Left To Their Own Devices – Challenging Childhoods in Fiction

One thing leads to another – hidden gems on the fiction shelves of the Portsmouth Public Library
by Cathy Okhuysen

Novels that feature “coming of age” stories as the primary or grounding source of  their stories are very popular.

In  Silver Star (2013) by Jeanette Walls, author of Glass Castle, we hear the voice of 12 year old Bean and see the world through her eyes.  This is the first fiction title in the Fiction Book Discussions that begin on Monday, September 8th at 1pm and 7pm.

silver starBean and  her 15 year sister, Liz, make a decision  that leads to  major changes in the girls’ life.

It starts with the cross country road trip of two sisters to stay with their uncle…even though he doesn’t know they are coming.  Explorations and summer jobs turn into fall bringing school problems and racial issues, lawsuits and, fortunately,  emus!  Things get complicated in the Virginia town that the Holladay family has lived in for generations. From the fly leaf: ” Jeannette Walls, supremely alert to abuse of adult power, has written a deeply moving novel about triumph over adversity and about people who find a way to love each other and the world, despite its flaws and injustices.”

It is intriguing to hear the voices of these young people as they consider the decisions they are forced to make in the absence of a parent, or in spite of the inability of a caring adult to guide them.

As one thing leads to another, I thought of 14 year-old Jordan as he walks off with only his backpack from his Utah home  in The 19th wife (2009) by David Ebershoft.

19th wife (The 19th wife refers to a wife of Brigham Young). He later befriends another boy  who also left a polygamist family and together they try to solve a murder. Like the still popular Orphan Train (2013) by Christina Baker Kline,  this story is also interspersed with a fictional historical account and coming of age stories that go beyond the typical childhood challenges.

A hidden gem in our collection on the topic – how some young people are wise beyond their years and others make do with the best they can figure out – is Crow Lake (2002) by Canadian author Mary Lawson. Her newer books are Other Side of the Bridge (2006) and Road Ends (2014).

crow lakeWe hear Kate’s voice as an adult and at age 7:  “It was the first time we had been back to the ponds…when I saw them again, when we slid down the bank…I felt my spirits rise in spite of everything” pg 46.

Crow Lake is a great discussion title, and Random House has a reader’s guide. This is from the summary: “Set against the wild terrain of northern Ontario, where heartbreak and hardship are mirrored in the landscape, this universal drama of love and misunderstanding recounts a family’s tragic and moving past. Poignant, funny, and utterly unforgettable, Crow Lake is a deceptively simple masterpiece of literary fiction.”

“For generations, learning has been the valued goal in Kate’s family…the two oldest brothers make it possible for the younger children to remain in a household filled with love and humor” (Danise Hoover – Booklist 2002).

Adversity in youth is one of the themes in the 750-plus pages of Pulitzer Prize winner The Goldfinch (2013) by Donna Tartt, recently shortlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.

Goldfinch 2 It was a great book to read on a Portsmouth Public Library Kindle, and some copies are now starting to show up on the shelf for checkout after months of long hold lists.

Teenage Theo shares his decisions to take off on his own several times with mixed consequences. Explosions in NYC, free wheeling teenage boys in Las Vegas, antiques, art and shady dealings – he grows up with many challenges.

For more young voices exhibiting vulnerability and strength, keep in mind these resilient female protagonists and read the Goodreads summary by clicking on the book covers:

MarjorieVictoriaLilyMolly and Vivian

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