Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Come a Stranger and A Solitary Blue by Cynthia Voigt

Come a Stranger and A Solitary Blue by Cynthia Voigt are companions to Homecoming and Dicey's Song, which I read last month. They focus on secondary characters from those first two books, and can be read as standalone works, though I feel they work best when the reader has the background story of the Tillermans in mind.

In Come a Stranger, we meet Wilhemina Smiths, a spirited young girl -- or, as some people might say, T-rou-ble. It's the end of fifth grade, and Mina has just gotten a scholarship to ballet camp up in New England. Dance is all Mina wants to do, and she's good at it, too -- never mind that all of her ballet lessons have been in a makeshift garage studio in little Crisfield, Maryland. That first summer at camp is everything Mina dreamed it would be . . . even though she can't help but notice that she is the only dancer of color at the camp. She spends the next year waiting for camp to roll around again -- but when it does, she finds that nothing ever stays exactly the same. Her own body has changed, and dancing is no longer effortless for her. One of her three best dance camp friends elected not to return, leaving Mina the odd girl out, alone in a single dorm room. Certain comments and situations rub her the wrong way -- is that new, or did she just not notice them the summer before? And when the camp director calls her in to tell her that it just isn't working out, Mina quietly acquiesces. Since when has Mina Smiths, T-rou-ble, ever quietly acquiesced to anything? In thinking over the events of that summer, Mina must learn how to stand up for herself again, learn what it means to be a minority and how to keep herself from being shamed and silenced. And she's about to meet Tamer Shipp, a man who learned that lesson a long time ago . . .

In A Solitary Blue, we meet Jeff Greene, who is just a little boy when his mother leaves. Melody, Jeff's mother, is going off to fight for the rights of animals and orphans and the environment, to make the world a better place. Jeff is left alone with his father, a man he thinks of as The Professor, who doesn't know the first thing about raising a son. Jeff is convinced that he must do everything he can to keep the household running smoothly in order not to lose the only parent he has left -- and, for a few years, he does. Then, one summer, Melody sends word that she wants Jeff to come visit her. She is living with her grandmother in a big old house in Charleston, South Carolina. That summer, Jeff and Melody explore the city together. Melody is learning to play the guitar, and she teaches Jeff what she knows. Gambo, the family matriarch, tells Jeff stories of the family's glory days. Jeff's world, already turned upside down by his mother's abandonment years ago, seems to have righted itself. And even though Melody changes Jeff's plane ticket for a bus ticket, pockets the difference, and then sends him home to Baltimore without any money for food on the trip, Jeff is entirely devoted to Melody. What does it matter if she never answers his letters? He will write to her once a week -- it will be his way of exercising chivalry. Jeff is determined to be Melody's white knight. He saves up money to buy a secondhand guitar and practices in order to be able to play for her. And the following summer he goes back to Charleston, dreaming of another idyllic summer. But when Melody and her boyfriend meet Jeff at the airport, it's clear that the summer will not be shaping up to Jeff's dreams. Melody has found a knight, and it's not Jeff. Her boyfriend whisks her out of town for a week, and then for another week. In the meantime, Jeff is stuck in the house with two batty great-aunts and Gambo, who has suffered a stroke and now treats Jeff as an inconvenience rather than a guest of honor. To get out of the house, Jeff travels to the outskirts of town. He buys a rowboat and does some waterfront exploring, discovering an island inhabited by only the local wildlife -- most notably, a single, ungainly blue heron. When Melody returns, only to tell Jeff that she is going away again the following day, it is as if she has abandoned him once again. Jeff returns to Baltimore in despair. Mired in depression, he lets his grades slide and starts skipping school -- and eventually, even The Professor is bound to notice something. What Jeff may have forgotten, though, is that if there's one person in the world who can understand the effects of Melody's abandonment, that person would be his father.

These two books have a lot of similarities in structure -- a great summer experience, followed by a disappointing summer experience, and well-written characters who must grow and change in response to those summer experiences. Believe it or not, despite reading both of these books multiple times, only with this reading did I notice the similarity of structure between the two! Part of the reason for this, I think, is because I've never spent a lot of time analyzing the books in a literary sense. Both books also have the ability to pull me into their world, to make me fully empathize with the main characters. For instance, Melody is one of the most loathsome parents in juvenile/young adult literature, but though the reader can see how she is manipulating Jeff all along, the reader can also understand why Jeff is so entirely devoted to her -- and I think it's a testament to the power and skill of Voigt's writing that she is able to walk that fine line.

In short, these are two old favorites, and this is neither the first time nor the last that I will be rereading them.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copies.)

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