As I understand better the distance created for me in the prose style of BOMB, I also understand better why I find Nelson’s book so engaging, collapsing that distance. So it’s interesting to note that for many of you who responded in Jonathan’s first post on this title, your concern was exactly one of distance. Wendy asked, in the original post, what it was that made me feel like I could “trust” this author’s voice.
This book has the same “second read effect” for me as LIAR & SPY did: it seems very clear how purposefully pieced together each character’s conversation, each newspaper article or flyer is. As each character or side character enters and speaks, the story evolves piece by piece. What IS the story? Well, Lewis is the main character, and the narrative is trying to create a biography of this character. Here’s where the fiction/nonfiction dichotomy gets complicated, because if you read this as fiction, there’s an expectation for each of the characters to have distinct developments, and here not all of them do. When I read it as nonfiction however this doesn’t matter so much to me. Since the story is Lewis’, I’m ok with the side characters serving the development of his life story. Some of you felt that the side characters sound alike. I’m not sure I agree. Some of the family members sound similar, and the least developed characters do blend together a little. But I think the challenge with the side characters is just meeting them all; it’s like getting introduced at a big party. This is where the book asks a lot of its readers, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask. If we heed Roger Sutton’s instruction to let the book tell us how to read it, this one has plenty of white space and clean headings that invited me to backtrack and browse when I lost a thread…it has a family tree, and index of historical characters to help map those connections.
The way Nelson builds this reminds me a little of the theater work of Anna Deveare Smith: one person on stage presenting interpretations of lots of other characters; all voices leading to a theme. You know at once that you are seeing an actress’s interpretation of real people, and you believe that the character on stage is real. Nelson lets the reader know pretty clearly how she constructed her story from documentation, interviews, and conjecture. Her source notes indicate when something is “adapted,” which she also talks about in her author notes. If a reader waits to the end to read these notes, it might be a rude awakening to discover that some of the “documentation” presented in grey background is not totally as it is in the real source. But I think that curious readers don’t necessarily wait to the end to read the end notes. I read like some eat Oreos…all the outside info first, then the guts. Then the outside again: better than Oreos! Or, as soon as something raises I question for me, I skip to the end. Because reading these notes aided my reading of the text, because I understood what the author was trying to achieve and how, I felt like what I was hearing was a “real” story…I trusted it, and that trust allowed me to connect.
Now, I know that we’ve talked about whether young readers read source notes. Here I think it’s important to look at how this book presents itself: “Documentary Novel” pretty clearly indicates something different is going on. And the way the book reads is just …different. This may not be a book for readers who don’t like “different” in their reading (and there is nothing wrong with that).
DaNae raised a question back in September:
“my legitimate issue here is that some of the historical context relied on the reader’s previous knowledge. Especially when it came to the real people who showed up. Malcolm X wanders in, and I am very impressed. Then I realize there is no explanation of who this impressive person is. In a non-fiction book there would be a sidebar or other device to delve deeper into the supporting content. I’m not sure if it detracts from the impact of the book but I felt the same way last year when I read BREAKING STALIN’S NOSE. I couldn’t understand what young reader would have an adequate understanding of Stalin’s Soviet Union to appreciate that story.”
Her question was taken up by others and I took exception with the assumption that readers for this book wouldn’t know the basics of who Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey are. When I read this a second time, I find even more that readers don’t need to bring much knowledge at all these two men. When they are introduced into the story, the oral-history / patchwork style of the narrative gives just a little at a time, but it gives a lot over its course. Garvey comes up first on p. 14, and over the course of 3 pieces (Lewis, John Henry, Lewis again), we get to see their thinking developing around Garvey’s ideas. The reader gets to listen in, as if on an adult conversation, and understand the very basics of what Garvey was arguing in his time, why it was controversial, and what it means to Lewis’ character development to embrace some of his ideas. This discussion over Garvey itself then sets the stage for John Henry’s death, and his sons’ responses it to it… Lewis and his father’s meeting of the minds over Garvey becomes a crucial piece of Lewis’ story.
When Malcolm X shows up on the scene (p.75) he is a little more dropped in there…picked up and teased out and developed in later sections, due to chronology (Lewis meets him, and connects with him, early). I do think that Nelson makes an assumption here that readers likely know who Malcolm X is, but I’d guess most 11 yr olds know he was a figure-head of the civil rights movement, most commonly compared to Martin Luther King. Jr and known for the statement “by any means necessary.” That is kind of all you need to know to go with it. And I don’t think it disrupts the reading too much if this is truly the first time a reader has come across him. Where others found the patchwork, dipping-in-and-out narrative disengaging, I found it let me connect where I could connect, go back and reconnect to something I’d seen earlier, wait for it to come round again.
So is lack of previous knowledge a deal-breaker? I do think that here, the fullest appreciation of NO CRYSTAL STAIR is aided by a decent knowledge of the civil rights movement. But I also think that 1) There are plenty of readers under 14 who have that knowledge, who are the ideal readers for this book; and 2) the book is distinguished even without this level of understanding.