Wednesday, February 13, 2008

YA Novel Round-up

It's that time again; 3:48 p.m. It's cold, wet and occasionally snowing outside. I enjoy looking out our big windows and watching the snow fall amongst the giant-sized fir trees. It's like being in a snow globe. Then it melts and we don't have to deal with it other than aesthetically. Now that it's February, signs of spring are popping up out of the dirt (mysterious bulb-like shoots) and we get some sun, which then clouds over ominously and hails on us. Jackson just looked out the window and discovered a spectacular rainbow across our neighborhood. Good eye. It's all a little confusing and it's condusive to reading.

I got on a YA novel jag last month. There's so many kids and young adults around here, our libraries are chock-a-block full of the stuff. I found an ancient copy of Where the Lilies Bloomby Vera and Bill Cleaver. I used to have the paperback when I was a YA, living in the suburbs of Nor. California. I read this book at least once a year and I couldn't remember why that was, since it always gave me the creeps a little. So I checked it out to remember. It's beautifully written. That's why I read it so much, but being so young, I didn't realize it was so beautifully written. I didn't have a lot of point-of-reference for that sort of thing yet, having just started reading on a serious level. The novels forced upon us in school were too ancient to have the proper impact. Flaubert, Hawthorne, Hardy and Dickens were not any kind of reality for us in our 70s tract homes. YA novels were a good way to relate to the novel, without being overwhelmed.

So back to Where the Lilies Bloom; the creepiness is due to the really dark and scary adult themes throughout the book. Without spoiling the story: four Appalachian kids who live in the Great Smoky mountain range must deal with the potentially catastrophic consequences for their family when their father starts the slow process of dying. 14-year-old Mary Call Luther (all the kids have odd names: Romie, Devola, and my favorite, Ima Jean) is in charge and she is one tough teen-ager. Extremely intelligent and proud of her family, she shoulders an impossible burden. She's a great protagonist and doesn't care if she's sweet and pretty like her older sister, Devola. She figures sweet and pretty girls end up with creeps like their landlord, Kiser Pease (great name). In the film made in 1974, Kiser is played by Harry Dean Stanton and the thought of him trying to marry Devola (Jan Smithers, pre-WKRP in Cincinnati fame), was so disgusting to me. I didn't know who Harry Dean Stanton was at the time, but his photo in my paperback was enough. Also, Mary Call, although resourceful and smart (she teaches her family how to wildcraft: gathering valuable medicinal plants on the mountain for sale), finds that life conspires against her as she bravely struggles to keep the family together per her father's instructions. She is, after all, only 14. Pretty gritty. Surprising solutions do take place, but I won't give them away.

The whole enterprise of feeding a family of four with $50 of life-savings hidden in a sock while weather-proofing an ancient house in the middle of snow-covered winter was so completely alien to me as I sat in my green vinyl beanbag chair, reading this book, listening to Pink Floyd. I'm glad the married writing team of Vera and Bill put this all together so middle-class teens could blow their minds on some harsh reality. Here's a particularly Gothic passage:

The peaks of the mountains were enveloped in shaggy drifts of undulating translucent fog.

I blamed it on the mountain air, how it hurt to breathe, as Romey and I, pushing and pulling the creaking wagon, on top of which Romey had constructed a makeshift bed to contain the trussed, shrouded figure, strained upward toward Roy Luther’s final resting place on Old Joshua. The shovel we’d tied alongside him clanked a little with each turn and jolt.

At one point a raven, black and lustrous, came flapping out from a bush and flew alongside us, his hoarse tok, tok weird and hollow.
Good stuff. People LOVE this book and out-of-print film. I recently read on a newsgroup that the original North Carolina house used in the film was for sale for over $1 million. Location location location.

I nabbed another Cleaver novel, the unfortunately titled Hazel Rye. At some point in the early 80s, Bill died, leaving Vera to finish this, their last novel together. So the story is quite truncated and rather bleak. Hazel Rye is a 12-year-old living in Florida on land that contains a forgotten citrus grove. Her weird dad wills it to her but Hazel is not an enterprising girl. She just wants to get her ears pierced. That is until a very Luther-like poverty-stricken, but intellectual family of four comes to live in the guest house on her land. The boy, Felder Poole, is a plant-growing genius and he very quietly inspires Hazel to start caring about her orchard. She grasps the idea of making money off the grove, but then a curious thing happens. She becomes curious about the entire process and so her entire life opens up to the possibility of wonder. She's quite scrappy too. Watching her brain unfold and start working is pretty interesting, especially as she witnesses the process of bud grafting:

Soon with luck, under the strip of the budding tape, under one of the polyethylene strips, there would take place a union between the bud and the parent stock.

Hazel viewed all of this with the eyes of the amateur discovering that she no longer wishes to be one. Within her a clean and eerie passion had begun to punch and thump. Young and ignorant and far afield, it did not speak its meaning. The feeling that she was being turned, that she was under some kind of attack, rolled through her, and now there was no thought of what the trees might do for her. There was only the feeling of being related to earthy things and of being pushed into a new and marvelously mystifying place.
Pretty poetic for a 12-year-old. Both heroines in these novels have absent mothers and fathers who misunderstand them. Hazel's father is so controlling over his daughter that it gets into incestual territory (without the incest). What's up with that, Bill and Vera Cleaver?

To top off my reading adventures I plowed through Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs. Not technically a YA book, but it features a lot of oral history of the Germs' high school days in 70s Los Angeles. I never knew the Germs' basic premise started at a hippie-scientologist-EST-Transactional Analysis-experimental school where students were encouraged to design their own curriculum and to delve into the concept of word sculpting to get at the true meaning of things (hence the fascination with all things lexicon). This was after orientation day where teenagers were called cocks and cunts by their future faculty, not allowed to go to the bathroom, and led through some really bizarre yoga moves before they could be enrolled in the school. Parents were required to attend this initiation with their sons and daughters. Good times.

This book was one dark ride. Any joy you might expect to find in the early punk-rock scene is blown to smithereens by the realities of these youngsters and their terrible home lives with psychotic, possibly schizophrenic parents, drug and alcohol abuse, and in Darby's case, the desire to manipulate everyone around him. And then eventually he comes out as gay and but remains very closeted due to the homophobic hardcore scene of the time. And then dead by a purposeful O.D. at 22. I can't really recommend this except if you know a teen who's romanticizing the early days of punk all out of proportion to its grim beginnings (cathartic for the pioneers, but grim). Throw this doorstop their way and tell them to be glad the music industry has sanitized it all for our mindless pleasure. Or tell them to make their own scene. As we're all aware, piercings and hair gel aren't very rebellious anymore.

Darby photo source: Theresa K

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