Non-Super Heroine

Book: Their Eyes Were Watching God  by Zora Neale Hurston

Audience: G-U

Genre: Fiction (Classic #3)

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This was my March Classic for the year.  I had heard great things about Miss Hurston’s work, and I remember many years ago when Oprah produced a television version of the novel with, I believe, Halle Berry in the lead role, so I decided to read this one during Women’s History Month. I admired the main character, Janie, as well as Miss Hurston’s work, but not without a few reservations.

Janie Crawford has come back to a former community after she left it rather abruptly and scandalously. All the women talk about her, but Janie ignores them with the exception of her friend Pheoby. The two women gather together and Janie tells her, not just what happened since she left, but the story of her life.

Janie, a mixed-race girl raised by her grandmother in West Florida, was forced by that grandmother, Nanny, into a marriage with a man she did not love.  Nanny and her daughter both became pregnant due to rape and Nanny wants to ensure that the beautiful and somewhat exotic Janie does not end up with a man who wants her only for her body. Janie marries the much older and respectable Logan to please Nanny, but the marriage quickly turns sour as Logan treats Janie as a possession rather than a wife.  Janie meets Joe Starks, a man with money and a plan destined to ensure success. He and Janie leave West Florida and settle in the all-black community of Eatonville. Joe builds a store, invests heavily in the community, and soon becomes Mayor, post-master, and leading citizen. Janie has exalted status as his wife, but Joe never sees her as more than an extension of himself, never considers that she has any intelligence, ambition, or abilities of her own. After many years together, the two become estranged and Joe eventually dies due to an illness that he refused to acknowledge. Soon after Janie marries the younger Vergible Woods, known as Tea Cake, much to the astonishment of the town. Tea Cake and Janie leave and head for the Everglades where they work the fields. They are happy together until a hurricane hits. While trying to save Janie struggling in the rushing water, Tea Cake is bit by a rabid dog. The disease soon affects his mind, and in his delirium he attacks Janie. She kills him in self-defense, is quickly acquitted of his murder and returns to Eatonville.

As I mentioned before, I found much to admire in Janie. She is born with ever so many strikes against her. She is illegitimate, she is the product of a rape, she is mixed-raced (so she is not quite accepted by either), and she lives in the South in the 1910s-20s. She is a woman in a male-dominated society. Her circumstances force her to live her life how other people decide she should. Yet in the end, she triumphs in finally finding her independence and her voice.

Interestingly, what I like most about Janie is that she presents as ordinary. So many characters today (in films, television, and contemporary books) are super-people. They are the best at their jobs, they are beautiful, they are disarmingly clever, etc., ad nauseum. Janie does not fit in this mold. She is different, perhaps, from the other women around her because she questions her circumstances instead of mutely accepting them. However, she is not a revolutionary. She does not actively fight to change her life as a super-person might. All three of her husbands are guilty of treating her as a possession (the first two more than Tea Cake), and while she eventually voices her own opinion about this state of things she is not defiant. She bides her time, takes the few opportunities that come her way, and evolves into a confident, responsible, independent person. I am not saying that I admire female characters who submissively take the evil their men dish out, I am saying that you don’t have to look like a superhero to be one. Think tortoise, not hare.

So what didn’t I like? I didn’t like the physical violence toward Janie. It was difficult to keep it in context. It and its aftermath were realistic for the time and place, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Tea Cake’s abuse of her in particular was tough to swallow. Here she was finally in a marriage with a man she loved and who truly seemed to love her, but he hits her. And the reason? Not because she sassed him, or cheated on him, or failed to please him in any way (not, of course, that these are acceptable reasons) but because other men noticed her. He didn’t hit her to make her less attractive to these men, but to assure his possession of her. I had liked Tea Cake before, but in proving himself just like the others, my admiration of him certainly dimmed. Again, I realize that Miss Hurston was being true to the times and the experience of black women in that place, but it was hard to take.

The other thing that hindered my enjoyment was the dialect. Again, I have no doubt that this was accurate to time and place, but it made for difficult reading. I don’t mean this as a negative comment on Miss Hurston’s choice to write in dialect or the dialect itself, just on my ability (or lack thereof!) to comprehend it. Perhaps if I had seen the movie it would have been easier to understand, but I’m much more of a book person rather than a movie person. Perhaps it’s like The Commitments. After seeing that movie multiple times I was able to understand the thick Irish brogue. Perhaps I need to reread this book to get a better handle on the dialect.

If I do reread this book, it would be no chore. As a character-driven reader, I certainly found one to admire in Janie Mae Crawford Killicks Starks Woods.

Story: Impossible

Book: Mission Unstoppable by Dan Gutman

Audience: C

Genre: Fiction

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Checked this book out of my library, since I like to be aware of what the kids are reading. I have to admit, I will not be encouraging them to read this one.

Twins Coke and Pepsi (Pep) McDonald are on their way home from school when they are chased by men in a golf cart wearing bowler hats. A woman appears from nowhere, provides them with suits that will let them sail in the air (which they use as they jump off a cliff to safety), and tells them that the bowler-hat men are trying to kill them. The next day, while the twins are in detention, the door locks and the school is set on fire. Their escape is aided by a janitor, nicknamed Bones by the students,  who reveals himself to work for the Genius Files (as does Mya, the woman who appeared from nowhere), the brainchild of a Dr. Warsaw who theorized that kids will make the best spies, and so he uses standardized test scores to find genius kids for his project. As the twins take off with their clueless parents for a cross-country camping trip, they find out that they must stop some type of terrorist event at a place called the house on the rock.

I’ll be honest. I have never liked this genre of story. I have never been able to suspend my disbelief for a story where kids are put into outlandish situations and handle them with the aplomb of adults. So this book was at a disadvantage from the get-go. Couple this with my pet children’s author peeve and the result a book I despise and rather reluctantly will house on my library shelves.

So what is this pet peeve? Not respecting the audience. A good children’s author will make sure his work speaks directly to kids, not down to them. His story will be neatly crafted, just as a good work for adults would be, only of a subject matter of interest to kids and in language structured at an age-appropriate level. Mr. Gutman has clumsily crafted this story, most likely hoping that kids will be too excited by the adventure and not at a cognitive level to notice. When a children’s author assumes his audience won’t be able to tell that his craft has the subtlety of a bulldozer, he insults them. And insulting kids is a great way to get me riled up.

How clunky is his craft? Let me count the ways. Actually, there are so many it would take forever to recount them. So, these are the highlights.

Let me start with the obvious, as a tribute to Mr. Gutman: the sheer impossibility of so many plot points. The opening sequence of jumping off the cliff, the fact that some mysterious adults are trying to kill two twelve-year-olds, the leaving of ciphers in the RV which the twins somehow manage to decipher, one of which warns them of a catastrophic event happening at the largest ball of twine—a previously established destination on their cross-country trip. Each of these events are so out there as to be worthy of some major eye-rolling. Put them all in the same story and you have approached the ludicrous. I get that this is supposed to be part of the book’s charm and appeal, but I found it to be just too much. Sometimes, less truly is more.

Going hand-in-hand with the impossibility of these events is the astounding level of coincidence and convenience. Of course Coke has a photographic memory so he can destroy the ciphers as soon as he’s read them. Of course he has read something somewhere to come up with some kind of remote fact that will be important either to the mission or the trip with their parents. Of course these obscure museums and sites the family visits on their trip (courtesy of the twins’ mother who of course just happens to author a website about strange things) are perfect places for clues to be left or for the bowler-hat men to attempt to kill the twins. The list goes on, but you get the idea.

Then there is the foreshadowing, which Mr. Gutman applies with a sledgehammer. Dr. McDonald teaches Coke how to dump the contents of the RV’s septic tank before the trip. Coke has opportunities to perform the dump, but he forgets until he needs a way to get rid of one of his would-be assassins. What better way to foil a foe than to dump a week’s worth of human waste into her convertible while she is in it? (Note: the convertible—another coincidence). With all the reminding Dr. McDonald does about performing the dump, of course the actual execution of it would be significant to the plot. One of the cheesy souvenirs Mrs. McDonald buys the kids is a Frisbee, which they take out and play with and sundry times, Pep being very inexpert in the art of Frisbee-throwing. Yet when the moment counts and she needs to be precise during the climactic scene, she rises to the occasion. All the references to her improving Frisbee abilities meant it had to play a major part in a major moment. Then there are the cards Coke has in his backpack. He takes them out when he needs to calm himself and along the way teaches Pep 52 Pickup, which of course he conveniently uses, again, in the climactic scene. Really? Couldn’t see that one coming. Again, there are other examples, but let’s go on.

Enough of plot problems, let’s move on to characterizations. Specifically the adults. More specifically, the spies, both good and evil. These characters talk more like caricatures. They talk like you would expect to see in cartoons—buffoonish and cliché-ridden. In fact, I kept imagining them as cartoons whenever they appeared. Not what the reader should expect in a mystery/adventure story.

The final highlight (or more appropriately, lowlight) is the author’s purpose. Rather early on in my reading I got the sense that this story sets up future adventures of Coke and Pep and their dealings with the Genius Files group. Sure enough, at the end of the book there is an excerpt from book two in what will be known as The Genius Files series. It was like Mr. Gutman couldn’t be bothered with making this story good because all it really had to do was launch a franchise. That tells me this book was more about money-making than story telling.

I was rather disappointed in Mr. Gutman. I read two installments of another series he has and enjoyed them. In that series, Joe touches baseball cards and either travels back in time to meet the player or the player travels forward to meet Joe. That series is obvious fantasy and the time-travel conceit works. Nothing really works in this book.

So why did I give it a 2 book rating? Sadly, because I know some kids will enjoy it. Some will think that Coke and Pep are cool (and to an extent they are) and that their adventures are exciting (again, to an extent they are). They likely will not realize the hatchet-job of the author. This is exactly what Mr. Gutman is counting on. Mr. Gutman is exploiting their love of kids outwitting adults and their still-developing literary sense. His audience deserves better. Shame on him.