In WE ARE THE SHIP, the focus of the book was much narrower and thus when the voice shifted registers from authoritative and scholarly to personal and intimate it did so much more seamlessly than it does here. In WE ARE THE SHIP, the narrator spoke from personal experience. In HEART AND SOUL, she typically relates secondhand family information and general knowledge of American history. In both books, I find that I must willingly suspend disbelief in order for the narrative device to fully work, but once I do, the effect is wonderful. History, as they say, is written by the winners, and these stories would have been passed by word of mouth long before they were written down. I really appreciate that this form is simultaneously oral and written, and that it acknowledges how this history would have been kept alive by a marginalized people.
My difficulty with HEART AND SOUL doesn’t come from this hybrid form, however, but rather from the ambitious scope. Nelson describes how it works in the author’s note.
So when the narrator describes her family’s journey from Virginia to Chicago and their celebration when they crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, we understand the importance of this moment as a personal achievement for her family, but at the same time we also learn about the Great Migration and how it literally changed the face of America.
The idea is great, but the execution doesn’t rise to the same level. Here’s the actual passage from the book.
My family went by train like most black folks, but some drove, rode on horseback or on a mule, or even walked. It took almost a full day to ride by train from Virginia to Chicago. We celebrated when we made it across the Mason-Dixon Line and moved from the Jim Crow car to cars where white folks sat. Some people even started praying and singing. The train was full of black folks on their way to Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, or New York City.
See, I don’t think this paragraph actually does help us understand how important this moment is for the narrator’s family. We’re told that it is, but I don’t feel it. There’s nothing in the text that’s going to give the reader that impression, much less help it stick with them. Similarly, we’re given a brief description of the Great Migration (which is actually developed in several more paragraphs beyond what I have quoted), but is the reader left with the impression that it literally changed the face of America? I don’t think so. Everything is so thinly developed–everything gets so little time in the spotlight before it’s on to the next topic–that it’s hard to retain the information (unless you already know the information). Can you imagine taking an AR quiz on this book? Yikes!
So the text often reads to me like a catalogue of important events and historical figures rather than an oral family history or a general survey of political history, and it’s a credit to Nelson that it reads so well considering this dizzying pace. What I feel is lacking are stories. When most tank battalions lasted only seventeen days on the battlefield of World War II, the narrator’s brothers served in an all-black unit that fought for one hundred eighty-three days straight! Why? There’s a story there, but we’re not privy to it. The narrator herself was a Freedom Rider! That had to be a harrowing experience, but again no personal story, and nothing beyond a sentence about riding buses and breaking segregation laws. Something needed to give: either the page count needed to increase or the scope needed to decrease–but we need to spend more time with each of these events.
The ambitious scope of the book also means that an extraordinary amount of information had to be synthesized and compressed into a finite number of pages. The danger in this, of course, is unintentionally distorting history with oversimplification, generalization, and questionable omissions. We’ve discussed some instances of this in our previous discussion, and there are more, but I’ll only cite a couple.
First, Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King were the leading spokesmen of their times so it’s not surprising that they earned space in this text, but W.E.B. DuBois and Malcolm X were also important spokesmen from those respective eras, and because they held contrasting viewpoints, their inclusion would have, not only highlighted the rich diversity of thought among black Americans, but avoided stereotyping the community as a monolithic entity that thinks and acts as one. King’s nonviolence was wonderful, but so, too, was the militant stance of Malcolm X, and our understanding of each is enhanced by the contrast.
Second, Nelson highlights the second Joe Louis/Max Schmeling fight to dispute Hitler’s notion of the racial superiority of whites, but why not point out that just two months after the first fight Jesse Owens won four Olympic gold medals in Berlin? That struck a blow to Aryan supremacy just as surely as Louis’s belated victory did. But, curiously, there’s no mention of Jesse Owens.
To me, this book is flawed on a conceptual level (i.e. covering such a large period of history in such a short number of pages creates all kinds of problems in the text) and it would be virtually impossible for anyone to pull it off. That said, I think Nelson has done it as well as anyone could, and I still find many distinguished features here. I still believe HEART AND SOUL belongs on our shortlist, but I don’t know if it can move into the top five with these flaws. But, as we have said before, “flawed” doesn’t necessarily mean “unworthy of Newbery recognition,” and I think OKAY FOR NOW is an example of a book that is “flawed” but which may yet win the Medal anyway. So maybe there’s hope for HEART AND SOUL.