Review of the Day: Blue
Ah, historical fiction. Though it was the bane of my youth, in my old age I’m finding the subject infinitely more interesting that I ever did as an actual kid. I was always the child who’d rather eyeball the latest Anne McCaffery rather than choke down an Elizabeth George Speare. Now I almost look forward to delights like “Blue”. Especially when they have covers as engaging as this one. Evoking more than a few “To Kill a Mockingbird” feelings through its cover art, Joyce Moyer Hostetter brings us a tale of racism, polio, and war. It’s also a story of love, sheer will, and small acts of heroism. And though I’d some problems with Hostetter’s methods, this is one of the best-researched thoroughly engaging tales of 1944-45 you’ll find this year.
Ann Fay Honeycutt's father's going to war. It’s 1944 and American troops are constantly shipping out. Before he leaves, Ann Fay’s daddy hands her a pair of overalls and informs his eldest daughter that she’s going to have to be the man of the house while he’s gone. Ann Fay feels up to the job, taking care of her siblings and tending the family’s garden in her dad’s absence. Unfortunately, there’s a polio epidemic in this part of North Carolina and before anyone knows it the dread disease grabs ahold of Ann Fay’s little brother Bobby. Now Ann Fay has to deal with a horribly depressed mother and twin little sisters all in the midst of remaining under a quarantine. When Ann Fay herself comes down with polio, however, she makes the acquaintance of a colored girl and begins to accept what has happened to her with a kind of grace.
Now I have a low down-home-folksy-goodness-mixed-with-hopeful-wisdom tolerance. It’s why I’ll never be able to join in with my children’s librarian brethren in loving books like, “Ida B” by Katherine Hannigan or anything by Joan Bauer. And for a minute there, “Blue”, had me seriously worried. There are occasional moments that gave me real pause. Imogene, the African-American girl Ann Fay befriends, has a section on “God’s bottle collection” that teeters on the edge of preciousness. And I never could quite get used to Hostetter’s choice of having Ann Fay’s narration written in a kind of southern dialogue. Sometimes she’ll be talking in the past tense but put a word in the present (ex: “... ever since his daddy’s heart give out a few years ago”). But by and large the book’s emotional impact is true and packs a wallop. I won’t give anything away plotwise, but there’s a moment on Ann Fay’s porch when she’s watching a fly land and take off that positively wrings the stuffing out of you. For a moment I wondered if this book would be classified by some kids as “depressing”. But for all the sad moments in the tale there are just as many cheery or upbeat ones. Of course, this isn’t a happy-go-lucky tale of how great it was to be alive in 1944. There were problems and “Blue” takes them all into account. As for North Carolina 1940s colloquialism, it’s hard to find phrases any more authentic than, “Your momma always said I spit you right out of my mouth”.
And boy, oh boy, you have NEVER seen polio better represented than it is here. I’ve always had a vague sense of what the disease did to you. I knew you could lose the use of your legs, just as FDR did. What I never considered was how painful that process could be. It’s just awful. And Hostetter’s well-researched encapsulation of the treatments for it are enough to make your blood run cold. Having recently read Gary Paulsen’s fictional biography, “The Legend of Bass Reeves”, which didn’t have any bibliographic information whatsoever, you can imagine my delight when I came to the end of “Blue” and found all kinds of fascinating facts. There’s an Author’s Note that separates the truth in this story from the fiction. There’s a list of books about polio, books about FDR, books about WWII, videos on the subjects, and novels for kids that’s so in-depth and pleasant, I’ve little doubt that teachers everywhere will be creating luscious lesson plans out of Hostetter’s hard work.
And Hostetter isn’t just talented at factual information. She knows how to write a good scene and pull together a host of thematic ideas. In many ways this book is about how unpleasant it is to have to make the cross from childhood into adulthood. Between her mother’s incapacitating depression, her brother’s illness, having to look after her sisters, her father overseas fighting a war, and the quarantine placed on her by her neighbors, Ann Fay has to be the resident adult. It sounds fun when your dad, leaving, hands you a pair of overalls and tells you to be the man of the house. It’s not so fun having to do adult chores and having adult worries when you’re only thirteen. This thought really coalesces when Ann Fay is facing a patch of particularly gruesome wisteria head on. Until now wisteria has always been her friend. She has a little hideaway in the midst of its roots she calls Wisteria Mansion. Now it’s threatening her victory garden and she has to fight it as hard as her father did. “Wisteria used to make me feel nothing but happy. But suddenly I saw why it put my daddy in such a blue mood. I hadn’t wanted to see it his way. I wanted to think of it only as the beautiful wall to my mansion. I wanted to hang on to sunny days with sweet purple petals raining down on me and Peggy Sue”. This, better than anything, is the tragedy of what happens to Ann Fay. She hits adulthood head-on and can't afford to look back.
To be blunt, I think Hostetter was doing just fine without bringing the issue of racism into the forefront of her story on page 121. When Imogene suddenly pops into the tale, her presence is fine, but it felt like the story was suddenly switching gears. Now the growing up too fast tale was turning into a tale of Southern racism... sorta. I mean, let’s examine the facts here. Ann Fay is a lower income resident of North Carolina in 1944 and she has absolutely no opinions on the African-Americans she’s seen all her life? Her parents have never expressed any opinions one way or another? It took a bit of stretching of my credulity to get around that particular thought. Not that Hostetter doesn’t cover her bases well. Ann Fay’s father isn’t exactly receptive to the idea of his daughter hanging out with a colored girl when they’re both well again. I’m not saying she doesn’t do a fine job with that particular storyline. It just seems extraneous. Like a sudden feeling of “Oh! I should be talking about racism too!”, kinda deal. It was a tale that didn’t fit in with Ann Fay’s previous struggles.
Well, there’s strength and weakness to “Blue”, but I’m just pointing out the small things that bugged me because the good things were so strong. Hostetter’s got a mess of talent at her disposal, and I certainly hope that alongside her previous book, “Best Friends Forever”, she continues to write up a storm. This is one of the finer titles of the year, no question. Well-researched, well-written, and certainly bound to be well-loved. Problematic in the best possible ways.