Fuse #8

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Review of the day: Maritcha

In our continuing series in which I read through every major award offered in 2006, we come to "Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl". I had some problems with the book but you can't deny that there isn't any book to compare it to out there. So here it is. It is definitely worth checking out in any case:

Credit publisher Harry N. Abrams, Inc. with a brilliant bit of promotional packaging. You want to put out a non-fiction book for children about an African-American girl growing up in mid-1800s Manhattan. Now you want this to be the kind of book that catches the eye. The book that really makes your average kid sit up and take notice. For certain kinds of girls (I don't like to be sexist about this, but this is probably how the promotional department saw the situation) historical works of non-fiction and fiction can be summed up best in two words: American Girl. I'm sure you're familiar with the American Girl franchise. You know, the dolls that got their own literary series with titles like "Meet Samantha" and "Kaya Saves the Day". American Girl books are difficult to keep on bookstore and library shelves. They fairly fly off. There was even a spin-off series of non-fiction facts with titles like, "Felicity's World", where the girl featured was shown in a big picture on the cover of the book. Do you see where I'm going with this? Harry N. Abrams, Inc. undoubtedly took note of this trend and when "Maritcha" was published, it showed a big beautiful picture of her on the cover with the subtitle, "A Nineteenth-Century American Girl". And you know what? It works like gangbusters. If I stand this book up on top of a library shelf, "Maritcha" is clutched in the hot little hands of an American Girl fanatic within seconds. Even the security guard at one of the New York Public Library branches in which I worked couldn't help but coo over this beautiful title. Now the book isn't perfect by any means. In essence, it pads out a story that could easily have taken half the time to tell. Just the same, it fills a distinct literary need, is written well, and has a lovely little Coretta Scott King Honor to its name. Not too shabby, methinks.

Maritcha Remond Lyons was born a free black in 1848. Her home was lower Manhattan and her family and family friends were an amazing assortment of highly educated, noteworthy, and prominent free black families. Her mother and father ran a boardinghouse for black sailors that doubled as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Blacks were a particularly small portion of the New York City population at this moment in history but at least they were getting along until the Draft Riots hit. In 1863, as Maritcha turned fifteen, her family was forced to flee their home and leave New York altogether. From there on in the girl went on to make history. At the age of sixteen she spoke in front of the Rhode Island state legislature so that they would allow her to attend the school of her choice. When she grew up she became the assistant principal at Brooklyn's Public School No. 83 and wrote an unpublished memoir. The memoir, in turn, fell into the hands of author Tonya Bolden and the rest is "Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl".

With so little material to work from, Bolden is often required to rely purely on speculation at times. Usually this writing technique is used to its best advantage. For example, she is able to present a painting of blacks of the time period dancing and mingling alongside the caption, "Maritcha's parents were very social and would have attended parties similar to the one captured in this painting". On the opposite page sits a toy which, "Maritcha may have... played with homemade cloth dolls like this one". In her Author's Note Bolden mentions that, "In some cases, given the scarcity of nonderogatory images of blacks in pre-Civil War America, I settled on images that match Maritcha's era and experiences". When I read this I instantly sympathized with the author's dilemma. With such a dearth of material at her disposal, Bolden would have had to clutch at anything and everything that applied to her story and characters. Bolden also mentions that when it comes to children's books about freeborn blacks in antebellum America, you might as well ask for the moon and stars. No such books, aside from this one right now, exist. So kudos there! Of course, the book did rely on some speculations that stretched the limits of how far an author is allowed to hypothesize at times. At one point we read, "What will become of us now? Will we ever return home? Will father be safe? Questions like these no doubt hounded Marticha..." Perhaps, but statements like this do test our credulity.

There were also a couple of continuity errors that confused me at times. I was particularly baffled by the escape that Maritcha's family made during the 1863 riots. We hear that the family was attacked in their home on the second day of the riots and that before the end of the day, "they were in a far safer place, quite possibly in Williamsburg, across the East River". All well and good but a turn of the page and suddenly our heroine's parents are guarding their front hall, "That night". I, having just been told by the book that they headed out to Williamsburg "before dusk", assumed that they were protecting their new Williamsburg home. This turns out not to be the case when we are told at the bottom of the page that, "After nightfall, police officers escorted Maritcha's parents to the East River to catch a steamboat to Williamsburg". This implies that just the parents went back to their original home to protect it after leaving their children in Brooklyn. But because of the way in which this story is presented (Bolden never says that just the parents went back or that the kids were left alone anywhere) the reader ends up confused. Some judicious editing was all that was needed to clean this confusion up. No such editing was forthcoming, however. The layout of the book also sometimes gives information away before you get to know about it. For example, a photograph of a town with the caption, "A mid-nineteenth-century bird's-eye view of Providence, Rhode Island, where Maritcha made history", comes a full page before you find you that Maritcha's family even went to Rhode Island in the first place.

But for all this, Bolden has done a good job with what she had. Consider the inherent difficulties in writing about a person's life from birth to young adulthood when you've hardly any factual evidence at your disposal and very little information to divulge simply because the time period was so long ago. Bolden made it even more difficult for herself when she decided to limit herself to looking only at Marticha's youth. Says Bolden, "Another decision my editor and I made at the outset was to limit the book's focus to Maritcha's youth, a period that the book's primary readership would identify with and find most interesting". To this end the author has done everything in her power to flesh out the story of a woman who's unpublished memoir Bolden stumbled over in the course of writing, "Telll All the Children Our Story". To my mind, "Maritcha" would have done better as a shorter story with less reliance on speculation. Nonetheless, given the scant materials at her disposal, Bolden has culled a one-of-a-kind tale out of the ashes of the past. Few authors can say so much.


At 9:43 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish the author had gone into Maritcha's adult life also. I imagine it to be quite fascinating. The book left me wanting more information and unfortunately there isn't any. The family pictures were the best. The mature adult piture of Marticha was lovely also. However I'm not sure young girls will "get" this book as much as I have, a woman of her thirties.


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