook, and it's wonderfully produced with a large cast. Usually I don't like "performed" audiobooks, but here it works.
Why ANNEXED is a good pairing for NO CRYSTAL STAIR, which I reviewed here: NO CRYSTAL STAIR also draws on real-life documents to tell a story of struggle, although it's a quieter, less dramatic narrative (the life story of influential Harlem bookseller Lewis Michaux). Readers who are fascinated by fiction inspired by real events will love NO CRYSTAL STAIR, which draws on and weaves in actual documents from Michaux's life. This weaving of fact and fiction is more subtle in Annexed, but the dynamic is similar.
Who else is thinking about race in fiction AND has battled evil garden invaders?
The answer is.... Justine Larbalestier* (psst, that asterisk means "see memorial footnote below")! On her blog this week, she has a great post about handling race (and racism) in her current project. Also if you dig around her site, you'll find this post where she mentions her warfare against basil-eating slugs. Why the heck am I talking about her battle against slugs? It's about solidarity... In light of my current offensive against a whitefly infestation, I need a sister in arms.
That solidarity carries over to writing, too, since we're both dealing with how to write about race and racism in the 1930s, although J.L.'s work is set in early 1930s in NYC and my novel #3 is set in East Texas at the end of the 30s. In her post, J.L. points out that "a distinction has to be made between depicting the racism of a particular time and being complicit with that racism." I'm not so worried about that problem as I am about another one that J.L. mentions: the danger of turning all white people into villains. She writes,
Some of my characters are white. Most have the racial attitudes of their time. If I depict them accurately they can only be read as villains by contemporary readers. But if I depict them as thinking and acting like a twenty-first century liberal white USian then I create a very unrealistic depiction of the time and place. Which makes me wonder why bother writing an historical?
I get to sidestep this a little since the color spectrum I'm working with is fuller; my protag is Mexican-American, her twin (half-) siblings are mixed, and her love interest is black. Because the East Texas town of the time didn't have three-fold segregation like regions with heavier Hispanic populations (a bit more about that here), Naomi and her sibs manage to slip into the white school, giving me a lot of situations where I need to deal with particular patterns of racism.
J.L. also points out that even those sympathetic to the situation of black individuals could be hideously patronizing in the 1930s, and I agree. I have some of those folks in my book. But I also think that there are wise souls in every time who think a bit outside of the paradigms of their world. This needn't be a protag or even a main character (indeed, let's avoid having a white character "rescue" people of color), but the presence of such an individual can help readers recognize that the author isn't trying to vilify white folks.
Like J.L., I have been struggling with the question of what to do about the N-word in my novel. I'm mildly obsessed with a feeling of authenticity in dialogue. Dialogue shouldn't be a facsimile of reality (boring!), but it should gesture convincingly toward it.
This is why The Knife and the Butterfly contains a number of words--and sentiments, especially about women--that aren't at all an expression of who I am. They're part of who the protag (a teen male) is at that moment, and I need them so that I can show how his experience deconstructs that bravado (at least partially).
So where does that leave me with the N-word in novel #3? I would never dream of inserting it with anything close to the frequency with which I am sure it was uttered in 1937 East Texas, but to omit it completely seems wrong, too, although as one commenter pointed out, we can generally count on readers to fill in at least some of the trappings of racism on their own.
Right now I am using the N-word in the mouths of a few characters in their most extreme states. (I did the same thing with the F-word in The Knife and the Butterfly and managed, by the end of writing, to cut down the frequency pretty dramatically.) I will have to decide later if the N-word needs to come out altogether. I'm not sure, though, that in a book that deals with lynching (as mine does at one point) that it's right to excise it. After all, this was a time when some white people still attended lynchings as if they were picnics, keeping photos as souvenirs or to send as postcards.
For now, I'll just keep writing. And following the discussion on J.L.'s post here.
*It's possible (ahem, probable) that I have a professional crush on Justine Larbalestier. Not that I want to be·her--or to have her particular challenges when it comes to getting publishers to behave properly (I mean that whole white-washing thing with Liar). But I do admire her bold stance on various issues and her adventurousness·as a writer (check out this challenge list of genres and subgenres she wants to hit at least once). I also love her use of footnotes on her blog. This footnote is a tribute to all that awesomeness. And like the mention of slugs, this footnote has nothing to do with what today's post is about.
No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson is yet another proof that Carolrhoda Lab is pushing boundaries in diverse ways. Here's a description of this "documentary novel of the life and work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem bookseller":
"You can't walk straight on a crooked line. You do you'll break your leg. How can you walk straight in a crooked system?"
Lewis Michaux was born to do things his own way. When a white banker told him to sell fried chicken, not books, because "Negroes don’t read," Lewis took five books and one hundred dollars and built a bookstore. It soon became the intellectual center of Harlem, a refuge for everyone from Muhammad Ali to Malcolm X.
In No Crystal Stair, Coretta Scott King Award-winning author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson combines meticulous research with a storyteller's flair to document the life and times of her great-uncle Lewis Michaux, an extraordinary literacy pioneer of the Civil Rights era.
"My life was no crystal stair, far from it. But I'm taking my leave with some pride. It tickles me to know that those folks who said I could never sell books to black people are eating crow. I'd say my seeds grew pretty damn well. And not just the book business. It's the more important business of moving our people forward that has real meaning."
This is a very special book, and not just because it received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews calling it "a stirring and thought-provoking account of an unsung figure in 20th-century American history." In these pages, Lewis Michaux emerges as both a flawed human being living in difficult times and as a player in some of the most important events of African-American and American life over 30 years.
As a novel "in documents," No Crystal Stair weaves together actual materials (articles, FBI files, pamphlets, bits of poetry) with journal-type entries from Lewis Michaux, his family members, prominent authors, and many other figures (some historical, some imagined) that he crosses paths with in the pages of the novel. For example, we hear from the banker who turns him down for a loan when he wants to start the bookstore; from his sister-in-law who disapproves of his politics and doubts his faith; from authors on the rise, like Nikki Giovanni; from reporters; and (my favorite!) from teenagers who get turned onto books because of his recommendations.
Not all the voices in the novel are perfectly distinct, but that's okay. Because by the end, we've got a gorgeous portrait of a life that's full of nuggets of wisdom, little-known facts about life in Harlem, spot-on portrayals of debates on race and civil rights (integration or independence? accomodation or confrontation? violence or patience?), and anecdotes that you'll want to tuck into the pockets of your heart. A few of my favorite quotations from the book:
Lewis: "If a sexy book gets them in the door, I'll show them a sexy book. Then I'll show them Douglass or DuBois or something else of value. If you're in the book business, you've got to sell books."
Lewis: "I found out who the real Lord is. That is the landlord. He comes to see me every month. So praying doesn't get it. Work gets it. And I'm working hard."
Elder Lightfoot, Lewis's brother: "If there's no devil, who gets the credit for raising all the hell?” and “Be willing to help anybody who is down, but don't go down helping him.”
Snooze (teenage male): "Man, how does Hughes know this stuff? It's like he's inside my head. Like he's reading my mind. I, too, sing America. I read it over and over. It carves itself deep in my mind 'til it sticks. I can't shake it. Don't want to."
Lewis: "Until the neglected and the rejected are accepted and respected, there's gonna be no damn peace . . . nowhere! Only a tree will stand still while it's being chopped down" (after assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.).
This is a book with much, much heart. In addition to being lovingly executed, it's flawlessly researched. It's a beautiful example of multi-genre research that teachers can share with students of all ages. Tom Romano--the guru of multi-genre research--would be thrilled with this book.
Bravo. I'm proud to be in such fine company at Carolrhoda Lab.