Month: February 2011

A Writer’s Flight

The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton
By Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge
(Clarion Books, New York, 2010, $20.00)

At some point in every writer’s life, he or she must decide to be a writer. Edith Wharton started making up stories when she was six; that year, she also taught herself to read. At ten, she began writing. So Wharton’s literary success should have surprised no one. But in late nineteenth century New York, a well-bred lady’s name “only appeared in print only at her birth, her marriage, and her death.” For this reason, her parents discouraged her literary ambitions. Only in her late twenties did Wharton summon the courage to pursue publication.

In The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton, Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge chronicles Wharton’s gradual flight from Old New York. She describes how Wharton formed a “republic of the spirit”: a circle of close friends around the world who shared her intellectual interests and zest for life. She loved Europe and spent much of her life abroad.  Yet, New York never left Edith Wharton. Her best known novels – including The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence – are set in her hometown. And despite Wharton’s predilection for literary and artistic company, she retained the strict principles of her youth. Though she and her husband Teddy were never compatible and though she had one passionate affair, she loved her husband and took her marriage vows very seriously. She only divorced Teddy when he developed a serious mental illness.

The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton is not only the novelist’s life story. Wooldridge explores the tensions found in Wharton’s novels and her life, especially the conflict between duty and desire. Wooldridge has penned a fitting introduction to Wharton’s life and work. Together, Wharton and Wooldridge should inspire readers to form their own “republics of the spirit.”

Dorothy A. Dahm

Discovering the Discoverer

Columbus: Opening up the New World
By Stephen Feinstein
(Enslow Publishers, Berkeley Heights, NJ, 2010, $)

Once revered as the man who discovered America, Columbus is a controversial figure today. When he arrived in the present-day Bahamas, he saw its inhabitants, the Arawak, as people he could easily subdue, convert to Catholicism, and enslave. The Spanish settlers who followed him to the islands instituted a brutal rule, forcing the Arawak to work and cutting of their ears, noses, or hands if they disobeyed. By 1552, just sixty years past Columbus’s journey, all of the Arawak had died, either of work or European diseases.

In Columbus: Opening up the New World, Stephen Feinstein examines the explorer’s life and times for middle-grade readers. He makes the best of what little information exists about Columbus’s early life in Genoa, conjuring up the excitement and bustle of the 15th century port city. He provides necessary background information about such related subjects as Henry the Navigator and the Spanish Inquisition without disrupting the narrative. When Feinstein describes Columbus’s efforts in the New World, he does not flinch from the cruelties of colonial life.

At the end of the book, Feinstein discusses Columbus’s legacy, especially the exchange of goods between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. He lists both the benign consequences of the explorer’s journey – including cocoa, potatoes, and other crops – and the horrific ones, including the annihilation of the Arawak people and the enslavement of Africans in the islands’ plantations. However, Feinstein finds himself in murky waters when he begins discussing Columbus’s contributions to intellectual history. His suggestion that European conquest of the New World inspired both the Protestant Reformation and The Communist Manifesto seems a bit far-fetched, especially for a children’s biography. While intriguing, these hypotheses deserve to be explored in three or five-hundred-page books of their own.

Should we continue to honor Christopher Columbus with a national holiday every October? Should we celebrate or repudiate his efforts? After reading Columbus, children will form their own opinions about the explorer.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Dreaming in Verse

The Dreamer
By Pam Muñoz Ryan
Illustrated by Peter Sís
(Scholastic Press, New York, 2010, $17.99)

How do you separate a writer from his words? Where you do draw the line between biography and novel, prose and poetry? In The Dreamer, a fictionalized biography of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Pam Muñoz Ryan explores magical and often painful Neruda’s childhood. Peter Sis’s delicate green line drawings capture the poet’s wonderful daydreams and dashed hopes.

Neruda, born Neftalí Reyes, begins life with a sickly body, a vivid imagination, and an overbearing, ambitious father. Together, these three elements nearly prove damning for the young boy. His father, anxious for Neftalí to succeed in medicine or business, discourages – sometimes violently – his son’s interest in writing. He forces Neftalí to swim in strong ocean waters for prescribed periods and rarely shows fondness him affection. Hungry for warmth and understanding, Neftalí is disappointed again and again. But a few kind adults, including a left-leaning journalist uncle, inhabit the young poet’s universe. Slowly, Neftalí accepts that he will never feel close to his father. He pursues his aspirations, develops a strong social conscience, and safeguards the dream world that sustains him.

Fiction about real people often risks dryness and sensationalism. With The Dreamer, Pam Muñoz Ryan transcends the usual constraints of imagined biographies, weaving a lyrical coming-of-age story. Her approach is a fitting and uplifting tribute to Neruda’s life and verse.

Dorothy A. Dahm