What parents need to know
Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that the length, type size, and vocabulary make this look like a book for younger children, but the content issues may be confusing at best to the elementary school set. This is a better fit for teens, perhaps particularly reluctant readers mature enough to handle the subject matter and understand the unusual storytelling. This book will encourage teen readers to think about some big issues, such as racism and abuse.
What's the story?
The title character is an old African-American woman who meets every passenger train that pulls into her small town in the '40s and '50s, searching in vain for her son, who was killed in WWI. Pearl, a young white girl from a fundamentalist Baptist family, is strangely drawn to Mary, who saves her from drowning in a pond and seems to have cured her poor eyesight. As Pearl grows older she begins to follow Mary to find out where she lives, and then to dress like her and imitate her. Eventually they form an odd friendship, though Mary never speaks, but the town, and Pearl's father in particular, doesn't approve.
Is it any good?
In his Acknowledgments the author says it took him 30 years to get this story right; perhaps he should have waited a bit longer. While the basic story is intriguing, the telling is all over the map. There's a hint of magic at the beginning that is never followed up or even mentioned again, a hint of ghosts at the end that comes out of nowhere, intimations of incest that are never resolved, some halfhearted stabs at comedy, and plot elements that disappear like a pebble in a murky pond.
There are some terrific elements here: a beautiful, eerie nighttime skating scene, a stalwart and appealing younger brother, and a fluid writing style that keeps the pages turning even when what's happening doesn't make a lot of sense. It seems the author never quite figured out what he wanted this story to be. This is James VanOosting's second book for children; the first, The Last Payback, was a gem with a strong voice that showed tremendous promise. We'll just have to wait for that promise to be fulfilled.
Families can talk about...
Families can talk about some of the mature content in this book. It deals with some pretty heavy stuff, like racism and abuse -- what age kid would you say the book is appropriate for?
Reviews of this book differed on its conclusion: Is there hope at the end? What do you think? How have the characters changed?