Children's Book ReviewsPage One of Two
By Nancy Littlejohn
Change. Fear. Separation. Unity. Division. Elation. Boredom. Excitement. Loss. Death. Renewal. Forgiveness. War. This month, two award winning books for middle grades cover the subject of war through the eyes of two very different, yet very similar young girls on the cusp of adolescence. Though the Civil War tore our country asunder, and World War II brought our country together, the drastic and dramatic impact on the children who lived through them is quite the same and often forgotten or overlooked.
Pre-adolescence also is a kind of war: a war fought within a young person yo-yoing between baby and adult while searching for her own identity and the war without that each child/adult wages with the ones who love them. I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly is a story that takes place as the Civil War draws to a close, and Lily's Crossing is a book about World War II. Though worlds and many years apart, Patsy, a newly freed slave girl and Lily, a white, middle class girl have much in common. They both have big secrets. They both are motherless. They both are grappling with major life changing events. They both are scared. They both are seeking themselves.
I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, A Freed Girl by Joyce HansenScholastic, Inc., Oct., 1997.
Hardcover, 197 pages.
This sixth in the Dear America series vividly brings to life the end of the Civil War through the journal of a young slave girl, Patsy. By law, Patsy is not supposed to know how to read or write; however, she learned by playing school with the niece and nephew of the owners of Davis Hall, the plantation where she was raised and continues to live and work as an orphan.
Patsy, a house slave, is small for her age, limps, stutters and thought to be slow. Little does anyone guess that she is literate, and she carefully hides both her secret and her journal given to her as a joke by the white children. Through her writings we learn of the confusion of both slave and master caused by the end of the war, the continued inequities of plantation life, the bringing together of families displaced by war and slavery, as well as Patsy's own search for her identity and place in the world.
She watches as the only people she has known leave the plantation one after the other. As in our own age of downsizing, more and more of the work must be done by the few ex-slaves who stay. They stay because they have been promised land, wages and a school or because they are too old to start over or, like Patsy, they have no where else to go. Though increasingly exhausted by the extra chores, Patsy still finds a few precious moments a day to write in her journal of her hopes and dreams for the future. She feels the first stirrings of what it means to be free. She desperately wants to go to school, and she wants a name of her own, both first and last instead of being just Patsy, the slave girl.
One day during the Sunday gathering of the ex-slaves in the bush arbor, the first Black chaplain in the United States Army, Henry McNeal, who works for the Freedmen's Bureau, enthralls everyone with his talk of not being ashamed of being enslaved. He tells them about Black people doing great things, and his hopes that all men will be brothers. The remaining freed slaves are inspired to begin to turn the plantation spinning house into the long-awaited school.
Unfortunately, month after month goes by with no teacher or books in sight as they have been promised. This disappointment inspires Patsy to decide she must overcome her stuttering so she can reveal her secret. One day while she and Ruth, her good friend, are cleaning the library, Patsy reads a passage out of one of the books. Ruth is amazed and elated and asks Patsy to start teaching her and her son, Luke, the alphabet that very night. The miraculous news spreads among the plantation workers, and Patsy begins teaching almost all of them to read and write in her spare time. She reads the newspaper for meetings on Tuesday nights and becomes a valuable link to the world for the ex-slaves. Since there is no real teacher, Patsy becomes the teacher, and the others do her chores so she can teach the children in the mornings.
Finally, books arrive from Rev. McNeal's church up north. Patsy gets her very own books and with them, she finds a name for her new self, a name she can be proud of: Phyllis Frederick. She chose Phyllis for the first American Black female poet, Phyllis Wheatley, who, like Patsy knew nothing of her early life and loved to read and write, and Frederick for Frederick Douglass, another slave who taught himself to read and write in secret.
Patsy's journal ends as the remaining freed slaves decide to band together to buy their own land and leave the plantation after the agent from the Freedmen's Bureau brings the papers for them to sign on as sharecroppers at Davis Hall for another year. They do not receive land or a school as promised and one man cries out, "If it wasn't for that sweet little Patsy none of our children would have learned their letters." That's when Patsy writes in her final journal entry, " Friend, my soul did rise and fly. His words still sound in my ears." She knows she is free. She knows she must learn to ask for what she wants. She knows she is young. She knows she can read. She knows her name, Phyllis Frederick.
Patsy's journal ends, but Ms. Hansen has included an epilogue telling what happens to all of the characters. Phyllis (Patsy) goes to school in Charleston to finally receive the education she craves. She eventually marries a man from her former plantation and returns to a town founded near Davis Hall where she teaches until her death in 1930.
Ms. Hansen accurately portrays the feelings of a young adolescent girl of any time through the device of Patsy's journal, but it is particularly revealing of what one lonely girl had to endure even as the slaves were freed. It is hard to imagine not being able to read and write, much less being punished for it. The journal subtly weaves the sharing of Patsy's thoughts along with descriptions of plantation life, society and rank among the slaves as well as showing how the plantation owners react to the end of life as they know it. It is a very effective device, and one which middle grade children will enjoy as many of them are writing diaries and journals for the first time. Besides, it is always fun to be privy to someone else's thoughts and feelings.
This book also is noteworthy for the succinct essay after the epilogue describing life in America in 1865. It discusses in easy to understand terms the steps taken by the U.S. government to ease the transition from war to civilian life, an era known as Reconstruction which was not well taken by either the North or the South. As Ms. Hansen notes, the struggles begun during Reconstruction did not really legally end until nearly a century later with the beginning of the modern civil rights movement.
The photographs and drawings from the time make it all come alive especially for children who are so visually oriented. It is hard to forget some of the haunting images she has chosen for the end of the book.
I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly is well worth buying or suggesting for your child even if he or she only reads Patsy's journal. The epilogue, history and pictures included at the end might go ignored, but Patsy's journey to find herself in her new world just might inspire some reluctant young readers to keep turning the pages to take a peek at some of our country's most important history.
-- Nancy Littlejohn
Lily's Crossing by Patricia Reilly GiffDelacorte Press, March, 1997.
Hardcover, 180 pages.
Lily Mollahan lives with her Gram and her father (Poppy) in St. Albans, New York. It is the summer of 1944 and school will be out in just four days. Lily can't wait. She can't wait for piano lessons and Sister Eileen and homework to be behind her. She can't wait to go to her favorite place in the world, Rockaway, where the ocean and free days to write whatever she wants and Gram's house built on stilts and her best friend Margaret, await her just like every summer. Just like every summer Lily crams her suitcase full of books, bathing suits, and stories she has written. Just like every summer Lily carefully pries a gold star off her ceiling where her mother had pasted it years ago and packs it so her mother can be in Rockaway, too. Except this summer, Gram's radio is always blaring war news, news about D-Day and the invasion of France by the Allies. Always cheerful, Poppy hires a truck to move them to Rockaway so Lily can bring an extra suitcase and the piano just for Lily's birthday.
When they get to Rockaway, Lily meets Margaret in Margaret's attic. Margaret has lots of secrets to tell her. They talk over the drone of trainer planes from the naval base. Margaret has a big bag of candy that her mother has been collecting and saving for Margaret's big brother Eddie who is now in the army. Candy is pretty scarce since sugar is rationed. What a treat! There's so much candy maybe Eddie won't miss it if they eat just a little. They wonder if Eddie was there for D-Day. The worst secret of all is Margaret and her family are moving to Detroit until the end of the war where her dad has a job in a factory to build bombers. What will Lily do without her best friend? Margaret does give Lily the key to her house so Lily can have a secret place where she can write and she won't have to hear Gram's radio blaring.
The worst news comes the first weekend Poppy comes out from the city to visit. Poppy is going to war. They need engineers to help put Europe back together again after the war is over. Lily won't even know where he is, but Poppy promises that he will find a way to let her know even if there are censors. Lily is furious. She hates the war. She hates Poppy. She hates Gram. Lily stays so angry at Poppy that she doesn't even go to the station to tell him good-bye. Something that makes her feel bad for a very long time.
A good thing happens that summer, though. Lily discovers Albert. At first she thinks he's a Nazi spy, even if he is only a skinny boy with a lot of curly dark hair. Then she discovers he's a refugee from Hungary who is staying with their neighbors, the Orbans, for the summer. Albert is sad and mad, too. His little sister, Ruth, is still trapped somewhere in France. He didn't get to tell her good-bye either, and he desperately wants to rescue her.
Lily remains suspicious of Albert until together they rescue a drowning cat. Lily offers her secret place at Margaret's house as a home for the kitten. Through their shared attachment to the little creature, they discover all sorts of things they have in common and become very close. They try not to worry about Poppy and Ruth. They try to be regular kids having a regular summer, but it's hard when they are constantly surrounded by reminders of the war raging in Europe especially when they hear Margaret's brother, Eddie has been killed.
One of the things Lily has taught Albert is how to swim. She lies to him half believing it herself that if they swim far enough, they can catch the troop ships heading for Europe that they can glimpse in the far distance. Albert becomes determined to swim to them so he can go back for Ruth. When Lily discovers his plan, she tries to stop him. They make a pact not to lie and to be brave, but not brave enough to try for the ship. Albert is driven to try, though, on a stormy night. He nearly drowns, but Lily saves him. Gram spots them as they struggle back to the safety of her house. In her kitchen all confess their pain, including Gram. She reminds Albert that his parents did brave things so he could have a good life and that his Grandma sent him away so he would be safe. She tells Lily that Poppy went to war for her so she could be safe. She confesses that she herself has suffered because she had to send her only son off to war, but it was worth the price to keep Lily safe.
All too soon, the summer is over and Lily and Gram return to St. Albans for the winter. Lily finally likes school, and she keeps busy writing to Poppy, Margaret and Albert. Suddenly, one day, the door blows open and there is Poppy! He found Ruth while he was in Paris, thanks to Albert and Lily's letters. When he found her, Ruth was sad because she hadn't said good-bye to Albert. That reminds Lily what she did to her father when he left He squeezes her hand and says, " ...saying good-bye didn't matter, not a bit. What mattered were all the days you were together before that, all the things you remembered."
It is the summer of 1945. Lily can't wait for school to be out. She can't wait to go to Rockaway just like every summer except Lily and Gram know it will never be quite the same. Lily wants Albert to be there, her very best friend ever. They get ready to go to the Orban's for dinner just like always when suddenly Gram leans over and says to Lily, "It was a long war, a terrible war, but sometimes, even in the worst times, something lovely happens." Lily looks up and there is Albert standing in the door and beside him is a girl with the same eyes, Ruth. Best friends have made it through the war together.
Patricia Reilly Giff is well known to children for her series, Kids of the Polk Street School among other books. She knows how children talk and think and is able to authentically convey that when she writes. When Ms. Giff writes a story she writes it well. A well-written children's book is one that will hold an adult's attention, too. This is one of those books. It will bring tears to your eyes and laughter to your lips. This beautiful and touching book about friends coming of age and grappling with horrible realities together is brought to life through Ms Giff's skillfully drawn characters, Lily and Albert. Lily's poignant wishes for her father's safety and her saucy bravado will be believable to young readers. Albert's feelings of displacement and yearning for his own family to be reunited by his own doing if necessary will speak to today's boys'own feelings of wanting to be men, yet not quite knowing how to achieve that end. Middle graders will find all the detail of the war times fascinating while loving and identifying with Lily and Albert. Both boys and girls will enjoy this book, and it is one not to be missed.
-- Nancy Littlejohn
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