Rose Lee Carter and the Historical Fiction Advantage
Historical fiction has done well over the years in terms of Newbery recognition. In the past ten years, about 43% of the Medal and Honor books fit the category (18 of 42 if you count “When You Reach Me” and “Splendors and Glooms”), and all but one year included at least one historical fiction title. Those eighteen represent a wide variety of styles and content, so it’s not like they’re all the same kind of book. At all. But there is something about historical fiction and the Newbery. Maybe it has a built-in advantage when you look at the list of elements to consider from the Terms and Criteria: Theme, Information, Plot, Characters, Setting, and Style.
I’m thinking especially of Information and Setting. It just seems like historical fiction authors often have to put more visible work into those components than they might with a novel set in current times. For example, comparing “Midnight without a Moon” (set in 1935 Mississippi) to “Well That Was Awkward” (modern, New York setting), the techniques that Linda Williams Jackson uses to convey time and place, as well as accurate information, seem more crucial to the success of her novel. I’m not saying that her book is more distinguished….just that those Setting and Accuracy elements are more prominent, in ways that might be more likely to push some key Newbery buttons.
The Criteria make it clear, though, that having more Setting and Accuracy to chew on should not necessarily give a historical fiction book an advantage: “Because the literary qualities to be considered will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements. The book should, however, have distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it.” Still…doesn’t 43% seem high?
Of the historical fiction I’ve read so far this year, “Midnight without a Moon” stands out. I particularly admired the strong first person narration. I never felt like Rose Lee was just a representative of her time, put there to tell us what it’s like; it’s her particular world, her direct experiences that stay at the forefront. The early scene in which she’s chased, taunted, and spat upon by Ricky, who “just liked to give colored folks a good scare so we’d remember our place” (p. 7) is a scary example of the conditions faced by Rose Lee and her family. She’s angry, but also resigned: “nothing was bruised but my pride, and I was already used to folks beating away at that” (10). And she’s mostly worried that Ma Pearl will be mad that she broke the eggs. Readers see the injustice of Rose Lee’s world, but also get to know something about her as a person: her complaints (she’s got a lot of them), her dreams, and her thoughts.
The use of dialect is effective and purposeful. Ma Pearl’s words may be challenging for some young readers, but her meaning comes through with context. We might not know what “fune’” means when Ma Pearl says, “You jest left a fune’, not a dirn wedding” (73), but it makes sense within the sentence and as part of the funeral scene. Monty, by contrast, speaks formally, with “indeeds” and “corrects” (116). Rose Lee’s language is in between, peppered with colorful expressions: “The sun beat down like I owed it money from six years back” (34). The distinct voices establish personalities and help us keep track of a rather large cast of characters.
Rose Lee’s narration is self-centered, but she’s observant and thoughtful and her awareness increases over the course of the story. When she learns about Emmett Till’s death she imagines what it would be like to be “weighted down with a seventy-pound cotton-gin fan,” (186) and considers the weight of a sack of cotton that which she knows so well. She wrestles with subtle distinctions between right and wrong, as when she wonders if Papa, whom she respects, would have let Emmett Till’s abductors take her brother (151).
Rose Lee’s character arc is really the heart of the book, and I found it engaging and convincing. In the beginning, she wants to leave Mississippi for a kind of vague “better life up north” (130). But as she learns more about the world, her reasons shift. “I wanted to leave before I was old enough to face the life-and-death decision of whether to stand up for my rights…” (131). Later, she’s more direct: “Things had to change or I had to leave. Someday” (221). And finally she makes the decision, on the last page, to stay. It’s really a powerful moment, one that I think will surprise some (but not all) readers. It’s an inspiring ending for a book that’s filled with so many upsetting events. The theme is encapsulated in those final sentences: “…a change was coming. And I, Rosa Lee Carter [significantly using her true name for the first time] would be right there to be a part of it” (308).
Is this a possible worthy addition to the long list of Newbery historical fiction? I think it might be. I was also impressed with “The Pearl Thief” and “It All Comes Down to This.” Any others from the genre we should be thinking about?
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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