As Jonathan and I continue to start including guests in our posts now and then, it occurred to us that this could be an elegant solution to the “of two minds” problem. This iteration of the problem being when Nina and Jonathan’s two minds are united in a single struggle to get enthusiastic about a title that is generating a lot of enthusiasm, and deserves it’s own post. While we think we’re right all the time…we know we’re not.
At the true Newbery table, a nominator of each title generally introduces it for discussion. So, we asked our Mock Newbery discussion partner and Heavy Medal commenter Mark Flowers to lead us off on one he keeps on piping in on. Here’s Mark, on Shannon Hale’s Palace of Stone.
My thanks to Jonathan and Nina for the chance to write about one of my favorite Middle Grade books of the year. Palace of Stone is the sequel to Newbery Honor book The Princess Academy. Having just reread it, without much memory of the first book, I think it stands up on its own easily, so I don’t think that should be an issue, although I’d love to hear from people who haven’t read the first one at all. In any case, Palace of Stone is a fabulous novel all around, and excels in several of the Newbery criteria, including delineation of characters (especially Miri, Timon, Sisi, and Britta), and development of plot, but where I think it stands above almost every other contender is in its interpretation of theme or concept, so I’m going to spend the bulk of this post talking about that.
In the last line of the novel’s first paragraph, Hale sets out a version of the theme which she will pursue: “Strange, lately, how many things made her feel two opposite ways twisted together.” This theme of warring dichotomies plays out in several separate spheres of the plot.
On a highly abstract level (the abstractness of which Hale repeatedly has the down-to-earth Eskelites mock), Hale presents Miri in her classes at the Queen’s Castle with a classic ethical dilemma: the building you are in is burning and you have the choice to save either a priceless, irreplaceable painting, or a murderer incarcerated in the building, which do you choose to save. Hale starts this discussion on p. 42 (all page numbers from the ARC) at Miri’s first day of classes, but brings it back over and over as being emblematic of the other dilemmas Miri faces.
The most relatable of these is Miri’s conflict over her love of her home in Mount Eskel, and her newfound freedom and education in Asland, which she herself symbolizes as a clash between the mountain and the ocean: “Liking the ocean seemed a betrayal of Mount Eskel. Both could not be magnificent” (p. 87). Much more significant is her choice between supporting the rebels whose ideals she shares or defending her friend, the princess. Timon tells her outright: “You are smart Miri. you know you can’t support both your friend the princess and the commoners’ fight for fairness” (p. 159).
As the plot brings Miri into position to have to actually make these choices, she is able to reveal Hale’s true theme: that many times these are false dichotomies. Miri begins to break free from the schema when, again arguing about the Ethics dilemma, she says, “But I love the painting. I don’t want to have to choose” (p. 196). Her choice is validated in a discussion with Peder in which Peder’s mother’s down-to-earth wisdom is quoted on two sides of the same issue and Peder remarks, “You know, Ma is very good at saying two things at once” (p. 205).
At this point, rejecting these false dichotomies, Miri puts into action her plan, which involves a sort of peaceful revolution (foreshadowed, by the way, back on page 31 when Katar reminds Miri that “What we did last year–what you did, Miri–that was revolution. Turning things around,” playing on the more etymological definition of “revolution.”), and she finally makes explicit the connection between her personal dilemma and the Ethics debate: “‘Which would you save, the murderer or the painting?’ She knew her answer now. Both. She would find a way. ‘Which do you choose, the princess or the revolution?’ Both. Who says it has to be one or the other?” (p. 307)
At the same time, she realizes that she need not choose between her home on Mount Eskel and her home in Asland, as both can be loved equally, asserting that “A person can be more than one thing” (p. 318).
The above outline of Hale’s theme makes the book sound pretty schematic, but in fact the text teems with examples, small and large, like the ones I’ve quoted (there is also, of course, the much more real dichotomy between Peder and Timon). In a very brief scene, in which the King and all the girls watch a play about bandits, we get a mini-version of this theme, trying to find a distinction between law and lawlessness:
Miri begins by noting that the king seems not to do much and “She . . . wondered for the first time if Danland actually needed a king.” Then as the play begins: “I hate bandits, she reminded herself . . . . But she could not help cheering the bandit in the story, with his expressive eyes and lavish words.” (p. 61). Thirty pages later, this scene is brought to mind again when Miri learns about the unfair tribute payments, and declares that the king is “nothing more than a bandit” (p. 94). These sorts of brief scenes and nods to the theme of dichotomy and false dichotomy are found constantly in the novel.
What makes this interpretation of theme stands out so greatly for me is twofold: 1) the consistency and depth of the theme as it arises organically from a variety of plot sources; and 2) the rarity in other books of its type of this kind of complexity of thought. Typically, in books, movies, TV, etc. characters and authors alike will reflexively be either pro-noble (the story is told from the perspective of the well-off, the status quo is either seen as good or accepted as the norm) or pro-commoner (characters are poor or marginalized, with the wealthy seen as monolithically out of touch—and no one bother to examine the assumptions of either position. Regardless of whether or not you agree with Hale that Miri does can have it both ways, it is a complex and thoughtful answer to a question which rarely gets asked in children’s literature.
Mark Flowers is a Teen Librarian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Vallejo, CA. He contributes to a variety of library journals and blogs, and maintains his own blog on Teen Literature and Librarianianship at crossreferencing.wordpress.com