Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Authenticity Debate


"I'm not really sure which parts of myself are real and which parts are things I've gotten from books." Go Ask Alice, Anonymous

The afternoon I decided to read Go Ask Alice, I had just gotten off the phone with my dad in which we tried to remember the words to “White Rabbit” and could only come up with “go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall…” That song is creepy enough. And, even as an adult, the novel left me unsettled. So much in fact that I discussed it in length and had my family and colleagues begging me to read something else, anything else.

The novel begins as most addiction lit does: an innocent child is corrupted by the people around her, her culture (in this case the early 70’s when families were struggling to keep those scary drugs out of their picture perfect/ignorant households), and her friends. (It's always the friends.)  The novel itself is a cautionary tale, meant to shock and leave the reader terrified of all drugs, even the caffeine found in their morning latte. The problem with Go Ask Alice is it focuses too much on everyday melodrama and then offers a few scenes that read like an afterschool special.  When the narrator has difficulty connecting her situation with reality, you can hardly blame her for confusing textbook addiction with real-life addiction.

The story itself is shocking but, to be honest, it just made me glad I didn’t live in the 70’s. It seemed like such an angry time in America’s history and the protagonist – an anonymous teenage girl – receives the brunt of its abuse. The story is told in a diary format, and I have to commend the “authors” (aside from the drug abuse storyline, another controversy for this book is the question of its authenticity) for leaving out huge pieces of the narrative. The format matches the erratic tone of the narrative (which the Crank series had been missing). Obviously the protagonist’s naivety annoyed me, but I am going to assume it was my 21st century mindset editorializing as I was reading.

Like the cautionary tales before it, Go Ask Alice takes on the same fate as Charlotte Temple – you know the protagonist is doomed from the start. I forgot to remember that and was shocked when I reached the epilogue ::embarrassed professor cough:: How could this have happened? Wasn't anyone watching her? Who would let this happen? I was furious. Now that I've had time to digest, I realize it wasn't the ending that shocked me but the clinical voice in the epilogue. The diary ends abruptly and the audience is left with this condescending, scolding voice telling us THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS TO BAD PEOPLE. Again, with my 21st century mind, I found this to be an insult to everyone who suffers from addiction. The protagonist needs help and she does not get it from anyone she comes in contact with in the novel. Everyone is useless, which cements her unfortunate fate. The epilogue makes the argument that addiction can be beaten by the sheer will of the individual. We know now that this isn't the case. Like everything else in this world, there is more to the equation, more players to the stage.  If the "authors" were going for authentic narrative, they should have left out their soapbox speech.

As I mentioned before, the novel spends more time shocking its readers than reminding us of its purpose as a cautionary tale. I have to admit, some scenes were devastating to get through and a bit shocking. At one point the protagonist is sent to a mental institution. That event is heartbreaking enough – the story of how she got there is downright terrifying - perhaps a little far-fetched as well?

Did I feel for this unknown protagonist? Absolutely. It will disappoint those who published Go Ask Alice that I didn’t feel for her because of her drug addiction. I connected to this unknown protagonist because I wondered how many more like her fell victim to not only drugs but to the ignorance and indifference of their time period. And how many more like her were silenced, reedited and labeled as “anonymous” drug addicts.
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Friday, February 15, 2013

Finding Alice


To begin, I am embarrassed to say that I am an adult, two years away from thirty, and I have not read Go Ask Alice.  My local library only had one copy and eventually it went missing (to this day, I don’t think they ever found the culprit). My book allowance was small and our bookstores in the area were nonexistent, so I had to be quite choosy about what I bought to read. Alas, Alice did not make the cut.

It breaks my hear to discover that most of my freshman do not read. Every day it is a desperate battle to get them interested in anything besides the personal spheres they inhabit. So when my students are interested in a book, I make a point to read it. A few semesters ago, some of my classes were reading the Crank trilogy by Ellen Hopkins. Interested by the free verse poetry format, I decided to take the time. This in itself proved to be an odyssey of sorts – the public library had a few copies but a very long waiting list presented itself. While my book allowance has grown, I still refused to spend the money. This was turning into another Alice.

Luckily, the Booktrader had a copy! I read all three of the Crank (Crank, Impulse, Glass) novels and while the story is compelling, the entire narrative regarding Kristina and her addiction could have been written in a single volume, prose novel. The poems did nothing for me but give me a headache with the crazy font and spacing. However, Kristina’s story stuck with me and I decided to buy (yes, I did say “buy) Go Ask Alice.

With that being said, I have come to the conclusion that addiction literature is hard to find and also very difficult to write. Unless it is a direct memoir such as Tweak (Nic Sheff) or Beautiful Boy (written by his father David Sheff) [NOTE: These two novels should always be read as a pair] I am noticing that a fictional-but-based-from-a-true-story addicted protagonist is hard to pin down. The only FICTIONALIZED story about addiction that pulls this off well is Walter Dean Myers’ Dope Sick. But let’s face it, Mr. Myers is excellent at young adult fiction. Unfortunately, that novel is too young and my students are in the 18-20 year range, so it makes sense that Hopkins’ gritty series speaks to them. Again - how do we make them convincing? At what point do we decide that we care if they live or die? In the case of Kristina’s situation in Crank ---

(to summarize: Kristina ends up having kids with different fathers and her only relationship is her addiction to meth. Her mother takes in her first son, but the other children end up living with their fathers, also drug addicts, or taken into foster homes.)

--I could have cared less about Kristina and worried more for her children. I think Hopkins felt this way too because the last novel of the trilogy is told through the POV’s of Kristina’s children. Her oldest, Hunter, is the less sympathetic of the bunch, but I digress.

Maybe I expected more from Crank. The beginning of the novel introduces the perfect young adult, Kristina, who decides one night to dance with the “monster” Crank. Personifying the drug and making it a tangible demon to follow Kristina around may have held my interest a bit more. However, I cannot fault Kristina/Bree. Without them, I would not have rekindled my interest jump down the rabbit hole and Go Ask Alice.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Help - Skeeter & Scout's Coming of Age

“I always order the banned books from a black market dealer in California, figuring if the State of Mississippi banned them, they must be good.” --  The Help


I didn't realize what the movie was lacking until I finished reading the book.  Isn't that always the case - the book is ALWAYS better than the movie?  Well, since the film version of The Help carried such a high torch, it is only natural that the book would be an inspiring read.  Just not the way I expected it to be.

One of the pieces I wish desperately they kept in the film (and as a former filmmaker, I understand how difficult adaptations can be, so I do not hold this against them), is the love of reading and writing, the love of storytelling that is stressed from the first page to the last.  The book is divided into three narratives - with the exception of the Benefit chapter, which is a third person omniscient (when the reader and the author are aware of the characters' thoughts and actions) point of view.  The first narrative is Aibileen Clark, an older African-American woman who has been a maid for many white families in Jackson, Mississippi.  The second narrative is Aibileen's best friend, Minny Jackson, who is the best cook in Mississippi, but is known as a "sass-mouth" to the white women that employ her.  The third and final narrative is Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, a young white woman, recently graduated from college, and discovering she is an outsider in her group of affluent friends.  While Skeeter's friends are interested in marriage, babies, and telling their maids what to do, Skeeter wants to get a job at a publishing company and become a writer.  Since the story has been out for some time, I will spare the details of how these three protagonists get together.  Let's just say it has to do with a book and that book has to do with the help.

Of course, all novels need a villian, and that part is filled by Hilly Holbrook.  Stockett has created a frightening combination of mean girl/suburban snob/Mississippi racist in Holbrook.  Hilly is proud of her efforts to spearhead the Home Sanitation Initiative, which is one of the reasons Skeeter and Aibileen decide to put together their book.  Hilly is a world-class bully, an all-around horrible, selfish person, a vicious racist, and a fantastic representation of the South's views during the Civil Rights Movement.  Hilly's racist behaviors do not just extend to the help; once she figures out the Skeeter is looking for a change in the racial atmosphere in Mississippi, she immediately decides that if Skeeter is not with the rest of the "ladies," then she must be against them.  Hilly's cold shoulder and Skeeter's alienation from her childhood friends and guaranteed place in the Southern Belle social sphere reminds the reader of other parts of our nation's history when people where forced to  turn against family and friends for the sake of right and wrong.  I have to applaud Stockett for Skeeter's narrative when this happens.  While Skeeter knows she is doing right by creating this book, she also yearns for her ordinary life - the one that was promised to her since birth (the husbands, the benefits, the help), and yet the life she knows she despises and would never want for herself.  Skeeter is Scout all grown up as the rest of America holds on to outdated belief structures of class and racial superiority. Skeeter gets it, but her economic class and skin  color forces her to live a double life. Naturally, as her contemporary audience, we don't agree with this - at times I wanted to yell at Skeeter to grow up and get an opinion of her own - but my patience was rewarded as she begins to understand that fear of change held her childhood home in its choke-hold.

Aside from Hilly's Initiative, Stockett also infuses actual historical references such as the shooting of Medger Evers, Dr. King's March in D.C., and the new world of rock and roll and hippies.  While the dates aren't accurate (and she does address this in her afterword, which is as refreshing as an after-dinner mint), Stockett's message to her audience is as clear as the Dylan song she references:  the times were, in fact, a-changing.

Some of the scenes in the novel belong to another character, Miss Celia, who is the Huck Finn to Minny's Aunt Sally.  Minny manages to "civilize" Miss Celia, but it isn't before Miss Celia teaches ole Miss (and Minny) about why we need to think beyond the current culture. I always love an outcast - the person who can never be a part of his/her modern world due to his/her differences.  In a book where race sets who belongs where, it is interesting to see a character like Miss Celia.  She is a white woman married to a rich white man, but her hillbilly status puts her on the edge of Southern society.  She knows a thing or two about being a pariah, which makes Miss Celia and Minny such a great pair.  Minny has the attitude, but Miss Celia manages to steal some of the scenes with her ridiculous hair, accent, and questions.  I wish Stockett could write another book about the lasting friendship between Miss Celia and Minny.


The Help is a great story of what happens when a nation is ready to grow up.  You have the ones ready for change like Miss Skeeter, but lack the clue to what needs to be changed.  Skeeter gets a great lesson from Aibileen and Minny about what (or who) is at stake when these times need a-changing.  And Miss Celia is here to tell us that sometimes, when change is a long time coming, a little kindness goes a long way.
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