Review of the Day: The Loud Silence of Francine Green
Poetry Friday always sneaks up on me. I figured that this would be the week I'd remember it, but that was before I saw that bookshelves of doom had reviewed a title that I had not yet posted myself. Call it my old professional jealousy getting the better of me, but I figured this couldn't wait. Next week, my darlings. I promise.
One day the materials specialist of my library system hands me an uncorrected proof of, “The Loud Silence of Francine Green”. “Read this”, she says. “You weren’t alive at that time so we’ll see what you think”. A quick glance at the author and I am stunned. First of all, Karen Cushman’s back, baby! Until this book came out we hadn’t heard a peep from her after she wrote “Rodzina”. Secondly, this book does not take place in the distant past. Cushman’s always been most comfortable with books set in a medieval or pioneering historical time. This book takes place in 1950s L.A. It’s still the past, but not so very distant. Now I am not exactly an unbiased reviewer of this title. I want to be clear about this from the start. I’m married to a man who wrote a film that takes place in 1950s Hollywood and that discusses the Red Scare at length. This book does the same thing, only in a way that informs kids without “teaching” them in a deeply dull didactic way. It’s also directly in line with my own personal politics. Discussions of communism in children’s books…. well it’s never really come up. So how far have we come as a nation? A read of this book is all you need.
“I just want to live my life without any problems, without getting into any trouble”. So sayeth Francine Green. She’s attends Catholic school, is living in Los Angeles in 1949, and the two together can mean only one thing. She’s gaga over Montgomery Clift, of course! Of course, 1949 can be a disturbing time for a girl to grow up in. Francine has also just become friends with the irrepressible and outspoken Sophie Bowman. Sophie’s the kind of kid who has always been encouraged to seek out the truth and to ask questions. Needless to say, such actions aren’t exactly smiled upon at All Saints School for Girls. Sophie needs Francine because she’s humorless, earnest, and uninterested in basic things like dancing and movie stars. Francine needs Sophie because Sophie is brave and always does what she thinks is right while Ms. Green would prefer to hide under a desk and remain invisible until all conflict has swept past. Together they face the times in which they live. The Red Scare is heating up, good people are getting blacklisted, anyone with a Russian accent is fingered as a communist, and Francine’s dad is digging a fallout shelter in the backyard. This is the world in which Francine lives and a world that is becoming more confusing and unintelligible the more she learns about it. Welcome to the 1950s!
The thing about this book is that I was Francine Green when I was a kid. Granted, I didn’t have nuns beating the notion of unquestioning obedience into my head. I didn’t need to. I followed the rules and didn’t make waves and basically was dull dull, deathly deadly dull. So when I realized that Francine had the same problems I did as a kid, I was delighted. My husband, in contrast, was exactly like Sophie Bowman. He was the kid who got reported to the principal by a bus driver for saying he didn’t believe in God when he was eight. So you can see how close to home this book hit. I should note that this may mean I view it was a heavily prejudiced (in its favor) eye. I don’t think so, though. You can’t fake good writing, and Cushman has that talent in spades. The book simultaneously teaches kids about the not-so-distant past while also making the characters completely identifiable. Francine is from a nuclear family in the strictest sense of the term. Her parents have 2.5 kids, the mom stays at home, and the father works and drinks martinis after dinner. Sophie is from a more contemporary home. Her dad talks big issues with her, it’s a one parent household, and she knows more about the state of the world than the nuns who “instruct” her. It came as no surprise to me that Ms. Cushman attended a Catholic school of her own and that this book draws heavily on her own past. You’re not going to find any historical inaccuracies in this story either. For example, when people fear they’re being investigated, they think it’s the FBI. Cushman could have slipped up and said the CIA but the CIA hadn’t officially come out to the public yet and its existence was discounted as a rumor. So Cushman is accurate at all times, historically as well as emotionally.
This is not the first book for kids and young teens to talk about the palpable fear of bombs after World War II. There is David Almond’s accomplished “The Fire-Eaters” which concentrates on the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. But Cushman picks a particularly prickly and precarious time period with “Francine Green”. A time when, as she so deftly puts it in her Author’s Note, “Fearful of becoming victims [of McCarthyism], Americans became increasingly conformist and conservative in manner, dress, and politics”. It probably never occurs to Francine’s tow-the-line father that his staunch pro-union tendencies would be seen as left-wing in America in years to come. I’d just like to say that the Author’s Note of this book is probably worth the price of the title alone. Kids today know next to nothing of the Red Scare. They certainly have no idea what communism is or was and probably have a vague sense that it was something that disappeared in 1989. Francine and her friends don’t actually know what communism is either, of course. And while the book isn’t about to go explaining the difference between Stalinists and Trotskyites, neither is it going to let you get away with thinking that McCarthyism was a positive influence on this country.
I loved the little details in this book too. For example, when Francine and Sophie go to a Hollywood premiere to see Montgomery Clift walk by, he turns and looks at them not because they’re yelling the same “look this way” stuff as the other ladies, but because Sophie bellows out a raucous “Ban the Bomb!”. Cushman also perfectly captures what it feels like to be a young adolescent. Nothing’s in black and white anymore. The world is disappointing and adults are letting you down left and right. Francine has the added distraction of knowing that she’s just learned what irony is in school all the while living in a singularly un-ironic age.
Any children’s book that talks about a girl getting her monthly period (as Francine does here) ends up getting banned in some podunk town somewhere. “The Agony of Alice” does, after all, so maybe “The Loud Silence of Francine Green” will too. Between the anti-McCarthyism and menstrual cycles there’ll be plenty for uptight parents to faint over. I just hope it gets into enough young hands before that happens.
To the best of my knowledge, Cushman has never been inclined to write a sequel to any of her books. You’re not going to find “The Midwife’s Apprentice II: This Time It’s Personal” on your bookshelf anytime soon. Still, “Francine Greene” ends on an ellipses if ever there was one. Spoiler alert for the rest of this paragraph, people! Sophie and her father have disappeared without a trace and Francine has told off the boy she likes without actually disliking him all that much. And then in the last scene there’s a kind of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” moment where instead of throwing a drinking fountain through a window Francine throws a wastepaper basked into a furnace and then goes to confront her own version of Nurse Ratchet. Heck, this book is VERY much like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, now that I mention it. Questioning authority in a time and place when such an action was severely frowned upon (as opposed to today HAHAHAHA!). In any case, the book ends on a kind of high note but with the reader perched precariously on the edge of their seat. If Ms. Cushman has any pity in her heart, she should hear the cries of her readers and write a sequel to this book. There is still much to say.
So I loved it. Loved it loved it loved it. Will kids love it? Well, if it comes down to them having to read historical fiction for class and they have to read this or “My Brother Sam Is Dead”, I think I know which way they’re going to incline. I personally am going to do everything I can to get kids and parents both to read this book in their spare time. It’s a wonder, a marvel, and a mighty good read. Cushman is stronger than ever and her writing has all the humor and intelligence her fans have come to expect. A great new direction from a master of kiddie lit.
On shelves August 14th.