Three novels set in the recent past all center on adolescents betrayed or abandoned by the adults in their lives.
Jamie Ford‘s debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, was a hugely successful debut. At the time of publication it was recommended for teen readers, and justifiably so. More recently, it was chosen for 2014 World Book Night. In Songs of Willow Frost, Ford again writes about young people who are determined to change their circumstances. Read the first two chapters on the author’s website.
Diane Chamberlain‘s new novel, Necessary Lies will likely shock some teens who may not know about eugenics and sterlization policies. (The fact that these policies remained in effect in North Carolina into the 1970s was a surprise to me!) This one would be a good recommendation for fans of Jodi Picoult.
Fair and Tender Ladies was one of my favorite novels when I read it as a “new adult” and I am thrilled to recommend Lee Smith’s most recent effort. Guests on Earth brings a fictional young teen girl under the wing of Zelda Fitzgerald at the Highland Mental Hospital. Highland actually existed, and Zelda Fitzgerald was a patient there until her death in a mysterious and tragic fire. Teens will be drawn to the real-life elements including the history of the treatment of mental illness.
Adult/High School–In 1930s Seattle, 12-year-old William is the only Asian child living in the Sacred Heart Orphanage where he was left five years earlier after the “death” of his mother, Liu Song. On the universal “birthday” of all of Sacred Heart’s young inhabitants, the children are taken to see a film starring a beautiful Chinese actress named Willow Frost. William is convinced that she is his mother. When he later hears that Willow is coming to Seattle to perform onstage, he and his friend Charlotte escape from the orphanage to find her. Making their way backstage, William learns that she is indeed his mother and that she did not abandon him willfully. Her story unfolds: raped and pregnant by her despicable stepfather, Liu Song is left to fend for herself on the street. With the help of the kindly owner of a piano shop, she cobbles together a meager existence for herself and William by singing. But racism, economic failure, and a desperate encounter with her stepfather bring disastrous consequences that end with Liu Song signing William into the orphanage. Making her way to the stage, she becomes successful Willow, but it is a hollow and lonely life. Seattle in the 1920s and ’30s is racist, dark, and teeming with history, including Prohibition, the crash, and the burgeoning film industry. The story is told from each point of view; William and Liu Song are full of hope even in the midst of despair. Many readers will enjoy this heartbreaking story, rooting for the best ending for both of these well-drawn characters.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA
Adult/High School–Young newlywed Jane Forrester is excited about beginning her career as a social worker tending to poor rural families, but societal pressures on women in 1960s North Carolina conflict with her ambition. Her doctor questions her request for contraception, refusing to prescribe it without her husband’s approval. Her husband is not supportive of her job, troubled by the message it sends to his country-club friends. Despite all this, Jane is committed to her work; however, she soon finds her moral beliefs in direct conflict with her agency’s policies. Monitoring the well-being of her clients includes deciding if they should be prevented from having children. The poor, minorities, the “feeble minded,” or those with certain health conditions are all candidates for forced sterilization, often without being informed. Jane faces a dilemma when her agency demands that Ivy, a poor pregnant teen, be sterilized after the birth of her child. Despite the girl’s difficult living situation, Jane believes Ivy has the right to know and to decide for herself. Her efforts to help Ivy lead to harsh, far-reaching consequences. This well-crafted story examines an ugly time in recent history through the experiences of people of differing races and classes. The story benefits from an author’s note explaining America’s sterilization policy, providing much-needed context as well as the rationale for social workers who believed their practices benefited both their clients and society. The well-rounded characters and moral complexity of the plot will engage teens and give them much to think about.–Carla Riemer, Claremont Middle School, CA
Adult/High School–Evalina Toussaint, the daughter of an exotic dancer and a wealthy married man, lives in bustling 1936 New Orleans. After the death of her mother, the 13-year-old is sent to the Highland Mental Hospital, run by famous Dr. Robert S. Carroll. She grows up among those admitted for a variety of mental conditions, including Zelda Fitzgerald. Under the tutelage of Dr. Carroll’s wife, Evalina is encouraged to nurture her gift as a pianist; and under the direction of artistic and enigmatic Zelda, she grows into an accomplished accompanist. This is an excellent look into mental illness at the beginning of the 20th century when psychologists, using the most modern–and untried–technologies, including shock and insulin therapy, grappled with the emerging science of psychology. Evalina, viewing events from behind her piano, gives a rich portrait of this period of history. Teens will discover how often women of the time were prone to be diagnosed as mentally ill. The devastating fire that kills several patients, among them Zelda, is a mystery that stands to this day. The use of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote, “The insane are always mere guests on earth; eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read,” is fitting because the characters, whether doctors or patients, are faced with the unknown mysteries of the mind as they try in their own way to find a sense of reality to it all.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA