Saturday, June 19, 2010

book talk - The Georges and the Jewels

Remember when I said I was taking a break? I wasn't planning on writing about books for the rest of the summer, but The Georges and the Jewels by Jane Smiley was so neat I can't help myself.

Jane Smiley wrote an adult non-fiction book called 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. I didn't actually love the book, but I loved the list of 100 books that she read as a project while writing her book. I have read a lot of these books, and I turn to the list when I'm wanting to read something adult and need direction. She is kind of like the librarian's librarian.

So, I was happy to see that she had written a middle grade novel. And it's a horse book!

The story takes place on a ranch in California during the 70s. The main character is a 7th grade girl named Abby. She and her fundamentalist Christian family live on a ranch where they train and sell horses. Things have been tough for Abby because of some social problems at school and family problems at home. Her 16 year old brother has run away because of a disagreement with the father, so now Abby is up to her eyeballs in work training horses. Her father's business is built around the slogan "we sell horses that a little girl can ride", so it is up to Abby to do the lions share of the training.

This book had some problems.It almost feels like she should have spent a little more time on it. If I could ask Smiley one question it would be: what did you read to prepare yourself to write a middle grade novel? Can I recommend some books I would like for you to read before you try again? And yes, try again, please.

Here is what I loved:
I have no idea if Smiley is a Christian or if she set out to write a Christian book, but this is a beautiful example of a book that centers around faith. As soon as I saw that a fundamentalist Christan family was in the forefront of this book I panicked. I thought, oh god, it's going to be like Footloose. This is going to make Christians look bad and this book is going to piss people off.
It so didn't. The role God plays in the family's life is never rocked. Smiley shows this family realistically. She shows how strong and good the family is because of God's influence. As a teacher, I was touched by Abby's attempts to hide her school curriculum from her family. I came away with a stronger compassion for religious families who want to shelter their children from certain curriculum. And also a stronger compassion for students who want to shelter their parents from the school's judgement. As a public school librarian I was very nervous about religion being a major element of the story, but Smiley did a beautiful job. Despite some rough language, I would actually recommend this to my Christian students.

I also loved Abby. Oh, what a lovely and good character. Abby works harder than the average grown-up and I was charmed by her cowgirl attitude. Abby's big problem in the story is an unruly horse. Now that her brother is gone, she is expected to train all the horses, even the tough ones. A "horse whisper" type trainer comes to the ranch to help with the horse, and actually spends more time teaching Abby.

I tried what he'd taught me on Socks George and the two mares, but what he had taught me, even though I could remember a lot of the very words he had used, was like a refreshing fog that slowly lifted and wafted away. After awhile, I had no idea whether I was doing the right thing or not.

That passage was my favorite. Such an exact description of what it is like for a student to carry on after the teacher has left.

Like I said, not a perfect book. The trouble at school is weak. The situation with the brother is never cleared up. It's hard to know exactly what the main problem in the story is. But there was enough good about the book for it to hold up. I hope Smiley comes back to try again.

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