Depictions of Strong Women in Children’s and Adolescent Literature
Marilyn Carpenter and Holly Johnson
Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan
Marilyn: Pam Munoz Ryan describes her book as “gigantic.” I agree, it is: 587 pages with a focus on major issues concerning three characters; covering the time period before World II in Nazi Germany, 1933; moving across the ocean to Pennsylvania in 1935 during the Great Depression, where two brothers struggle to stay together in an orphanage; then on to California in 1942 where a family of Mexican-American migrant workers is hired to take care of the farm of a Japanese-American family who is interned in the War. Finally, the last section brings the three characters together for the first time in 1951, with a concert in New York City.
Ryan skillfully integrated the stories of these characters through tracing the journey of one magical harmonica that moves through the lives of each. The harmonica has special powers that positively changes the life of each character. Each child has musical talents and is blessed by receiving the harmonica. Each one learns to play it quickly and as they do they enjoy a feeling of euphoric well-being. Friedrich, the German boy has a disfiguring facial birthmark, when he first plays the harmonica “the air around him seemed to pulse with energy. He felt protected by the cloak of the music, as if nothing could stand in his way.” Friedrich discovers that the harmonica gives him courage to battle against the horrors of the Hitler years.
The largeness of the themes in each story also makes the book “gigantic.” The terrible years of before the War and during it challenge the characters. But, each of them overcome these challenges with courage and integrity. The harmonica plays a role in giving them that courage and also hope as well as providing beauty and comfort in their lives. For example, Mike, one of the orphan brothers, takes comfort in learning to play the blues on the harmonica. “Every time he played, he felt buoyed, lifted up, and full of possibility, as if he were riding on the shoulders of some unknown power. He could sense something optimistic in his heart, making his music shine from the inside out.”
There is so much more to say about this book, Holly. But, before I do, I would enjoy reading your thoughts about it.
Holly: I agree, Marilyn, there is a lot to say, but I am going to start with my initial reaction. The book is beautifully written, yet I remember when I started reading I was a bit mystified and concerned. I started reading, and the framing about the three sisters in the woods with Otto, a young boy asked to help them, had me wondering how I would easily get through the entire “gigantic” book built around such characters. But the writing hooked me. Of course, I became intrigued because of the prophecy introduced in the framing, and was quite concerned when Part I introduced Friedrich and Otto and the three sisters were gone. Only the harmonica remained! I then became absorbed in Friedrich’s story and the end of Part I was shocking because Part II takes us to a different place and time. But, again the harmonica! The harmonica is consistent. With each part becoming a cliff-hanger, I know this is when as a reader, I had to trust the author to not leave me in a state of disequilibrium, which is highly possible because of how each of the three parts end, but Muñoz Ryan does such an amazing job of bringing the stories together and then, the prophecy is fulfilled!
I absolutely loved reading each part of this book, loved the characterization, and loved the way Muñoz Ryan was able to weave the strands of this story together for a remarkable and so, so satisfying ending. I have read and liked all of her books, but have to say Echo is the virtuoso! It is absolutely wonderful. The craft of her storytelling has never been better. What do you think, Marilyn?
Marilyn: I am glad you mentioned the frame of the book that serves as a prologue and an epilogue. The first part is about Otto who is lost in the woods, “fifty years before the war to end all wars…” In the woods, Otto meets the three sisters who play the harmonica for him. This is the harmonica whose journey we follow throughout the book. As each sister plays the harmonica it appears to take on magical powers. One sister tells Otto that when he plays the harmonica he “will be forever joined to us, to all who played the harp, and to all who will play it, by the silken thread of destiny” Another sister says that by playing the mouth harp Otto will have “… the fortitude to carry on.” Finally, at the end of the whole book we meet Otto and the sisters again. This framing of the book to me is its weakest part. The sisters are under a witch’s spell and the only way they can be freed is to have the curse lifted. When Otto reaches home, he tells the story of his encounter with the sisters, but people tire of it and his parents tell him to not tell it anymore. Otto puts the harmonica away and only takes it out and plays it when he is afraid. Not until the epilogue do we discover that finally Otto passed on the harmonica much later in his life when he needed to use it to make a better life for himself. Thus he started the chain of events that led to each character in the book receiving the harmonica. It is not until the 1943, that the harmonica fulfills its destiny and the three sisters are released from the witch’s spell. All that time the sisters are in limbo. I understand that the story of the sisters is a fairy tale. Actually, their story is in a small book that Otto purchases from a Gypsy along with the harmonica. Only, the story is not finished until the lifting of the witch’s spell and the end of the book. If this all sounds complicated – it is. However, my reason for critiquing it is that Otto’s failure to fulfill his promise to the sisters is unlike the bravery, integrity and perseverance demonstrated by the other main characters in the book. I kept wondering when Ryan would get back to the story of Otto and how his story would end. It was not a satisfying ending unlike the stories of the three main characters whose stories are wrapped up in the concert in the fourth section of the book.
What do you think, Holly????
Holly: I was not so dissatisfied, Marilyn. In fairy tales, I think there is often a long, long time that passes before the resolution. Now I am wondering about that. Is it because it takes generations for change to occur? Or is it because for children, sometimes even a day seems like a long time? Or, is it the flip side? It is a long time in our world, but in the world of fairy tales, time is of little essence? Fun ideas to consider with young people!
I can see, however, where the delay would cause anxiety, but then, each story part left me a bit anxious because of the abrupt endings. I was invested in the stories and then felt that, “Oh no! What happened to the characters?” Of course, we are fortunate to get a resolution to these stories, as often, especially under the circumstances Ryan uses as context for her stories, there were no resolutions. So many people within these settings did not get happily ever after sort of endings. I loved the book, was drawn into each of the stories, and am so glad I read it. It has staying power. What’s our next read, Marilyn?
The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler by Nancy Marie Brown
Marilyn Carpenter: I was glad I read the Author Note prior to beginning the novel. In her Author Notes the author, Brown, relates that her story of Gudrid is based on medieval Icelandi sagas about Vikings adventures in Vinland and on recent archaeological findings in Greenland, Iceland and in Newfoundland. It made the book even more thrilling to learn that the story may have actually happened. Brown gives the character of Gudrid, intelligence, beauty and grit. The story takes place in the years starting in 1000. It follows Gudrid’s journeys from Iceland to Greenland and then to Vinland.
I came away from the story so impressed with the people of that time. Brown shows the reader what an ingenious people the Vikings were. When Gudrid and her husband sail with three ships with their crews to Vinland they take enough provisions, tools and animals to create shelters in order to survive the winter. Because they don’t know what they would find, they have to be prepared for anything and they are. Gudrid even takes goods that she might share or trade with any people they might meet.
We had a trip to Norway this last spring. There we visited a museum with three Viking ships and the artifacts that were found with them. It was fun when reading this novel to picture those items. This book is historical fiction at its best. I think young people will thrill as I did in reading about Gudrid’s adventures. Brown is skillful in creating Gudrid’s world even down to the jewelry she prized. The other characters are also skillfully drawn and demonstrate how the Vikings were able to undertake such amazing adventures. What do you think Holly? Were you able to visualize Gudrid’s world?
Holly: Wow! It’s interesting that you asked about being able to visualize Gudrid’s world, Marilyn. I went to Iceland in February—a snowy, blue and grey world, but filled with incredible beauty and wonderfully resourceful people. It’s fun to capture both the ancient and the present—the ancient through this compelling text and the present through travels where I am able to meet the offspring of the Vikings. It might also help that I am half Norwegian and that my grandmother immigrated to the USA in 1922 in steerage. Thus, perhaps I have a built-in interest to this amazing story!
Of course, while I can imagine the world to which they traveled in the book, I can only mildly imagine the passage across the northern Pacific. What a hardy people is all I can say! This book reminds me a bit of what it must have been like to do Thor Heyerdahl’s adventure on the KonTiki, but a lot colder! Besides the adventure aspect, what else did you notice, like, wonder about, or disturbed by in this book?
Marilyn: I wondered about the Native people Gudrid met in Vineland. What tribe were they? I remembered accounts of encounters between Native people and Europeans and how the Native people died of diseases they caught from the Europeans. Did that happen to the people that Gudrid met in Vineland? I imagined what might have happened if Gudrid and her people had returned to Vineland. The book ends with Gudrid and her people leaving Vineland to go to Norway and back to Iceland. They have “quite a story to tell the king” (of Norway.) That made me wonder if there was anything about Gudrid’s story in the historical record of Norway. I enjoyed reading about Gudrid, so much. As I reread parts of the book today I found myself wishing for a sequel.
Holly: I love how fiction can inspire us to find out more about history! What is the rest of the story? We know the Vikings eventually made it to North America, but were there groups who ventured from Iceland and then returned? Did some groups remain in Greenland or make it to Canada? I think what is of most interest to me is the role of women in these ventures. History books and television shows don’t give readers/viewers much of a picture of women who were part of a roaming people. If The Saga of Gudrid (which now has me thinking of Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel and how that series revolved around one woman) is an indication of how Viking women lived, then our thinking of how women behaved and lived in other times needs to be questioned! Speaking of women and their strengths, we are going to be talking about Dance of the Banished by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch next week. That’s another great story with a strong female character.
Dance of the Banished by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Holy: Upon reading this book, I was just shaking my head and wondering what else has been hidden in history. I thought this was a wonderful story about the Anatolia region of what is now Turkey, and the Anatolians who were targeted because the Turks thought they were Christian Armenians. Readers will learn how Christian Armenians lost their homes and often their lives while the Anatolians attempted to help save their neighbors from Turkish Revolutionary Forces. The two protagonists, Ali and his fiancé Zeynep, seem to really reflect the plight of the Anatolians and the Armenians as Turkey entered World War I. Ali’s luck in being selected to work in Canada just before the conflict exploded separated the two young people, but didn’t stop the negative treatment Ali received in Canada (which was based on a true event during that time period) nor the horrors Zeynep witnessed in respect to the Armenians. Ultimately a precarious love story within the larger destructive forces of WWI, this book would still be of interest to anyone who likes history—especially WWI—and the resilience of those directly caught up and affected by world-wide conflict.
This book really made me think about how small the world is, how so many groups have been targeted for destruction and how little many of us may know about such movements in the world. What did you think, Marilyn?
Marilyn: Reading Dance of the Banished evoked many connections in my mind to other books I have read. First, I kept remembering another book that chronicles the Armenian Holocaust. That book is The Road from Home by David Kheridan. It was the only Newbery Honor Book for 1980. These two books would be an excellent pairing in the classroom. Kheridan’s account of his own mother’s survival of that Holocaust bravely describes the horrors of that time. Dance of the Banished gives the reader another perspective of that period by showing how the Alevi Anatolians helped to save some of their Armenian neighbors. When Zeynep inquires about why the Armenians were targeted by the Turkish government she is told, “They want everyone in Turkey to have one religion and nationality.” That view would provide greater understanding to the readers of The Road from Home. The great thing about this story is how courageous Zeynep was in disregarding the government edicts about her Armenian neighbors in the way she helped save their lives. Relating that part of what happened might provide hope to the readers of The Road from Home.
A second connection I made in reading Dance of the Banished was with the book, Farewell to Manzanar by James Houston. In Dance, Ali was sent to an internment camp in Canada. The Author’s Note describes the true incident that inspired that part of the story. That reminded me of how Japanese Americans were interned during World War II. Farewell to Manzanar tells the story of one family that was interned in California. There were many similarities between the treatment of the Japanese Americans and how Ali and his friends were treated in Canada. The Author’s Note in Dance describes how 100 “enemy aliens” were rounded up and ultimately send to an internment camp in Ontario.
Finally, I had no knowledge about the Alevi people, their religion or Anatolia. Dance provided many interesting details about all three. The Author’s Note describes the Alevi people as Kurdish. The present war in Syria involves many courageous Kurdish soldiers fighting the Assad government and ISIS. The details about the Kurds in Dance provides excellent background knowledge about their history.
Holly, did you make any connections in reading Dance of the Banished?
Holly: I did make connections, Marilyn—to life, to books, and to movies. Recently, a movie entitled, “The Water Diviner” was about a man’s search for his sons who were killed in Turkey during the time period. There was also the movie, “Gallipoli,” about a terrible WWI battle in Turkey at the same time. I think the movies gave me a sense of what Zeynep was experiencing as they gave me a geographical and political picture of her world. As far as current politics, I have spent the last five years working with Kurds in Iraq and that gave me a real sense of connection to the Alevi, as the Kurds–many of whom share religious connections to both Arabs and Turks–are still a separate people, just as Dance portrayed.
The book connections I made included the Rachel trilogy by Shelly Sanders. Three books during the Russian pogroms, the books follow both Sergei and Rachel as they part ways. Sergei goes to St. Petersburg to find work, but Rachel, who is Jewish, leaves with her mother and siblings as the riots against Jews becomes more intense. Rachel hopes that one day Sergei will follow as her family travels across Russia to Shanghai and eventually the USA.
I think other than these connections, I also was inspired, like you, about Zeynep’s devotion to her neighbors and her own values. She left her village after Ali left for Canada because she wanted more for her life and she went after it. Such a strong protagonist! Wouldn’t you agree, Marilyn?
The Good Braider by Terry Farish
Holly: When we chose these books, Marilyn, I had no idea that we would be reading about so many strong women! The Good Braider is such a wonderful book to end with this month. Told through short poetic verses that replicate speech, this is the story of Viola who grows up in Sudan, but as the violence escalates—including the disappearance of her beloved father—Viola’s family knows they must escape to the USA, where her uncle lives in Maine. The harrowing experiences Viola goes through as well as the cross-cultural transitions she must negotiate, have a lot in common with some of the other books we read this month. For instance, like Zeynep, Viola leaves her homeland to venture to North America. Zeynep goes to Canada to be with Ali, while Viola goes to Portland, where she and her mother must learn how to blend the cultures of the past and the present. Also, there is a connection to Gudrid, as all three women must make the long journeys to other places in the world with little knowledge of what they may find.
Historically, Viola’s story is in the present, while Zeynep’s was in the early 20th century, and Gudrid’s was far in the past. Yet, all have similar stories to tell, which takes me back to a point I made in our discussion about The Saga of Gudrid two weeks ago. If the history of women has a continuous line of strong women, where did we get the idea that women were weak? And do we still think this is true? What are you thinking about The Good Braider, Marilyn?
Marilyn: Your question: “If the history of women has a continuous line of strong women, where did we get the idea that women were weak?” Made me consider the stories I read when I was young. Those stories in the press, in fiction and nonfiction seemed to always feature strong men. I have been so impressed with the Williams sisters and their amazing strength not only athletic but also how they have met prejudice and inaccuracies in the press. I’ve wondered if accounts like that were available when I was a teen if I would have been more serious about tennis, sports or tilting against the male dominance in my world. Our quartet of books and other contemporary books that feature strong women may fill the gap for young girls that was missing when I was a teen.
One of the things that stood out to me about Viola’s story is how it illustrates the strength, not only women, but also of immigrants who leave everything behind to start life in a new culture and place. In Viola’s case the adjustment to the new region and culture took amazing fortitude. It was so great that in America she got to go to school. Of course, all she overcame in the Sudan also illustrates her courage. I wonder if the rape that she experienced in the Sudan would limit sharing this book in the classroom. I am concerned about the current craze to tell students that the books, accounts, films that they are going to see or read might be disturbing. Isn’t that one of the reasons to read – to be disturbed? To discover the difficulties that others experience to enlighten us about how people endure. Right now I am reading a very disturbing book, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. It is not a pleasant books to read because it is an account of how Stevenson, a lawyer, works with death row inmates in Alabama. However, it is an important and inspiring book to read. Stevenson is doing heroic work in providing hope and mercy to men that are considered the most evil in our society. Many of the men he is working for have not received the justice they deserve.
I have strayed from our book, however I believe it is one that I would promote with my students, especially in my World Literature class because it is disturbing and will inspire readers to discover more about the immigrant experience. Viola’s story is unfortunately one that is being played out in current headlines of people fleeing from war in so many countries. Reading Viola’s story should provide understanding of what is ahead for those refugees. I will be eager to hear what you think, Holly.
Holly: I am also concerned about the way we are attempting to limit young adults’ exposure to the world. Viola’s rape was nuanced in the novel, so may be treated like the novel Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Terrible things happen to many people and if we don’t serve as witnesses to the horror they experience we render it invisible. We just cannot do this! It would be further violation.
Viola’s resilience as an immigrant is compelling. Imagine leaving your home and going to a place where you don’t speak the language, don’t share the social customs, and then have to learn to fit in? It’s one thing to visit a place, but to live—perhaps forever—means foraging ahead with little chance to look behind. What I loved about this book is the possibility of holding on to what is important—the chances to look back and remember, as Viola’s past created who she was and to forget that would be to render her life in the Sudan as invisible. There are those who can move forward without looking back, but if we don’t languish in the past, the memories can provide comfort in many ways. So, in response to your question about refugees, I think this would make a great book to create greater sensitivity to the plight of those who do not have the opportunity to go home. Viola cannot go home—at least in her present—and that is the case with many refugees. They may, however, at a better time in history, have that opportunity.
Marilyn: I will close our discussion by suggesting two books that explore many of the same themes we read about in The Good Braider. The first is The Red Pencil by Andrea Pinkney. The second is A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park. All of these books are about the terrible experiences that have caused so many to leave Sudan. The three would make a fascinating textset that will not only be good reading but give students insights into contemporary experiences of young people in countries that are caught up in terrible conflicts.