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Round 1, Match 8: Symphony for the City of the Dead vs X: A Novel
JUDGE – Pamela S. Turner
|Symphony for the
City of the Dead
by M.T. Anderson
|X: A Novel
by Ilyasah Shabazz & Kekla Magoon
On one hand, I’m grateful I didn’t draw magical-realism-versus-poetry or graphic-novel-versus-something-not-graphic-novel. On the other hand, one of these books is about Russian history. Why not just hook myself up to an IV of liquid depression?
This match-up pits a historical/biographical work of nonfiction about Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich against a historical/biographical novel about African-American human rights activist Malcolm X. A nervous mama’s boy in Harry Potter glasses compared to a brash youth in a rakish fedora. A particularly Russian tsunami of oppression that washes away millions versus a particularly American current of oppression that quietly sucks African-Americans underwater while the majority floats by in willful ignorance. The redeeming passion of a nation for its music compared to the redeeming brilliance of a young man with a heart on fire.
First: to Russia. I didn’t expect a hefty work of nonfiction like Symphony for the City of the Dead to come from novelist M.T. Anderson. I probably should have, since his range as a writer is positively freakish. Symphony opens with the dramatic airlift of the score of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony from Russia to the west. The narrative then moves backward to trace the life of Shostakovich, who is born in Leningrad in 1909 and grows up during the Russian Revolution. After an initial artistic flowering, everything goes bad (this is Russian history, after all). Random torture and killings become the norm. As Anderson beautifully describes, Shostakovich begins writing music “for a child huddled in the ruins, clutching his knees after something terrible has passed by, hoping that if he looks up, he will find it has stalked onward–but certain that, in fact, it stands over him, waiting to pounce.”
As if Stalin’s purges weren’t horror enough, World War II arrives and Leningrad is blockaded by the Nazis. Shostakovich begins composing his Leningrad Symphony as bombs fall in the background. Recognizing the symbolic importance of the work, the Russian government evacuates the Shostakovich so he can finish in relative safety. Meanwhile, Leningrad deteriorates into a cannibalistic nightmare that resembles The Walking Dead, except that this is Russia. The weather is WAY worse.
When Shostakovich’s masterpiece is finished, the score is smuggled back into Leningrad in an attempt to bring hope to people trapped in a circle of hell so low even Dante wouldn’t have touristed. Anderson’s descriptions of half-dead musicians struggling to practice in the wretched cold is heartbreaking. Yet Shostakovich’s masterpiece is performed, proof of music’s ability to “comfort the suffering, saying, ‘Whatever has befallen you–you are not alone.'” Symphony forces me to admit that Russian history does indeed have its uplifting moments.
I’m impressed that Anderson occasionally comments on the trustworthiness of his sources, and he does this within the main text rather than relegating the discussion to the back matter. And I’m charmed by the appearance of the verb “ensorcelled”. Every text for older readers should have at least one word that inspires them to visit a dictionary.
And now: back to the U.S.A. X: A Novel gets off to a fast start by having the best cover in this BoB competition. The striking and inventive design perfectly captures the novel’s setting and the spirit of its main character.
In X: A Novel co-authors Ilyasah Shabazz (Malcolm X’s daughter) and Kekla Magoon re-create the life of Malcolm X from age fifteen to twenty-three. Despite being a gifted student and a natural leader (he’s elected class president at his all-white high school), Malcolm’s ambition to become a lawyer is cruelly shattered by his favorite teacher. “Be as good as you want in the classroom,” says the teacher, “But out those doors, you’re just a nigger.” As Malcolm narrates, “I’d always been colored, but now I saw the walls that came along with it. Thick and white and holding me in place.”
In deftly-crafted flashbacks, we learn that when Malcolm was six his father was murdered, probably by members of a group affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan. His mother struggles to keep her large family together but eventually most of the children are sent to foster homes. Malcolm moves first to Boston to live with a half-sister and eventually to Harlem. As Malcolm grows older he loses faith in his father, who taught him to chant a quote of Marcus Garvey’s: “Up, up you mighty race. You can accomplish what you will.” But Malcolm decides that the stories his father buried in him are lies, as Shabazz and Magoon express so evocatively: “Pulling them out hurt more than anything, like yanking myself up by the roots.”
Not surprisingly, the contradiction between Malcolm’s abilities–he’s a volcano of intelligence and ambition–and his cruelly limited opportunities leads him into the underground economy. White society has rejected him; why should he play by its rules? Eventually, inevitably, self-affirmation and self-destruction cross paths. Malcolm is arrested and sent to jail for a burglary spree; at his trial his white girlfriend (and partner in crime) testifies against him. Ironically, jail provides a revelation: “Facing the old man–in my mind at least–has made me realize something. I don’t want to fight Papa any longer, to forget him. I want to remember. I want to come home.”
Many small, poignant details show Malcolm’s struggle for identity and self-respect within a racist society — straightening his hair, using the word “slave” to mean “job”, resisting (for a time) those who espouse his father’s views. Shabazz and Magoon end their novel on the perfect note: the triumphant moment when “Malcolm Little” affirms his identity as “Malcolm X.”
My one quibble with X: A Novel is that Malcolm’s time in prison accounts for a mere 27 pages of a 348-page book. Given that prison was a transformative period in Malcolm’s life, this section felt too compressed and the description of Malcolm’s intellectual journey too vague. I wanted to know much more about his conversion to Islam. How and why did that religion speak to him? By what internal alchemy did he mold Islam and his father’s beliefs into his own philosophy? After spending so much illuminating time in Malcolm’s head, I wanted to stay longer and understand more deeply before letting him go.
In the end, of course, there can only be one winner. So I’m choosing the one that most ensorcelled me: Symphony for the City of the Dead.
— Pamela S. Turner
I appreciate Turner’s humor, even when attached to an “IV of liquid depression.” Symphony certainly captivates the reader with its tragedy and desperate hope, that of a nation and an artist. The sheer scope of Anderson’s research and the beauty of his writing simply blew me away. For me, it’s one of the best books in this competition, and I’m really glad it won – but really, Symphony vs. Nimona in the second round? What cruel gods (Battle Commanders) would condone such a travesty? Notwithstanding Symphony’s brilliance, I think Turner’s right in wanting something more from X. I do like getting inside young Malcolm’s head and seeing his “hustle,” daring, and strength. But I don’t really perceive a transformation from a boy who loses himself in his hustle to a man who hustles for freedom. Still, X definitely raises awareness among kids. I’d hope that young readers can move on to a detailed biography of X and a history of black militancy, as I will, knowing very little about both Malcolm X. Most kids, however, won’t read further, and I don’t think X provides a full enough picture of the civil rights giant.
– Kid Commentator RGN
SYMPHONY FOR THE CITY OF THE DEAD WILL MOVE ON TO ROUND 2
About Battle Commander
The Battle Commander is the nom de guerre for children’s literature enthusiasts Monica Edinger and Roxanne Hsu Feldman, fourth grade teacher and middle school librarian at the Dalton School in New York City and Jonathan Hunt, the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. All three have served on the Newbery Committee as well as other book selection and award committees. They are also published authors of books, articles, and reviews in publications such as the New York Times, School Library Journal, and the Horn Book Magazine. You can find Monica at educating alice and on twitter as @medinger. Roxanne is at Fairrosa Cyber Library and on twitter as @fairrosa. Jonathan can be reached at email@example.com.
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