Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Historical Fiction: Covering New Territory

Alligator Bayou by Donna Jo Napoli (Random House Books, 2009) and The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages (Viking, 2006 ) are set in times and locations which are not normally depicted in juvenile historical fiction; and both can be used as classroom supplements in the 5th-9th grades. Teachers can integrate literature with social studies by challenging students to examine the parallels between the protagonist’s conflicts and the conflicts in the world around them.

Alligator Bayou tells the story of orphaned Calo who emigrates from Sicily in 1899 to Louisiana. He is taken in by five men and one boy, Cirone, all of whom were friends of his father. The story came from a newspaper article which Napoli found detailing how five Sicilian grocers were lynched when they served a black customer before a white one. From that tiny piece of information flows a book that is beautifully written, despite its shocking story.

This is a story of bigotry, jealousy, love, hate, and survival. Calo and Cirone are more accepted by the blacks than the whites in this small community 200 miles from New Orleans. At one point one of the Sicilians relates to Calo, “The Negroes here are so much more timid than the ones in New Orleans. They won’t take your hand, no matter how far you stretch it.” (p. 108). But the boys prove them wrong. They initiate friendships with the Negroes and end up sharing adventures and celebrations with them. In an awful turn of events, these friendships lead to the lynching that takes all of Calo’s friends’ lives.

Calo’s heart-wrenching escape is facilitated by an old Indian who earlier charges him, “An orphan is free to become anything. The choice is yours.” (p. 121)


Fast forward fifty years to 1943 and move west to New Mexico, the setting for The Green Glass Sea. Eleven-year-old Dewey Kerrigan is taking a train to meet her scientist father who is working on a top secret government project. The reader quickly discovers that Dewey was deserted by her mother, left with a grandmother who just died, and has developed a tough self-reliance. In addition, she is a mathematical whiz and obsessed with taking gadgets apart and using the parts to build devices such as a radio or an alarm clock that wakes you with music.

Like Napoli, Klages weaves in numerous details making this book resonate with authority. Everything from Dewey’s knee socks, the comics she reads, and the types of junk she finds in the town dump, all convincingly depict the time period. But the hastily built city where she lives is unique. It is not on any map and has one goal: to build a “gadget” (the children’s term) that will end the war.

Dewey faces an assortment of conflicts: she is ostracized by the popular kids (in today’s terms she is a dork) and she walks funny because of problems with one leg. But she always can retreat to the safety of being with her father who she adores. Suddenly this relationship is destroyed when he dies in a freak car accident. Without other family, she moves in with one of her father’s co-workers, whose daughter despises her. The process of the two girls becoming friends is beautifully portrayed, but a new fear overwhelms Dewey. If the gadget works and the war ends then what will happen to her?

The ending is powerfully disturbing—and one that readers won’t forget.


Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

I have yet to read Alligator Bayou. Thaks for sharing it with me.

As for Green Glass Sea - it totally rocked my composure!

Gretchen Griffith said...

You've said it all in two words, "powerfully disturbing." That phrase alone makes me want to read them both.

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