Fuse #8

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Review of the Day: Semiprecious

2006 has been a good year for bad mothers in children's fiction. Particularly bad mothers of the abandon-your-kids variety. I first encountered this trend with “Hugging the Rock” by Susan Taylor Brown and followed it up with a little “That Girl Lucy Moon” action via Amy Timberlake. Now D. Anne Love has solidified the trend with the rottenest mama of them all in her more than decent, “Semiprecious”. A tale of abandonment, love, and bubbling adolescent emotions, Love’s latest title ties in nicely with the politics of the early 1960s and comes across as a nice interesting read.

How did the worst day of your life begin? In the case Garnet it began with helping her sister Opal make up a double batch of chocolate frosting for her mama’s birthday cake. Opal and Garnet know they have to make their mother happy or else she might try to run off and leave them like she tried to do before. Garnet’s mama thinks she has the potential to be the next big country singing star and when the birthday present from her husband turns out to be a vacuum cleaner rather than the guitar she’d been craving, that’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Before the girls know it, their mother has abandoned them at their aunt Julia’s, their father has been horribly injured on the job somewhere far away, and they find themselves attending school in tiny little Willow Flats, Oklahoma. While there, Garnet must come to terms with what has happened to her family and begin to take some pride in herself. It’s a coming of age novel for both a girl and a nation.

I have a fellow children’s librarian co-worker who tends to dive for cover whenever he hears that a book for youth has been set in “a sleepy Southern town”. Some sleepy Southern town books definitely try a person’s patience. Others, like “Semiprecious”, remind you why the genre was even introduced in the first place. “Shug” by Jenny Han (containing yet another horrible mother) also was set in a small Southern town and got down perfectly the simultaneous cozy and suffocating feelings that come from living in a tightly knit community. Love tries for a similar feeling, and mostly succeeds when she tells the tale of Garnet’s art teacher Miss Powla Mendez. Powla teaches the kids a lot about Mexican artists who struggled against a repressive government and urges her own charges to consider doing the same. For this she is, unsurprisingly, fired from her job as a small town art teacher. I also liked the tone Ms. Love took with the book. Phrases like, “the worst pain in the world comes from remembering a happy time when you’re stuck knee-deep in misery”, have a sing-songy adeptness to them.

But then I had a couple small objections with the book too. For one thing, I just felt Garnet was way too forgiving of her own mother. I mean, I understand that being thirteen she still needs her mama to love her. At the same time, an hour or two after learning that her mother is defrauding her family and cheating her children out of a good life and home she says, “Despite the way things had turned out with Mama, I was glad she’d shown me the importance of following your heart, even when everything seems totally hopeless.” This seems a statement that is entirely at odds with the rest of the book. In this story we learn about people who have sacrificed their own dreams for the good of the whole. Then we have this utterly selfish, conceited, deeply flawed individual who (I don’t want to give away any plot points) does something unthinkable to her children and when this is discovered her daughter spouts off something about “following your heart”? Nope. Pluck this sentence out of the book and everything else falls neatly into place. Leave it in and things start to get a bit topsy-turvy. Ms. Love is also a little overly fond of foreshadowing. One chapter will end with, “If only that had happened, instead of what actually did”, and another with, “I took my sketchbook ... and finished making studies for my history painting, never dreaming my picture would lead to big trouble.” Sometimes such statements can be tiresome. Other times, however, they add a bit of nicely placed mystery as with, “Because of the rain, I discovered Mama’s secret.” I would have cut a few out and left those that sent tiny shivers down my spine like the last one there.

It’s worth noting, however, that “Semiprecious” is an interesting read. Though it stands at a lengthy 293 pages, teen readers will find themselves whizzing through it like a hot knife through butter. Some tweens may find it of interest as well, but with its political sensibilities and emotional complexity, “Semiprecious” seems better suited for older rather than younger kids. I recommend it, always keeping in mind some of the objections noted above. Certainly it's worth perusing. Sleepy Southern town and all.

Notes On the Cover: Defining Dulcie much? Sheesh, people.

Check out D. Anne Love's website for more info.

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