Helen Frost’s Keesha’s House

Posted: May 16, 2009 in alternating narratives, children's and young adult literature, Helen Frost, more than four narratives, verse

Frost, Helen.  Keesha’s House.  2003.  New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2007.

There are no characters in this novel (by the Helen Frost who wrote The Braid, discussed here in a previous entry) and in fact, really, no plot.  It consists of a series of poems in traditional forms, mostly sestinas and some sonnets, each presenting a statement in the present tense by one of seven young people, each in the same order in a series of different sections with different titles and, in two separate sections, similar present tense statements by various of the adults involved in the lives of these young people.  I’m calling these “statements” because it’s hard to come up with the words to accurately describe what they’re trying to be.  They seem at first glance like attempts to capture the characters’ thought processes–but they are far too objective in their descriptions of what purport to be intense moments of confusion or emotion to have the feeling of thought, far too much ability to summarize succinctly what their emotions mean:

What it meant to Dad
was that he didn’t know me.  I turned into someone
he’s hated all his life.

I suppose I could put that intense knowingness and awareness and linguistic capability down to the fact that this is appearing in what claims to be a poem.  But if so, then making these statements “poetic” in that way and in the first person at the same time seems an error.  The characters are meant to be young, inexperienced, and having trouble sorting out who they are and what to do with their lives; and at the very same time, they’re sounding very assured, very adult, and very much like a middle-aged counseller might perceive them and talk about them from a position outside their own heads.

And perhaps partly for that reason, they are quite unconvincing-without character.  they come across as stereotypes of teenager angst, the characters having no feelings or habits or hobbies separate from the ones attached to the one large problem each of them has.  Each represents one common form of teenage trouble:  being pregnant, having a pregnant girlfriend, having abusive parents or stepparents; drinking; being gay.   Indeed, all have exactly the same problem, for the initial problem in each case translates into ways in which all these young people have been failed by the adults in their lives, who abuse them, or who won’t understand or sympathize with their situations; and as a result, all feel unsafe or uncomfortable in what claims to be their home, and all therefore leave home.

The central plot device is about how a man, himself dispossessed when young, has inherited a house that he then allows young people to stay in without questions or supervision; he just allows them to be there.  Having been failed by adults and the mainstream societal values they represent, these seven teens find a better, more loving, safer home with each other.  The book then hopes to operate as teen wish-fulfilment fantasy, taking it for granted that most adults, especially those in parental roles, are vicious, self-seking, thoughtless monsters; the only good adults here are not parents but empathetic councillors and therapists or someone hwo just lets teens be on their own.  And yet, at the same time, those counsellors and such takes for granted a whole bunch of quite conventional contemporary ideologies about how to be a better and saner person that emerge straight from the mainstream of pop psychology healing.   The novel then reads as a sort of mindless celebration of the wonders of being yourself and loving yourself and such–a celebration of egocentricity and self-concern masquerading as healing.

It also comes across as a clear statement of a sort of smug and theoretically liberal guilt, which pats itself on the back for being so caring and understanding and empathetic abut these poor lost souls whom most adults don’t get and actually damage.  Aren’t we adults (all except me, the author of the ever so empathetic poems seems to imply) all so tough on poor besieged teenagers? And aren’t I so sensitive and caring for noticing it and caring about it and taking their side?

Can you tell I don’t like it?

But my dislike for the shallow values and one-sided situations and pseudo-liberal values presented here matters, in this context, because it does perhaps throw light on what’s wrong with how alternating narratives come into play here.  The character keep insisting on how nobody understands them and their individual personalities and needs, and meanwhile, the poems that express these thoughts all sound exactly like each other, as if all in the same voice.  For all the theoretical interests in individuals, the writing offers no sense of individuality–everyone is exactly the same victim, and thinks about his or her victimhood in exactly the same way–as, i suppose, a not very perceptive adult would assume “teenagers” think.   It is, then, a book, about “teenagers,” not a book about actual people.  The claim to be in different voices merely confirms an erasure of difference, an imposition of mindless stereotyping on the world of the young.  The alternations are only superfically alternative to each other.

Also eraing difference is the weird use of these traditional poetic forms.   There is no apparent reason for their use.  They add nothing to what the characters say except the sense of a similar rhythm and character in their supposedly different speech patterns.   I have no ideas why the verse is here, and neither the text nor the author’s note at the back about the forms suggests one.  It just ends up seeming like a way of showing off by the author: look how clever I am, I managed to express regular-sounding sentences in the form of complex verse patterns so well you hardly even notice the verse patterns.  Indeed, I suspect that most readers, young or old, are unlikely to pay much attention to them, except as an odd intrusion of repetitiousness into the ongoing character revelations, etc.   There certainly isn’t any sense that these theoretical complexities of language might repay further attention, make each of or any of the individual poems more revealing with as closer look ast them.

What they do, mostly is justify the fact that the book is very short, and therefore easy to absorb.  Yet once more, apparently sophisticated techniques of storytelling are turned, in as text for young people into ways of maintaining simplicity and lack of sophistication.  That the sections of this book are poems makes it not just shorter but simpler than a connected narrative might well be–and much less likely to be truly emotionally effective.  Nothing actually happens, since the characters are always caught in moments of reflection after the fact, after what happened happened.  The action occurs between the poems, not in them, and instead of happening, it’s always being explained and therefore its potential for danger or excitement explained away.   We’re meant to focus on the therapeutic value of coming to terms with events rather than on the interest of the events themselves.   The book is, then, because of its separate alternating sections, deliberately distancing and uninvolving in order to be deliberately and singlemindedly therapeutic–and very simple in its thematic content as well as its depictions of characters and situations.

I don;t suppose I need to add that, exactly as expected in this ever so conventional and stereotyped world,  the characters do what characters in a multi-focalized young adult novel almost always do:  they move from isolation into connection with each other, in a new community based on their shared bad situations and away from the oppressive power of the inevitably bad parents in their lives.   For all its focus on adults things like having babies and sexuality and murder, its a very childish book, creating a children’s-lit kind of wish-fulfilment utopia for its characters by the end, in a way that I suspect seriously misrepresents the potential for universal happy endings in the lives of actual young people with this sort of problems, the possibility of this kind of therapeutic thinking working a hundred percent of the time, the the possibility of young people like this being able to live together unsupervised in harmony.

As my Bubba Esther would have said, “Feh.”  What particularly saddens me is that a book like this represents what most adult experts imagine YA literature should be well enough to have named as Printz honour book–one of the most prize-deserving YA novels of its year.  It certainly does represent that weird amalgam of pseudo-literary pretension, clichéd characters and situations, and pop psychology that way too much literature identified as being “for young adults” all too often is.

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Comments
  1. rebecca says:

    I don’t comment often because I haven’t read most of the books you’re posting about, but I just want to let you know that I really enjoy this blog. I always feel my brain being stretched by your critical writing, Perry, even when I don’t know from the source texts. Cheers!

  2. pernodel says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Rebecca. I decided to keep my notes for this project as a blog mostly so that the sense of an actual audience would keep me writing in full sentences that I could hope to understand later on–unlike my usual messy scrawlings. Now I just tend to assume that perceptive readers like you are out there, and it’s immensely helpful in letting me guess about how to go aobut communicating an idea.

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