One-Minute Book Reviews

October 17, 2009

PTSD for 9-Year-Olds? Two-Time Newbery Medal Finalist Jacqueline Woodson Deals With the Consquences of War in ‘Peace, Locomotion’

A 12-year-old orphan sees the effects of war when a member of his foster family returns without a leg

Peace, Locomotion. By Jacqueline Woodson. Putnam, 136 pp., $15.99. Ages 9–12 (see further discussion below).

By Janice Harayda

Jacqueline Woodson is a spare and thoughtful writer – a bit too spare and thoughtful in this slow-moving sequel to Locomotion, a National Book Award finalist in which a sensitive orphan told his story in 60 poems. Now Lonnie Collins Motion (nicknamed Locomotion) is 12 years old and describes his life in letters to his younger sister, Lili, who lives with a different foster mother. The epistolary format may be the most interesting thing about the book.

Peace, Locomotion exemplifies a disheartening trend in children’s fiction toward novels that often read like bibliotherapy: They focus on feelings at the expense of plot, suspense and character development. This book has passages in which we don’t just hear Lonnie’s feelings: We hear his feelings about his feelings. After his teacher makes him “feel stupid,” he tells us: “I hate that feeling.” The novel has relatively little action. Lonnie likes living with his foster mother, whom he calls Miss Edna, in Brooklyn. But her son Jenkins joined the Army Reserve to earn money for college and has ended up fighting in an unnamed war – apparently, in Iraq. Jenkins loses a leg to “insurgents and a car bomb,” and when he comes home, has to use a wheelchair until he learns to walk with crutches. He also has signs of post-traumatic-stress disorder. Lonnie finds a sense of purpose in helping his foster brother and realizes that “Peace is the good stuff / That happens to all of us / Sometimes.”

Peace, Locomotion reflects a quiet pacifism that might help to disabuse some children of Rambo fantasies. But its heavy subjects clash with the lightweight treatment they receive in the novel. Jenkins doesn’t come home from the war until page 104 of a 136-page story – a timing that limits the potential for a relationship to develop between them and for transformation to occur. “Locomotion” is an odd name for a narrator whose story moves so languidly and to whom, in this book, so little happens.

Best line: “That’s what she calls old people – seniors. Like they’re about to graduate from high school or something.”

Worst line: Peace, Locomotion sticks closely to the prevailing therapeutic ideas about what’s “good” for children and is less interesting than it might have been if Woodson had taken more risks.  Here is Locomotion’s foster mother speaking to her son after he comes home without a leg: “Let all the tears you have in you come on out, she kept saying. It’s good. It’s okay.”

Recommendation: School Library Journal recommends this novel for grades 4–6, but – grim subjects like PTSD notwithstanding – it has a much less complex plot than many books appeal to that age group, such as the Harry Potter novels.

Published: January 2009

About the author: Woodson was shortlisted for a National Book Award for Locomotion and Hush and for a Newbery Medal for Feathers and Show Way.

Furthermore: The letters in this book are interspersed with a scattering of poems, also written by Lonnie.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

January 9, 2008

A One-Minute Book Review of Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’

Scaling the Mount Everest of literature through print and audio editions

War and Peace. By Leo Tolstoy. Translated by Constance Garnett. Modern Library, 1,386 pages, $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Reading War and Peace is like walking into a large cocktail party at which you don’t know anybody until, hours later, Napoleon turns up fresh from his victory in the Battle of Austerlitz. How do you get your bearings on a novel that has more than 500 characters and, even in the relatively compact Modern Library edition, 1,386 pages?

More than most masterpieces, War and Peace asks you to make a leap of faith and repays the effort. The characters who at first swarm at you in a mob soon coalesce into sets. Chief among them are three well-to-do families – the Rostovs, the Bezuhovs and the Bolkonskys – whose fates rise and fall in the years just before and after Napoleon’s disastrous march on Moscow in the winter of 1812.

Leo Tolstoy sets their stories against a teeming panorama of Russian history as he develops the fatalistic theme that free will is an illusion. The choices people make reflect powerful historical forces: The higher someone’s social standing, “the more conspicuous is the inevitability and predestination of every act he commits.”

Tolstoy’s fondness for this theme involves digressions that have defeated many readers. Listening to an unabridged audio edition may help you ride out the philosophical and historical detours from the plot. A recorded version will also give you pronunciations of those 500 Russian or other names, and could add far drama to your commute than any all-news radio station. The radio may give you reports of one-alarm blazes in dumpsters. Tolstoy gives you: “The valet on going in informed the count that Moscow was on fire.”

Best line: The first, a line of dialogue at a party: “Well, Prince, Genoa and Lucca are now no more than private estates of the Bonaparte family.” This isn’t nearly as famous as the first line Anna Karenina (“Happy families are all alike …”). But it has its own genius. Part of it is that it reates the impression that you are eavesdropping with tantalizing effects.

Worst line: Tolstoy elaborates on his view of history and free will in the second of two epilogues in the book: “Napoleon could not command a campaign against Russia, and never did command it.” Is that clear? If not, he adds: “Our false conception that the command that precedes an event is the cause of an event is due to the fact that when the event has taken place and those few out of thousands of commands, which happen to be consistent with the course of events, are carried out, we forget those which were not, because they could not be carried out.”

Caveat lector: This review uses the Russian spellings in the Constance Garnett translation in the 1994 Modern Library hardcover edition www.randomhouse.com/modernlibrary/. Some scholars favor more recent translations. A newer Modern Library edition has a foreword by A. N. Wilson.

Published: 1869

Furthermore: Unabridged audio editions of War and Peace are available from Audible www.audible.com.

You can also follow Janice Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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