Another guest post, this time on a book that has been getting a ton of positive press. Guest poster Maureen Eichner is a children’s assistant at a public library in the Indianapolis area. She has excellent taste in fantasy and is a thoughtful careful reader, so after reading and replying to this, do take a moment to check out her other writing: Maureen blogs at By Singing Light (http://bysinginglight.
All the Truth That’s In Me is Julie Berry’s first YA book — she has also published several books for younger readers. It’s garnered some critical kudos, with starred reviews from SLJ, Kirkus, Horn Book, the Bulletin, and PW, as well as a mention on the SLJ and Kirkus Best of 2013 lists. In some ways, it’s easy to see why it’s gotten this acclaim. But of course, stars or lack thereof don’t necessarily bear on the Printz.
Our narrator, Judith Finch, was stolen away from Roswell Station when she was fourteen. Two years later, she returned, missing part of her tongue and unable to speak. Now she is eighteen, isolated and disreputable, struggling to find a way to keep living.
All the Truth That’s In Me is told in short sections, seldom more than a page long and often considerably less than that. It is also told in second person, addressed to Lucas Whiting, son of Judith’s abductor and the boy she was halfway in love with when she disappeared. The language is concentrated, often metaphorical and resonant. Occasionally it is downright poetic in its compressed and heightened style. Yet for all of these stylistic choices, there is an immediacy and power to the story which springs from Judith’s voice and character. In short, while the style is impressive and literary (and I suspect a lot could be gleaned from a second and third reading for this one), it didn’t overwhelm the story for me.
As I mentioned, Judith’s voice shines. Berry plays a lot with the notion of voice itself here — the taking away of Judith’s acts as shorthand for Ezra Whiting’s actions. Her slow reclaiming of speech acts as a sign of her growth and renewal after she returns home. The people she speaks to are also important, a marker of who she trusts and who she does not. The book is self-consciously voiced, the narrative of a girl struggling to recover herself and rediscover herself in the face of tragedy, suspicion, and isolation. It was Judith’s voice and character, the contrast between the strength of her narration and her obvious hurt which kept me engaged and invested in the book.
I also found the development of themes to be a strength. Personally, I have rarely seen this kind of abduction/abuse narrative in a non-contemporary setting, so I appreciated that Berry challenged that preconceived notion about the past. Judith’s strength and refusal to be limited by what was done to her or by the circumstances of her life and society are powerful ones, and play nicely into the idea of self and identity that are so prevalent in YA.
The motif of Judith’s name is also woven into the story: who calls her by name? At the beginning of the story, she is the only one: “No one calls me by name. Younger children do not know it. I remind myself each day at sunrise, lest one day I forget. Judith is my name.” Through her slow reawakening, the people who truly see her — Maria, Darrel, Lucas — call her by name, or by a pet name, and so help to rebuild her, reassert her as Judith rather than the strange Miss Finch.
There is also a lot here about family, with Judith’s extremely complicated relationships with her mother and brother, Darrel, as well as her dead father. It is perhaps a bit expected that her father be remembered as perfect and supportive, while her mother is seen as cold and unkind. And yet at the same time, isn’t it true that we remember the best of those who are not present, while those who are with us remind us constantly of their imperfections? These themes are all there and provide fodder for interesting discussions, but as with the stylistic choices, their presence read to me as organic and thought-provoking rather than didactic.
All the Truth That’s In Me does all of this very well, and even impressively. So what keeps me from completely supporting it for the Printz?
The main issue is the setting. Let me start with a declaration of biases: I am the kind of reader who loves worldbuilding. Give me all the details! I will happily read pages about food, clothing, religion, politics, so long as it makes the world feel natural, real, lived-in. Vague hand-wavey worldbuilding often frustrates me; it’s a crack in the windshield (to use Karyn’s phrase).
And All the Truth That’s In Me is neither fish nor fowl. It’s set in a made-up village in an unnamed new world, which bears a strong resemblance to the American Colonies but which doesn’t seem to exist in our world. Except, confusingly, when it does. Judith refers to “the homeland” which brings Roswell Station calico (as a slight costume history geek, I am interested and slightly dubious about this), but also to Joan of Arc. England and France are mentioned by name, the inhabitants of Roswell Station have names which read as reasonably typical of English colonists. Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon,” is a major feature of Judith’s narrative, something she internalizes as she learns to read. And yet, there are also reference to the rebellion of ‘37, which (as far as I can tell) is a pure fabrication.
Bluntly speaking, my windshield is completely shattered. I want an either-or. Either historical fiction, grounded in the real world, even if the specifics of village and place are made up or fudged. OR alternate history, inspired by a real time and place but deliberately and specifically different from it. The setting of All the Truth That’s In Me is neither one or the other and so I am constantly thrown out of the text, trying to relocate myself in a world that does not make sense. This also affects the issue of accuracy; how can I judge that in a world made so vague?
As it happens, Berry herself addresses the setting in an interview with SLJ. Her answer there is interesting and enlightening. But for myself, I found it ultimately not convincing enough to outweigh the frustration of the text. The problem is, the details do matter. Is the rebellion of ‘37 referring to 1637, or 1737? Some signs in the text point to 1637 (both Judith and Lucas were children when their families left the homeland), and yet it is impossible to say. There’s a lack of internal consistency which keeps the reader just enough at bay for doubts to creep in. I’m sure there’s another reading here, the one Berry suggests, where the non-specificness allows the reader to interpret the setting in any way they want. For me, being the type of reader I am, this fundamentally does not work; others may have a different experience.
I also had slight qualms about Judith’s relationship with Lucas at certain points during the story, which centered around whether Lucas had been shown to be an actual character or simply an object of Judith’s desire. Ultimately, the book settled most of these for me, given his demonstration of support for Judith.
So, Printz contender? I suspect for the RealPrintz it would probably depend on whether a committee member shared my concerns about the setting. For myself, it’s one I will certainly recommend to other readers, for Judith’s story of resilience and strength, but also one I think ultimately falters in a way I simply can’t overlook.