By Jean Schroeder, The IDEA School, Tucson, AZ, and Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH
Jean Schroeder and Holly Johnson discuss four historical fiction novels that are relevant to current issues this month. They revisit two novels that are considered classic novels while also introducing a couple of newer books.
HOLLY: This book grabbed me from the beginning. Just like that. Partly it was the voice within this book. Astounding! And partly it was the two protagonists. What resilient, stand-up characters are found in Meryl Lee and Matt. Perfect models of passion and strength, residing alongside fear, loneliness, disconnection, and pain. And then, partly, it was the humor! Thank goodness for the humor. Such a powerful story of Meryl Lee Kowalski, a young girl who is sent off to boarding school after the death of her best friend. I am not giving much away, readers know this from chapter one. What she doesn’t know is that she was sent to St. Elene’s for reasons beyond adjusting to the death of her friend. Meryl Lee faces a world so unlike the one she has left. As she attempts to adjust to her new life at the school, she also encounters Matt Coffin, a lonely boy attempting to navigate a life totally on his own for reasons he will not divulge. I absolutely loved this read, and was really, really sad to leave it. If you liked The Wednesday Wars, you will love this story.
There is so much to talk about in respect to the characters and their individual stories that come together in this novel. What did you think Jean?
JEAN: Totally agree! I stayed up till 4:00 A.M. in order to finish it. I just couldn’t stop reading. I found myself laughing out loud and relating to so much, though I thought a few things were a little far-fetched. I was describing the book to a friend and mentioned our historic focus. I was in high school in the 60s when this book is set so I wondered if it qualified as historical, and my friend pointed out that the 60s are actually history at this point! I fell in love with the characters as well. One of the things I found present in almost all of them was pretending. Even the minor characters seemed to be pretending about something making the reader puzzle it out. Lots of secrets. Perhaps because it is written from Meryl Lee’s perspective, I felt she was the most honest with the reader and most of the characters, yet she chose among the other characters who would get the true rendition. Matt on the other hand was slow to reveal anything even to the reader.
I loved that it took me back to my favorite place to skip rocks. I loved the visual descriptions. It was so easy to see the green duvet and the Maine coast. I loved that the policeman in a hurry got stuck behind the elderly driver…how many times has that happened to all of us?! I also think this story stays with you. I find myself thinking about the characters as I am driving down the road or washing dishes.
HOLLY: The characters have stayed with me as well. I really, really liked how the adults in the story showed up and facilitated Matt’s and Meryl Lee’s growth as friends and as advocates for others. Mrs. MacKnockater (what a name) was one of the heroes of this story, as was Capt. Hurd. They were stand-up characters that were PRESENT, unlike a lot of stories for adolescents in which the adults take a back seat to the adolescent characters’ strive for independence. I have to wonder about that assumption, honestly. While there were elements that seemed a bit far-fetched, the story came together and those elements that might have seemed a bit unbelievable, didn’t seem so out there after-all. I mean, when I consider Matt’s story and I am not going to give anything away—I will let Matt do that himself, in his own good time—I recognized that elements of his plight, and what could lead to that, still occur. Ultimately, the story took me to a place and time that wasn’t easier than today (so no nostalgia for me), but rather to a time when people had to look each other in the face and come to know them up close and personal. That can sometimes make all the difference. It’s hard to look away when you have another human being needing you—even when they won’t say it out loud.
JEAN: Only a little far-fetched! And from what you are saying, I think we have different ideas about what those things are. Like you I do not want to spill the beans. (We need to talk!) Getting to know each other face to face is an interesting call—there are no cell phones in this book. Rumors and gossip are spread by word of mouth instead of going viral. The impact of cell phones is huge. There is so much more room for misinterpretation and less forgiveness.
Like you I loved the adult characters. They were strong and they were everywhere, but still stayed out of the way. The only adults that were not present were the parents. I did like the way the adults’ secrets were revealed and how they had influenced the decisions they made in their lives. All in all, however, this book is a delight. A fun read with plenty of conflict and issues to ponder.
Title: Just Like That
Author: Gary D. Schmidt
Publisher: Clarion Books
PubDate: January 25, 2021
Throughout September 2021, Jean Schroeder and Holly Johnson discuss four historical fiction novels that are relevant to today’s issues. Check back each Wednesday to follow the conversation!