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North of Normal and What is Visible
On Monday, Angela mentioned that we haven’t had as many nonfiction titles as we’d like this year, and offered up Dr. Mutter’s Marvels for consideration. Today, we’ve got another nonfiction title, this time a memoir, and a novel based on a real person.
The memoir is Cea Sunrise Person’s North of Normal, and Person’s first and middle names are a clue to what her book is about: she grew up in Canada, in hippie-like conditions which quickly turned from free-thinking to straight-up neglect and abuse. At my library teens can’t get enough of these stories of childhood travails: A Child Called It, The Glass Castle, Three Little Words–you name it. Add in a clothing-optional lifestyle and I think this title has tons of teen appeal.
The historical novel, Kimberly Elkins’s What Is Visible, is based on the life of Laura Bridgman, who (Wikipedia tells me) was “the first deaf-blind American child to gain a significant education in the English language, fifty years before the more famous Helen Keller.” Elkins build significant fictions into Bridgman’s life, especially a lover, but the basic facts of her life are there and extraordinary. A great recommendation equally as a coming-of-age novel and as a introduction to this fascinating woman.
PERSON, Cea Sunrise. North of Normal: A Memoir of My Wilderness Childhood, My Unusual Family, and How I Survived Both. photos. 352p. Jul. 2014. HarperCollins. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9780062289865. LC 2013032963.
Mention survival in the Canadian wilderness to teens and they’ll likely recall Brian’s adventures in Gary Paulsen’s curriculum-standard novel Hatchet (Bradbury, 1987). But long before fictional Brian learned to hunt and forage, Cea Sunrise Person’s extended family had erected a patchwork tipi in Northern Alberta, far from the oppression of society and completely off the grid. Person tells her story with candor, poignancy, and humor as she looks back on a childhood of the 1970s unlike that of anyone she’d ever known. Papa Dick, Person’s grandfather, was a free-thinking back-to-basics survivalist with negative feelings toward the American government and strong beliefs about how to live a healthy life. Clothing was discouraged (it impedes natural energy flow), and there was no need for privacy for such natural acts as moving your bowels or having sex. He lectured against the evils of sugar and preservatives and for the benefits of marijuana. Born to 16 year-old Michelle, Person recognized that her mother never really grew up as she aged. Michelle flitted in and out of her daughter’s life, perpetually high on pot and the endorphin rush she got from an endless string of boyfriends. Young Cea spent long days alone, entertaining herself with the help of Michelle’s reluctantly handed down doll and an anthology of children’s literature. Reentering society, she ached for a stable, ordinary life. Teens who enjoy vividly written memoirs that tell of overcoming circumstance—in this case a beyond dysfunctional family, abuse, neglect, transience, and poverty—will devour Person’s captivating book.—Paula J. Gallagher, Baltimore County Public Library, MD
ELKINS, Kimberly. What Is Visible. 307p. photos. Hatchette/Twelve. June 2014. Tr $25. ISBN 9781455528967. LC 2013034399.
While history celebrates Hellen Keller, few remember Laura Bridgman, the woman who proved education possible for the deaf-blind. Born in 1829, Bridgman contracted scarlet fever at two. She lost not only her hearing and sight, but also her ability to smell and taste. Elkins introduces readers to 12-year-old Laura, who has spent the last five years at The Perkins Institute in Boston under the direction of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe. Laura, known for her ability to learn through tactile signing, typically performs for hundreds at Saturday exhibitions. But this day is different; Charles Dickens has traveled from London to meet who he refers to as “the second wonder of North America.” But an audience with the famous author is nothing compared to Laura’s introduction to Julia Ward, a socialite whom she jealously views as her rival for Dr. Howe’s attention. What Is Visible is a coming-of-age novel unlike any other, one whose nearly locked-in protagonist longs for friendship, love, intimacy and a sense of belonging in a world she can only experience through touch. Elkins widens the narrative to include the viewpoints and stories of Howe, Ward (who becomes the doctor’s wife), and Sarah Wight, Laura’s beloved teacher and companion. The author invents a lover for the bold, sardonic Laura, a brash Irish kitchen girl who becomes an outlet for her pent-up passion. Older teens will enjoy this honest, often heartbreaking historical novel that explores broad themes of love, loss, and sacrifice.—Paula J. Gallagher, Baltimore County Public Library, MD
Filed under: Historical Fiction, Nonfiction
About Mark Flowers
Mark Flowers is the Young Adult Librarian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Vallejo, CA. He reviews for a variety of library journals and blogs and recently contributed a chapter to The Complete Summer Reading Program Manual: From Planning to Evaluation (YALSA, 2012). Contact him via Twitter @droogmark
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