Thursday, July 26, 2007

The World Made Straight, by Ron Rash

Having just finished the 7th book in the Harry Potter series (review coming shortly), its fitting that I am now writing about The World Made Straight, by Ron Rash. This adult novel tells the story of a young 17 year old, grappling with evil in his own world, and in the recent past as well. Two of the main differences to the Harry Potter story, though, are that this narrative is realistic fiction, and the past that this young hero--Travis Shelton--confronts is the American Civil War.

I loved this novel. The writing is strong, poetic, and suspenseful. The evil that Travis Shelton faces is represented by a tough old coot named Carlton Toomey. Carlton is a stand in for the devil--he can transform himself effortlessly to solve any kind of rhetorical problem or situation--and he dishes out cruelty without remorse to those who challenge him. Toomey is after Travis because Travis has had the temerity to steal some marijuana plants and other "objects" that Toomey values from his hidden hideway up in the Appalachian mountains.

Like most young heros, Travis needs help and assistance. Typical of an adult novel, most of the help Travis gets is in the form of an adult, a drug dealer named Leonard Shuler, a onetime schoolteacher who lost his job and custody of his daughter when he was framed by a vindictive student. Leonard provides Travis with shelter and guidance, and helps him to understand the full complexity of the situation that he is in. In particular, Leonard shows Travis that his battle with Toomey mirrors conflicts that took place in his community during the civil war, information that helps Travis to think more deeply about the moral course of action he wishes to take in his own time.

I think many high school aged teens would enjoy this novel, especially if they have an interest in history and can connect to the rural landscape and ethos described so well by Rash. A lot of the learning and lessons in this book have to do with Leonard Shuler; many of the cultural references will be more familiar to adults in their 40's than to contemporary teens (music, drugs, etc...). However, if readers can negotiate these two times and cultures (as well as the Civil War era evoked by the text), then rewards will come. This is a startling beautiful and frank novel that provides enjoyment on many levels, and useful insight into the relationships among the different ages in which both teens and adults live.

Here is a goofy short commentary on the civil war. Be forewarned--it does have some potentially objectionable language (if you read The World Made Straight, you'll recognize Travis's best friend, Shank, in this video).

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Eagle Blue, by Michael D'Orso

After a bit of a vacation, I am returning to reading and writing, and devoting my attention to the 2007 Alex Award Winners, adult books selected by the Young Adult Library Services Association as especially recommended for teen readers.

The first book on my list is Michael D’Orso’s Eagle Blue. This is a terrific nonfiction text for anyone who likes sports, politics, and culture. It’s one of the best books that I have read in this whole project, mainly because it captures so well the perspectives of native Alaskans living in a small town in the interior of Alaska.

Because Eagle Blue is written for an adult audience (hence its classification as an Alex Award winner), the central character is not your typical young adult. Instead, the main character is Dave Bridges, the coach of the boys basketball team in Fort Yukon, Alaska. Dave is not your usual coach: he spends most of his time unloading planes at the local airport, in sub-freezing termperatures. Bridges is strong on passion, commitment, teamwork, and being in shape and playing tough defense; even though he isn’t by any means a wizard when it comes to the finer points of basketball, his program works, and he has had lots of success over the years, mainly because he cares for the kids, and is determined to help them achieve their potential as athletes and, more importantly, competitiors in the game of life. He is a riveting central character, though by no means perfect--which definitely adds to his appeal.

The young adult side of this narrative concerns the Fort Yukon boys basketball team, which historically has been among the strongest Class B schools in Alaska (schools with under 50 students total, K-12). The boys' situations are very compelling, and familiar to anyone who has grown up in a small rural town, though with the added complexity of creating an authentic identity within a land dominated by Euro-Americans (like Dave Bridges). But what really holds this narrative together is the quest by the team to win the state championship. Among the more memorable scenes: the long distance flying the team does on their way to the state championship, trying to surmount the coldest weather, and get out of town before the temperature goes lower than 40 degrees below zero; the battles against the larger Class A schools, as Bridges attempts to prepare his charges for the state tournament; and last but not least, the many roadtrips and shenanigans along the way. D'Orso is a fine writer, and the story he weaves is full of suspense, humor, and important lessons about achieving adulthood near the Arctic Circle. In this sense, Eagle Blue is a great compliment to The Trap, providing enhanced perspective on the culture of native Alaskans and the complexities of their interactions with people from other cultures.

I gave this book to my 15 year old son, and he read it quickly and with pleasure. I think any high school aged teen would enjoy the narrative as well, especially if they have an interest in sports and basketball. Younger adolescents aren’t likely to enjoy the book as much, but certainly advanced readers in 7th or 8th grade might take to this book as well. Teachers in grades 9-12 could use it as a way to explore multcultural issues, or current events such as the opening up of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration--a topic discussed briefly in the video clip below. For the real story on this topic, though, read Eagle Blue. There is a lot more involved than you likely have heard before.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Chat with Laurie Halse Anderson

The next ALAN book chat will be on Wednesday, July 18 at 9:00pm Eastern Time. With C.J. Bott as moderator, Laurie Halse Anderson will discuss her new novel TWISTED. The following week, on June 25, Laurie will participate in an interview, also at 9:00 pm.

Sign on to the ALAN website to participate. If you haven't been to the site before, look at it today so you will be ready to join quickly on Wednesday. Membership is not required to chat!