Ms. Bartels Recommends
The Overstory by Richard Powers
I totally trust Dr. Bales's recommendations – so far she has never steered me wrong – but when I read the book blurb for The Overstory I immediately thought, "No, this isn't for me. She's going to be wrong on this one." She isn't. Honestly, that skeptical reaction is the same reaction that every friend to whom I've recommended the book has had. But trust me, don't pay a single bit of attention to the blurb. Just read this amazing 2019 winner for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Why has the book hit me so hard? I'm not really into nature – I can say this as a person who grew up on a subsistence farm in South Dakota and had enough nature to last me a lifetime. I also grew up with very few trees in my early life. I'm talking eastern South Dakota, full-on Plains States-territory where it is just fields as far as the eye can see and only the occasional tree, none of which are native to the area. On our two acres of land, we had only three old cottonwoods that provided hours of climbing and two rows of poplar trees on either side of our property to provide a bit of a wind break from the fierce and driving blizzards of Midwestern winters. To this day I can pretty much only identify leaves from cottonwood trees and gingkoes (because of their distinctive fan-shape and that weird smell).
So where is the appeal of this book for me? A narrow dirt road separated our land from our neighbor's farmstead, founded as part of the Timber Culture Act, an offshoot of the Homestead Act. This Act was passed to help bring timber to Nebraska and the Dakota Territories. Homesteaders were granted extra land if they would plant it in timber so that there would be materials for building beyond acres and acres of sod "bricks." We loved our neighbor's farm for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was that we were given open reign to roam and play as we liked. Orvil and Ann Hansen had lived on the farm for nearly the entire 62-years they were married before he died in 1973; she remained there for three more years after he died before she moved into "town" five miles away. They had no indoor plumbing – yes, they used an outhouse – and no running hot water. Both of our properties were fed by the artesian well on their land and by the creek that ran along the edge of their property, land that when settled had been planted with 60 acres of timber. For nine children growing up with this wonderland across the dirt road from our house, we spent whole days there, especially in summer, experiencing hours of unsupervised fun and adventure. The house fell into disrepair after they left and aside from one year of a "hippie" couple living there, the farm was abandoned. A controlled burn of the ditches on our road at the end of the summer in 1976 was fanned by an unexpected wind storm that spread the fire out of the ditch and into their copse of trees, burning a good portion of those 60 acres. We all stood there, a huddle of young kids covered in soot – we had helped the volunteer firefighters and our parents keep the fire away from the house with wet sheets and buckets of well water – and we cried at what had been lost.
Our grandparent's house in Nebraska had the same 60 acres of timber, the same hours of adventuring for me and my 31 first cousins whenever we were on their farm. One of the worst tornadoes in that area of Nebraska hit in the early 2000s, mercifully missing the house and outbuildings and sparing all of the sheep, but it absolutely decimated the timber stand. An enormous swath of trees had been ripped up by the roots in an eerie line of devastation. When our cousins shared aerial photos of the damage, I was a wreck.
The summer Dutch Elm disease swept through our town the way it did so many towns in the early and mid-1970s, I spent afternoons with my best friend biking past one tree after another, all marked with an orange X to indicate that they would need to be cut down. I still remember my mother pulling into the town pool's drop-off the following week, all of my siblings and I falling silent in the station wagon as we stepped out to witness the impact of that cut on Prentis Park, our town's beautiful municipal park. Nearly every tree in the park – trees that had been there since the founding of the town in the 1880s – were gone, cut to the ground and the stumps destroyed. The park looked naked and grim. My siblings and I stood there in our swimsuits, clutching our towels and our lunches, and we sobbed.
When I graduated from high school and moved to Connecticut at 6:00 am the next morning to become a nanny for the year, I couldn't help commenting about the number of trees every time I was with the family in the car driving around. The father I worked for laughed and finally said, "You act like you've never seen trees before." There was no way to convey to them what it was like to be surrounded by trees that just seemed so natural to them, so invisible because of the sheer number of them, to explain what it was like coming from an area where we could see all the way down our road to the Missouri River nearly two miles away with very few obstacles, except neighboring farms, to block the view.
So yes, I notice trees. I cry at the devastation of the trees in Central Park after hurricanes. I battle to keep the scrappy little tree in front of my brownstone watered and alive. I rent houses Upstate all year long just so I can see the changing foliage in every season. And when I head back to the flat, bare expanses of South Dakota and Nebraska to visit family, I always long to be back East, surrounded by trees.
I'm just going to say it again. Read this book.
"The Overstory is a sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of – and paean to – the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, Richard Powers's twelfth novel unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. There is a world alongside ours – vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe." ~from the publisher
Recommended for: Grades 9+
Ms. Ricker Recommends
Front Desk by Kelly Yang
I hope this book's deceptively sweet, young-looking cover doesn't prevent kids from reading it, since it actually deals with some very difficult topics and the main character overcomes many obstacles. This book wrestles with issues of poverty, racism, and immigration, but through it all Mia never loses her sense of self and her desire to improve life for her family and friends. The authors note really hits home when you learn that this book is based on the author's own experience running a hotel for her parents as a child when she was a recent Chinese immigrant. This has such a wonderful and satisfying ending – I think all students would enjoy reading it (even if it looks young). Highly recommended!
"Recent immigrants from China and desperate for work and money, ten-year-old Mia Tang's parents take a job managing a rundown motel in Southern California, even though the owner, Mr. Yao is a nasty skinflint who exploits them; while her mother (who was an engineer in China) does the cleaning, Mia works the front desk and tries to cope with demanding customers and other recent immigrants – not to mention being only one of two Chinese in her fifth-grade class, the other being Mr. Yao's son, Jason." ~from the publisher
Recommended for: Grades 6+
Ms. Kazan Recommends
The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
This work of historical fiction, set in 1890s Atlanta, is one of the best middle grade/young adult novels I've read in a while. Protagonist Jo Kuan is an immensely likeable narrator. She shows great strength of character in refusing to wither in the face of unending discrimination based on her ethnicity and her gender. I learned so much about the plight of Chinese people living in post-Reconstruction south, where Jim Crow laws victimized all non-white people. My only complaint about the book is that the plot is full of too many twists toward the end. But that aside, readers will thoroughly enjoy Jo's journey and may be encouraged to learn more about the plight of disenfranchised people living in the south during turn-of-the-century America. This book will not be published until August, but we have several Advanced Readers Copies available for checkout.
"By day, seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan works as a lady's maid for the cruel daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Atlanta. But by night, Jo moonlights as the pseudonymous author of a newspaper advice column for the genteel Southern lady, 'Dear Miss Sweetie.' When her column becomes wildly popular, she uses the power of the pen to address some of society's ills, but she's not prepared for the backlash that follows when her column challenges fixed ideas about race and gender. While her opponents clamor to uncover the secret identity of Miss Sweetie, a mysterious letter sets Jo off on a search for her own past and the parents who abandoned her as a baby. But when her efforts put her in the crosshairs of Atlanta's most notorious criminal, Jo must decide whether she, a girl used to living in the shadows, is ready to step into the light." ~from the publisher
Recommended for: Grades 7+
Ms. Matlin Recommends
The Power by Naomi Alderman
This is probably one of the most intense novels I've read in a long time. Power as an idea of who has it, who doesn't, how it changes people, and how it affects even the most basic interactions is highly complex and Alderman's novel about how a sudden change of the physical power dynamic between male and female is equally so. The Power is framed as a novel within the novel, but because it's the lion's share, it was somewhat jarring to intermittently shift to the "supporting archaeological evidence" and then to the letter writing between "author" and "editor" at the end. However, these exchanges do serve the novel, and in the current climate of #MeToo in the publishing world, seem like they could easily be describing incidents of today with the roles reversed. Although I wish very much that Alderman had been able to make her world include non-cisgender and heterosexual people, I nonetheless found this to be an exquisite work which I will be pressing on everyone I know (including my book club) for a good while.
"A rich Nigerian boy; a foster kid whose religious parents hide their true nature; an ambitious American politician; a tough London girl from a tricky family. When a vital new force takes root and flourishes, their lives converge with devastating effect. Teenage girls and women now have immense physical power – they can cause agonizing pain and even death. And everything changes." ~from the publisher
Recommended for: Grades 9+