Archive for the ‘Helen Frost’ Category

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.


Frost, Helen.  The Braid.  New York: Frances Foster/Farrar, Straus, 2006.

The book consists of a series of “poems”–or, I guess, would-be poems, for I fail to see much in the way of what I would personally consider poetry in them.  The language isn’t terribly distinguished or even all that interesting in and for itself (i.e., as separate from what it describes–and it certainly doesn’t give me the sense that what it describes is worth hearing about because of the way the language captures it), and there’s no intensity of perception, no sense of something specifically caught and understood by means of a very specific choice of words.  It’s basically just the narratives of two girls alternating with each other) as they describe and respond to their experiences, in poems with lines so long that they almost fill the page as much as a block of prose would–and they have no obvious rhythmic patterning, etc., so it’s hard to understand how exactly it is they’re not prose.

That’s where the author’s “notes on form” become relevant.  she explains that “The last words of each line in one narrative poem are the first words in each line in the following narrative poem, sometimes in a slightly different form.” Meanwhile, between the narrative poems are what she calls “praise poems,” shorter ones that look more like conventional lyric poems of our time, (and I have to say, rather tiredly conventional ones in both imagery and sentiment) “each of which praises something named in the narrative poems,” and “The last line of one praise poem is braided into the first line of the next praise poem.” So there’s a lot of complex organizing going on here, and I suppose I ought to be thinking about Yeats saying,

A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

And I would, if I thought the end result worked.  But it doesn’t in fact seem a moment’s thought, but instead rather laboured–and weirdly, in the endnotes, calling attention to its organizational principles in a way that does for me make the stitching and unstitching naught.  It’s like a giant Lego model of a roller coaster, the kind you look at at wonder at all the effort that went into it and yet you can’t actually take a ride on it.  It’s just intricate organization for its own sake (although here it does claim a purpose, although for me not persuasively–more about that later).  In being fussily over-contrived, though, and once I’ve had my attention drawn to the contrivance, I find it distracts attention from whatever there is of a story.

The story is about a Scottish family in 1850, who emigrate to Cape Breton in Canada after being forced off their land.  But one sister can’t bear to leave and stays behind, and so we have the two separated and thinking across the miles of each other, connected only by the braid of their intertwined hair each has half of.   The text itself is clearly then an attempt to weave a similar braid, in that it makes connections between events in the lives of each of the sisters that the other knows nothing about.  It is, in other words, an artificial contrivance that is supposed to reveal a connection between the two sisters despite distance–a connection they don’t and can’t actually have anymore.  And the extent to which it remains a contrivance implies the extent to which the book tries but fails to be upbeat about the situation of these girls forever apart from each other.  Despite physical distance, despite all the evidence, they are still, the book insists, somehow connected with each other–because look how they share diction and metaphors! (Not that they themselves know about the metaphors, so it’s only readers who get this imagined happy ending.)  It’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy, then, imposed against logic on material that has to be clumsily manipulated to allow it.

As a set of alternating narratives, then, this book represents a common use of that form: a perception of connection between two quite separate and different stories that can emerge from a reader’s knowledge of both stories, knowledge that neither of the characters in the alternating narratives possesses.   It’s an ideal form for interweaving–or, I guess, “braiding,” two separate threads of plot in ways that make two stories into a third more complex story.

Here, however, we have a story of immigration in which a family is in fact forever divided and its two separate parts out of contact with each other.  Imagining a connection beyond that is just sentimental hope triumphing over bleak but inevitable reason–and ignoring one of the central truths of the immigrant experience across history, that when you leave you leave things you love behind, forever.  I guess it’s that sentimental insistence that love conquers all even when you’re never going to see the one you love again that I most dislike here–it makes light of the harsh facts of the lives of most immigrants, and the bravery of accepting actual separation.  There’s even a nigh-unto-impossible coincidence of the man the girl who stayed behind loves, forced to go across the Atlantic himself, running into the other sister and them being able to come back home again and thus being able to bring news in both directions.   What are the odds?

While Frost calls her longer pieces “narrative poems,” and while they do sort of tell the stories of these two sisters, the novel doesn’t actually feel like much of a narrative.  It certainly isn’t, as a whole, a narrative poem, because each of the pieces is built around a discreet emtoion-driven episode, so much so that the whole seems quite disjointed.  The focus is on small perceptions and insights, not on what happens next.  Despite efforts to join the episodes together by means of the line-braiding and all, each one remains distinct, and the connections exist more on a symbolic level than on any narrative one.   There’s little sense of a plot-driven thrust forward through the whole, and by and large, the alternating between narratives creates little in the way of suspense or, for me, interest.   It’s more like a series of moments captured but unconnected except by the organizational contrivances than like the moment-leading-to-moment that is the basic thrust of narrative.

There are many novels for young people with alternating narratives that allow for actual moves from isolation to connection, from distance to togetherness.  Among the ones I’ve read, in totally random order, are Jones’ The Merlin Conspiracy, Schwarz’s Initiation, McDonald’s Swallowing Stones, Creech’s The Wanderer, Oates’s Big Mouth and Ugly Girl, Bruchac’s The Arrow Over the Door, Swindell’s Abomination, Browne’s Hunted, Wilson’s Secrets,  Macdonald’s The Lake at the End of the World, Barnes’ Killing Aurora,  Metzenthen’s Boys of Blood and Bone,Fitch’s The Gravesavers, Heneghan’s Promises to Come, Katz’s False Face, Clark’s The Dream Carvers, Katz’s Out of the Dark, Hughes’s Log Jam, Hartinger’s Grand and Humble, Watts’ Flower, Doherty’s Dear Nobody, Chambers’s Postcards from No Man’s Land, Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy Van Draanen’s Flipped, Woodsons If You Come Softly Peterson and Ruckman’s rob& Cohn and Levithan’s Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Rapp’s 33 Snowfish, Huser’s Skinnybones and the Wrinkle Queen, Flinn’s Fade to Black, Baker’s Up Molasses Mountain,  Caswell’s Double Exposure, Mahy’s The Other Side of Silence, Katz’s The Third Magic , Brooks’s Mistik Lake, Flesichman’s Seedfolk, Flesichman’s Seek, Klause’s The Silver Kiss, Browne’s Warriors of Alavna, Ellis and Walters’s Bifocal, Ure’s Come Lucky April, Harrison’s Facing the Dark, Schmidt’s Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, Dyer’s Ms. Zephyr’s Notebook, Farmer’s Thicker than Water, Nilsson’s You & You & You, Katz’s Sun God, Moon Witch, Jones’s Deep Secret, Hughes’s The Maze, Juby’s Another Kind of Cowboy, Stone’s A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl, Draper’s Copper Sun.  This book is different from most if not all of these in that it purports to make that move without actually allowing the characters to make it.  The two threads or isolated characters don’t actually come to intertwine, they only do it symbolically.  They would be unlikely, of course to have made it back together again historically in the context of a story of immigration–which might be why more typical immigrant stories with alternating narratives alternate between characters who meet in the new land.  But it’s the wish-fulfilment aspect of the implied symbolic connection of people sundered by history that’s most noteworthy, and to me, most unconvincing, here.