Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s just possible that now more than ever in America, young girls, people of color, and LGBTQ people need stories relevant to their lives. And it’s also possible that cis white males like me need to be paying attention to these stories more than ever to understand exactly what’s going on in our country. So today, we have one nonfiction story and four novels centering on these populations.
First up is Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, whose film adaptation has just been nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. It focuses on a narrative parallel to the one told in Rise of the Rocket Girls (reviewed here last August). While the “rocket girls” were being recruited at the Jet Propulsion Lab at CalTech, across the country in Virginia, a group of African American women were being similarly recruited by the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. Both groups of women were hugely instrumental in the American push toward space flight, but the women at Langley had the even more difficult task of fighting not only sexism but racism as well. This title would be essential reading simply for the subject matter, but Shetterly is also a master researcher and storyteller who has produced a compulsively readable account of these trailblazing women. I’m never one to tell people to read the book first (or that the book is always better), but if you do start with the movie, think about taking a look at the book to get a fuller account.
Elliot Wake’s Bad Boy is a novel, but it comes in the wake of some very inspiring real-life news about the author. Wake, a trans man, wrote three novels under his birth name, Leah Raeder, but before Bad Boy’s release, he changed his name and began his transition. The work itself (along with his previous title Cam Girl) deals with issues of gender dysphoria and the process of transitioning, although, as our reviewer points out, it is anything but a dry tract—it stands strongly as an artful coming-of-age story, regardless of the gender identity of its main character. For more information about Wake, check out his website, especially this blog post.
Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale is a fantasy novel, but it is set in medieval Russia and deals with the very difficult choices faced by women in that society, so it makes it into this column. Indeed, the fantasy elements of protagonist Vasilisa communing with supernatural spirits and the village branding her as a witch could easily be interpreted as a metaphor for the way many societies have reacted to strong or unconventional women.
Another historical novel—though taking place much more recently—Christina Baker Kline’s A Piece of the World fictionalizes the life of Christina Olson, the subject of Andrew Wyeth’s classic painting Christina’s World. Like Vasilisa in The Bear and the Nightingale, Christina must decide between living her life and forgoing her own needs to meet her family’s expectations, but unlike Vasilisa, Christina chooses sacrifice. This is an often painful but powerful tale, told in Kline’s always impeccable prose. Those who live in New York can see Wyeth’s painting in the MoMA permanent collection.
Finally, Melissa Scrivner Love’s Lola brings us back to the modern day, centering on a female gang leader. This is a fast-paced, straightforward novel about drugs and crime that also addresses head-on issues of class, race, and gender, which keep its protagonist in her situation and force many young people today into decisions almost as difficult as those portrayed in the historical novels above.
ARDEN, Katherine. The Bear and the Nightingale. 322p. Ballantine/Del Rey. Jan. 2017. Tr $27. ISBN 9781101885932.
Reading Arden’s debut novel is like listening to an entrancing tale spun out over nights in the best oral tradition. This mesmerizing fantasy takes place in medieval Russia, at a time when women had but two choices in life: serve their appointed husband by bearing his children and taking care of his household, or serve God in a convent. Vasilisa Petrovna refuses to do either. She has been a wild thing since birth, escaping her household duties to run free in the forest and conversing with spirits only she can see. But Vasilisa’s behavior is taken in stride until a charismatic priest comes to her father’s village, convincing his patronage that their custom of leaving offerings to curry favor from the spirits is sacrilege. Vasilisa knows that if this practice is stopped, the spirits will grow weak and be unable to defend the village when evil comes knocking. When first crops and then villagers begin to die, Vasilisa’s unladylike behavior and refusal to follow the priest’s teachings mark her as a witch in the villagers’ eyes. But she is not the one who is bargaining with the devil. Vasilisa is a strong female protagonist whom teen girls will want to emulate. She knows her own mind and heart and refuses to succumb to societal expectations, and her beauty stems from self-confidence rather than physical appearance. Arden’s lyrical writing will draw teens in and refuse to let them go. VERDICT A spellbinding story that will linger with most readers far beyond the final page.–Cary Frostick, formerly at Mary Riley Styles Public Library, Falls Church, VA
KLINE, Christina Baker. A Piece of the World. 320p. Morrow. Feb. 2017. Tr $27.99. ISBN 9780062356260.
Applying her research from writing her best seller Orphan Train as well as her own experiences growing up in Maine, Kline has created an authentic portrayal of Christina Olson, the real-life inspiration for Christina’s World, one of Andrew Wyeth’s most iconic paintings. Wyeth and his young wife summered near the Olson homestead between the 1930s and 1960s, and he often used Olson and her brother as models in his work. In this novel, Christina’s story is told in first person and includes flashbacks to help readers better understand how differently her life might have turned out if not for her circumstances. Christina and her brother Al sacrifice chances of finding true love and, in her case, the opportunity to become a teacher, because they have to keep the family farm running and care for their ailing parents. Day-to-day survival with no electricity in rural Maine is described in vivid detail. Such an unforgiving environment would be challenging enough for someone able-bodied but was far more difficult for Christina, who had a painful degenerative disease that eventually made it impossible for her to walk. Her struggles are portrayed in Christina’s World, where she is shown dragging herself across a field. Thoughtful teens who appreciate literary fiction will find Christina’s pragmatism and pride admirable. VERDICT Fans of historical fiction or those wanting to know more about this period of Andrew Wyeth’s life will not want to miss this inspirational slice of history.–Sherry Mills, Hazelwood East High School, St. Louis
LOVE, Melissa Scrivner. Lola. 336p. Crown. Mar. 2017. Tr $26. ISBN 9780451496102.
While most people assume that the leader of the Crenshaw Six must be the tattooed, tough-looking Garcia, the South Central gang is actually led by the deceptively attractive but fierce 26-year-old Lola. Raised by an addict mother and left to care for her younger brother, Lola has survived a difficult childhood and come out with plenty of anger and business acumen, particularly pertaining to the underground drug world. Readers will get a glimpse into Lola’s gritty world of drug lords, brutal violence, and forced child prostitution, but they’ll also see her as a compassionate role model for the young girl she takes under her wing. Teens will eagerly turn pages as Lola masterminds an escape from a botched drug deal. As a television screenwriter, Love knows how to capture the tension of each exchange, but she also manages to work in many issues, including classism, racism, and sexism, which will attract readers of books such as Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. VERDICT With a strong female lead and a straightforward writing style, this title will appeal to fans of crime fiction who are interested in gender and class issues.–Carrie Shaurette, Dwight-Englewood School, Englewood, NJ
WAKE, Elliot. Bad Boy. 256p. S. & S./Atria. Dec. 2016. Tr $24. ISBN 9781501115011.
In a follow-up to Black Iris and Cam Girl, Wake continues the story of a vigilante group that tries to right the wrongs of Internet misogynists and trolls. This time, Wake focuses on Renard Grant, a popular vlogger who has made a name for himself by documenting his transition from female to male. When he’s not online, Ren uses his new muscle mass (thanks to testosterone treatments and obsessive exercise) to work as an enforcer for Black Iris. After meeting Tamsin Baylor, Ren finds that his role in the group is challenged and old demons are unlocked. In a novel that could easily be overpowered by transgender themes, Wake’s exposition is artfully crafted; he doesn’t rely on controversy or chest-beating to move the plot along. Ren is a fully developed character who is able to express masculinity, femininity, contentment, and dissatisfaction throughout the narrative. Nor does Wake shy away from writing explicitly about the mechanics of sex or dating as a person whose gender is in flux. However, some of the other characters fall flat, particularly Tamsin. Those who have read the author’s previous books will be able to fill in some of the missing characterizations and will appreciate another suspenseful work. VERDICT Consider purchasing where Black Iris and Cam Girl are popular or where there is a need for titles with transgender characters.–Krystina Kelley, Belle Valley School, Belleville, IL
SHETTERLY, Margot Lee. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. 368p. bibliog. ebook available. index. notes. Morrow. Sept. 2016. Tr $27.99. ISBN 9780062363596.
In popular culture, Rosie the Riveter symbolized the thousands of women who worked assembly line jobs during World War II; her image lives on as an iconic poster for women’s rights. Shetterly tells a companion story: starting in 1945, about 50 college-educated African American female mathematicians were among the approximately 1,000 women quietly hired by Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory as entry-level “computers”— their job title before the actual machine was invented. The author focuses on four black women who worked alongside engineers—that more prestigious title went to white men—to run tests, produce calculations, and tweak theories, pushing America into the modern aviation age. Their work ethic, smarts, and loyalty also gave them something else: earning power. Proudly securing a place in the middle class for their families, they could afford their own homes and college educations for their children. In exchange, they agreed to fit in—enduring, for example, the daily humiliation of the company’s segregated cafeteria. Even the few who simply ate at their desks agreed, implicitly, to keep politics out of the workplace. As an insider, Shetterly, whose father was an African American career scientist at Langley, pieces this history together lovingly and carefully, with more than 250 footnotes. Now a mainstream movie, Hidden Figures is an inspiring account that is not so much hidden as it is untold. VERDICT Spotlighting pioneering black women who made their mark as mathematicians during segregation, this is a must for history collections.–Georgia Christgau, Middle College High School, Long Island City, NY
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