This I Know, by Eldonna Edwards*****

“Sometimes I wish I could catch Mama’s voice in a jar and keep it beside my bed at night, let each note light the darkness like a captured firefly.”

ThisIKnow Eldonna Edwards makes her debut with the best written child protagonist since Scout Finch appeared in To Kill a Mockingbird. Many thanks go to Net Galley and Kensington Books for the digital review copy.

Grace Carter is eleven years old, one of several daughters of a strict evangelical preacher.  Her mother has come undone, slowly unraveling from grief that began with the death of Grace’s twin brother, Isaac. Grace misses Isaac, too, but she has the comfort of his counsel; she hears and knows things that most other people do not. Her mother and Aunt Pearl call it “the knowing”, but her father calls it the work of the devil. Grace grows up understanding that she must keep her head down and avoid getting into trouble. It’s a treacherous path, and now and then things pop out, as they will with adolescents.

Edwards is a gifted writer, and she’s tackled an ambitious project in writing a first person narrative. It’s hard to voice a child in a way that is developmentally appropriate and consistent, and she’s nailed it spot on. Many writers would try to dodge this literary obligation by creating a precocious, academically gifted character, which is so common that it’s clichéd, and as I read this story and see that Grace is just an average kid, apart from her supernatural talent, I hold my breath to see if she can carry it off all the way through, and she does it masterfully. The way Edwards develops Grace, adding layers to her personality and melding it with the dead-accurate setting—the Midwest during the 1960s—makes her one of the most exciting new voices to emerge this generation.  The plot never slows, but with a character and setting this resonant, Edwards could send Grace to sit in her closet for the whole book and her readers would be captivated regardless.

I would have preferred a more nuanced ending, but it’s a small concern. Everyone that loves strong fiction will want this book. Order yours while you can get it on the first printing.

The Education of Dixie Dupree, by Donna Everhart*****

theeducationofdixieduI rate this 4.5 stars and round it upward. Thanks go to Kensington Publishing and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. This courageous novel, one that takes place in the past but couldn’t be more timely, is going to create a lot of buzz. Get your marshmallows ready, because I think I smell hot tar and burning wood…or is it paper?

A note: there’s no way to review this without providing at least the basic elements of the story. If you want to avoid spoilers entirely, read the book, then come back and check my viewpoint against your own.

Although it’s billed as being a story about mothers and daughters, and about secrets that pass from one generation to the next, that wasn’t my take away from this one, I have to say. From where I sit, the story is about domestic abuse, and about domestic abuse, and about domestic abuse. I haven’t seen a solid YA novel take this on in such a straight forward manner, and I think there are a lot of children, girls in particular, that will benefit from reading it. Would I read it out loud to a class? No, I would not. Rather, it’s a story better saved for reflection and possibly for discussion in a small group or with a reading partner. It takes a lot of trust just to talk about this book. In some school districts, teachers may face the battery of parental approval and permission slips. Oh, good luck with that.

Dixie tells us her own story. She’s born in a tiny, impoverished hamlet in Alabama in the 1960’s. Her parents are having money problems, and their relationship isn’t going well. Evie, Dixie’s mother, is on the verge of a breakdown of some sort, and she takes out her frustration and rage on the child that looks just like her, and that of course is Dixie. In an effort to apologize, she sits down with her daughter later on and tells her that there are times she can’t control herself:

“’I can’t explain why I react like I do sometimes, you know? It’s done and I can’t take it back, although God knows, I wish I could.’

“I whispered, my voice hoarse, ‘God don’t hear us.’”

At one point a social worker shows up at the house and Dixie has to decide whether to spill it or sweep it under the rug. It’s interesting to see how it plays out.

Ultimately, Evie summons her family for help, and Uncle Ray comes all the way from New Hampshire to lend assistance. Unfortunately, Uncle Ray has a whole lot of demons of his own.  Dixie doesn’t like the way Ray stares at her as if she were his next meal; she doesn’t like the way he brushes up against her. But when she tries to tell her brother how she feels, he laughs at her and points out that she isn’t all that attractive, and her body hasn’t exactly grown boobs; why would a grown up man be interested in dumb old Dixie? And so Ray, who is the sole source of grocery and clothing money for this miserable clan, is left to do what he wants to do unchecked.

“Uncle Ray smelled different, not of Old Spice, but something else, something sharper.”

When Dixie threatens to expose him, Uncle Ray points out that it’s basically his word against hers, and would she prefer he close his checkbook and drive back to New Hampshire? By now Dixie knows what it’s like to be genuinely hungry for days on end. President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society plan has not yet taken root; there isn’t any assistance available from the state. Sometimes a kid had to stay quiet or starve.

“I felt something break, something turned off like a light switch in the very center of me.”

It’s a hard, hard story to read, and yet I can’t help think of all the girls and women that will read this book and know that they aren’t so strange or terrible, and that this does happen to other girls in other families.

I’ve tried not to give away more than the broadest contours of the story so that you can find out the details for yourself. One thing that I would change if I had the power is the whole adoption thread, which is superfluous and In its own way, more harmful than helpful. It’s almost as if the author is afraid to acknowledge that blood relatives will do this thing to their very own children; yet they will. Hell yes, they will. Any teacher that’s been in the classroom for a few years can tell you that much.

As for me, I have my own story.  [Skip paragraph if you prefer to stick to the book itself.] There were some awkward guitar lessons I had when I was about twelve years old. My guitar instructor had recently decided to teach out of his home; he lived alone. One day after my private lesson, my father asked me, in the car, how that lesson had gone. I was a little afraid of being made fun of, but I told him anyway that my instructor made me feel uncomfortable. I felt as if I spent as much time walking my folding chair away from his as I did working out the chords on the neck of my instrument. I’d move over; he’d move over. His hand would land on my thigh while we were talking. I’d flinch, pull away, and move my chair. He’d move his chair. All of this within the framework of a perfectly normal guitar lesson, if you ignored all the strange furniture and hand-moving. My father, who died in 1978, heard what I said and told me we could get another guitar teacher. I asked if I would have to be the one to tell the man that I wasn’t returning, and he said no. Just consider that chapter over and done.

If only it could be so easy for everyone.

The book isn’t easy, but girls deserve the chance to read it if they want to, and likely there are some boys that could stand to read it, too. This book is for sale now; highly recommended.

Vietnam, by Mary McCarthy***-****

VietnamVietnam , an impassioned journalistic effort by Mary McCarthy originally published during the US war against Vietnamese freedom fighters, is a once-stirring piece of research that, while worthwhile as a period piece or for specific types of historical research, is in general terms too dated to be of great interest to most readers. Instead, it speaks to the innocence and disbelief Americans with no axe to grind in Southeast Asia felt when they came to grip with the actual facts regarding the war, and how many responded after becoming enlightened.

Thank you once and twice, first to Open Road Integrated Media, and next to Net Galley, for allowing me to read the DRC in exchange for this honest review. The book is now available for purchase.

In many ways, the American mindset can be divided into two contemporary periods: one before the Vietnam War, and one after it. Before the war against working people in Vietnam commenced, Americans by and large trusted their government and believed what its political leaders said was true. As layer upon layer of lies was peeled away from the startling nugget of truth at the core of this conflict, many people—in particular, the youth of the USA and around the world—were outraged at the many ways in which they had been deceived. Most of those smooth-faced but indignant youth are now grandparents now, and most have learned never to believe something is true just because a politician—even the president of the USA—says so.

McCarthy wrote this book during the metamorphosis of the American public from the former condition to the latter.

McCarthy went to Vietnam as a member of the press, and was astonished by both what she saw, and by the things that were told her. In 1967, when this book was written, the military leaders she interviewed told her that roughly ten percent of the population, or 1.5 million people, had become refugees, “casualties of war”, because the bombing had destroyed their homes and defoliated large swaths of jungle. It was unclear to me whether they were speaking about all of Vietnam or only South Vietnam; her time there seems to have been spent entirely, or mostly, inside the city of Saigon, which had become so Americanized that there were more English-speaking Caucasians there than Vietnamese.

At times, her outrage is sufficiently scathing to take this reviewer back to that time. I was just a kid, but the white-hot rage in the streets is hard to forget, even so.

In describing her visit to Saigon, she speaks about the ways in which officers and GIs alike regarded a hospitalized child, a victim of the bombing: because they showered her with candy, dollar bills, had photographs of themselves taken with her, and brought her toys, they considered her to be a very lucky tyke indeed. They made reference to her owning more dolls than Macy’s, and one soldier said fondly, “That girl is so spoiled.”

This type of rationalization, the notion that after wounding and possibly orphaning a child with bombs that destroyed her village and left her full of shrapnel, she had become “so spoiled”, is characterized by McCarthy as “Pharisee virtue”, a phrase I found startlingly eloquent.

There are other moments when she appears a bit confused, and appears to be unconsciously using the terminology of the very military and government forces that she opposes. My own youngest child is half Asian, and when I read an expository sentence in which McCarthy referred to the local children as “slant-eyed”, I almost dropped my reader. What the hell? She refers to the Vietnamese policeman that works for the US army as a “small Vietnamese policeman”, and from context, I got the distinct impression that he was not noticeably smaller than other Vietnamese men, and that in fact his size had nothing to do with anything. If she were still alive today, I would advise the author to check her terminology, and then check her own assumptions about what “normal” looks like. It appears she was carrying around some ingrained racism that came out despite her finest intentions.

One more strange factor here was her reference to the uniforms worn by the National Liberation Front, (otherwise referred to pejoratively as the “Viet Cong”, a term she uses freely), as “black pajamas”. Did McCarthy not understand that this was an expression used by the US military which was intended to demean Vietnamese fighters by suggesting they did not know how to design a uniform? Vietnam is a very warm place, and it’s humid as hell, which is why they used lightweight cloth to make uniforms. The jungles were dark and virtually impenetrable, and this is why black was a really good choice of uniform color. Pajamas are something one sleeps in. The Vietnamese soldier didn’t get a lot of sleep, and he did not fight wearing sleeping apparel.

McCarthy is not always blind regarding the power of terminology however: she points up the fact that napalm, which had been made even more horrific in that it now adhered to things (and flesh) while burning, had been name-changed to “Incinderjell”, making it sound like a children’s dessert. Officials could publicly state that napalm was no longer in use, because now it was called something different. Likewise, defoliants were referred to as “weed killer”.

The only photographs are of the author.

For those that want to travel back to the time when Johnson was president and America’s youth were waking up to the fact that the US government did not always behave in accordance with its stated democratic ideals, this is a good work to drop into your reader. It’s very brief, and you can finish it in a weekend.

I also recommend this work to students and other researchers looking at this volatile and transformational period in American history. Since she personally went to Saigon while the war was being fought, her own experiences constitute a primary document, and in such a case, I would not rate this book a 3 star work, but rather 4 stars.