Crazy About Gone Crazy
As you well know, if you’ve followed this blog long enough, I am an unabashed plot-driven reader. I most enjoy those types of books where the plot drives the action of the book and where I can anticipate the events to come. For example, even before I picked up HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS I already knew some of the landmarks along the way: I knew we would find the rest of the horcruxes, I knew we would find out what Snape was up to, I knew we would find out what really happened on that night that Harry’s parents died, and I knew that Harry would somehow, someway confront Lord Voldemort and overcome him. I knew all of these things, and I was able to mark my progress through the novel not only by the pages I turned, but by ticking these events off. This knowledge helped me get through some rough patches (think: Harry, Ron, and Hermione camping in the woods). Sometimes, though, I read a character-driven book and I feel like the whole thing is camping in the woods; there’s none of the excitement or anticipation of thinking about what comes next. I’d cite both GONE CRAZY IN ALABAMA and LOST IN THE SUN as being two of those kinds of books. I understand that character-driven readers are wired differently and the very things that bother me about character-driven novels doesn’t bother them in the slightest. Thus, these are the very kinds of books that for me, being the kind of reader I am, definitely need a second reading, especially because I already know where the plot is going (and I can focus on distinction in the other literary elements). Despite being a big Rita Williams-Garica fan, this entire trilogy just hasn’t been my cup of tea, and listening to this last volume on audiobook did little to change my mind, but then I settled in for a second reading of the physical book over Thanksgiving weekend, and was surprised to find what I think is not only the best book in the trilogy, but a serious contender for the Newbery Medal.
I’m sure some people will argue–as always seems to happen with any discussion of a sequel–that this book does not stand alone. We have often pointed out that nowhere in the criteria does it dictate that a sequel must stand alone, only that the book be recognized for the merits of this particular book. To be sure, those familiar with the previous two books will appreciate how this one incorporates characters, events, and themes of the previous two books, but needless to say, I don’t think a knowledge of those books is essential for an appreciation of this one. If THE HIGH KING “stands alone,” then so, too, does GONE CRAZY IN ALABAMA.
Earlier Nina mentioned that the characterization in THE HIRED GIRL was second only to GONE CRAZY IN ALABAMA, and while I would probably flip flop that order, THE HIRED GIRL is for a slightly older audience (and since we are admonished not to be seduced by those older books), I think these are virtually even. The family dynamic between the sisters has always been rich and complex, and adding their father and grandmother to the mix in the second book only upped the ante in that department, but here we have not only four different generations in a single family, but we have additional members of the extended family, too. While the previous books had great moments of humor, I find that the shenanigans of Ma Charles, Miss Trotter, and Big Ma raise the humor to another level. The setting is strong here, as always, but while there is the requisite historical subplot about the moon landing woven in, the family history (which incorporates European and American Indian ancestry) takes center stage. This particular combination of character, setting, humor, and theme is what elevates this one to serious contender status in my mind.
Some people complained that the tornado was a bit of a deus ex machina to bring the family together at the end, and while my plot-driven self wouldn’t have minded a bit of foreshadowing, that’s a minor quibble. While we’re on the subject of quibbles, however, I do have a question about the use of the word “Injun” twice (pages 93 and 102). There’s some some great information in the author’s note about the relationship between African Americans and American Indians and I do see some important differences between this book and, say, THE HIRED GIRL, but I question whether the child reader really understands from how Williams-Garcia has used this word that this is a pejorative term that ought not be used in common, everyday speech. I can’t imagine this one would get the Debbie Reese seal of approval either, but I’d welcome thoughts on this point.
This book would definitely be a nomination for me after my second reading, but I’m not sure it cracks my top three. However, I have not yet reread my top novels novels–ECHO and THE HIRED GIRL–in light on the criticisms and questions asked about them on previous posts. It could be that upon a second reading those books slide a bit, or I could be just as enthusiastic about them, but they could become lost causes (as are many excellent books under consideration; you simply can’t build consensus around every distinguished book). In that case, I can very much see GONE CRAZY IN ALABAMA on my ballot, especially if the hypothetical committee is not receptive to my top poetry (MY SENECA VILLAGE) and nonfiction (MOST DANGEROUS) choices. I agree with Nina that despite a high profile and good reviews, this one seems like a dark horse contender–and it really shouldn’t be!
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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