Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Hero and the Crown

Of the eighty-ish books that I read last year, I believe that Robin McKinley's works were foremost among the few that completely stole my heart. Though I read this book more than a couple months ago, my mind still likes to wander among the plains of Damar and into the mountains with Aerin, the courageous but unorthodox Damarian princess.

I am working on a project of reading all the Newbery Medal winners. Consequently, I placed this book on hold from my local library, knowing absolutely nothing of what it was about, and when I began it, I had in my mind only what I surmised from the front cover. And while dragons and dragon slaying certainly played a large part in the story and propelled the narrative forward, the dragon was by no means the whole or even the main gist of the plot. While The Hero and the Crown is certainly a coming of age story, it is notable that beyond 17ish, we have no idea of how old our protagonist is at any given time. It is the development of character that the story truly revolves around. Aerin learns to control her fiery temper, and to be curious and to work hard for what she wants. It is a story about the proper use of skill; about courage, and how one can simply decide to be courageous when necessary. It is about goodness and honor and the faithfulness of man and beast that can make a nation strong. And best of all, the story is chock full of new, curious plants and animals, and a special sort of magic called kelar that is supposed to run only in the royal line, which for some reason, Princess Aerin doesn't seem to have.

Robin McKinley is a master of constructing believable fantasy worlds and stories. When I started this book, I literally could not go to sleep until I finished it. It is exciting, imaginative, and heartwarming; discussing classic themes that are good and important for adults to consider as well as children. I would recommend this book to anyone I know, whether or not they normally liked fantasy tales. In fact, if they did like fantasy, I would probably beg them to read it, it's so wonderful.

There is another Damarian story as well, set a couple hundred years after the Hero and the Crown. But Robin McKinley actually wrote The Blue Sword first, and The Hero and the Crown as a prequel. They both won Newbery awards--The Blue Sword won the Honor in 1983, and I believe The Hero and the Crown won the Medal in 1985. They have lots of similarities in themes and story, but enough differences to be quite distinct of each other. As a duet, they are completely enchanting, and you really should go check them out...right now.

The Color of Water

I must start off by saying that this is not a children's book. From the title, it's clearly something interesting and unusual, and what's more, an honoring gesture toward a parent. But this book is full of sadness and heartache that I could not recommend as good reading for children. That being said, it is truly an amazing story.

James McBride constructs this memoir in an unusual way, alternating between his mother's first-hand account of her life, which (I believe) he recorded on tape during an interview with her, and his own story that he narrates. With the chapter titles, he cleverly compares and contrasts their two stories.

Quite simply put, Ruth Jordan immigrated to the states with her Jewish family and was raised as a Jew in the South, were they did not have a large community. And what community was there was not very fond of Ruth's family because her father was a hard man who cared only for money. He owned and ran a store in the black part of town, cheating any customers (usually black folks) out of every penny he could. But Ruth learned to love and trust the black people (who during this time could have been killed for being in a relationship with a white woman.) Her family life was not good, and she had few friends, and a serious heartbreak; so while she was still fairly young, she ran away to New York where some of her mother's Jewish family lived. Eventually, she married a black man (Andrew McBride), became a Christian, and lived with him in the black community.

Her story is brim-full of racial and family tensions. Her Jewish family basically considered her dead, and she had left that part of her life completely behind anyway. But even though she had her own family and her own life, there was still a lot of sadness. Her husband died suddenly one day, leaving her with seven children and another on the way. She later married a man named Jordan with whom she had four more children, completing the even dozen.

Of course, the number of children recalls to mind the charming classic Cheaper By The Dozen. The number of kids is the same, yes, but the similarity stops there. This family lived in the projects in Brooklyn. Their family and home were abominably disorganized, and it seems like day by day, they were often just scraping by. Add on top of that, the emerging black pride movement, and the family was practically exploding with civil rights angst and confusion between embarrassment of, fear for, and pride in their white mother.

The thing that holds this book (and family) together is Ruth Jordan's violent faith and complete trust in Jesus Christ. Her first husband, Andrew McBride became a Baptist minister. Together with his wife, they built a church in the middle of the projects. She loved Jesus and firmly believed in his provision for her family. While on one hand, it may seem like there was no end to the sadness in her life--especially when her second husband died. The book is a triumphant journal of her faith in Jesus Christ and how he helped her complete the task she had as a mother. There is an impressive list at the end of the book; her legacy, if you will. It lists every child, their undergraduate degrees, any graduate degrees, and current jobs. (I believe one or two may not have completed their undergrad by the writing of the book.) James also tells a heartwarming story of their current holidays when all the family gathers at Ruth's place, where it sounds like she will always and forever rule the roost.

This book as a whole has some tremendously and powerfully sad moments that cut me deeply as I read them--not something I'm usually excited to do. However, it also has such an uplifting and delightful ending that I have to recommend it as a book worth the reading. (I would just recommend spacing it out and reading some Dr. Seuss in between chapters...or a contrasting flavor of your own choice.)