April 23, 2015


Welcome to another edition of In Tandem, the read-and-review blog series where both A.F. and I give our on-the-spot commentary as we read and team blog a book together. (You can feel free to guess which of us is the yellow owl and which of us is the purple owl...we're not telling!)

Whenever book awards are announced, we're intrigued -- and sometimes bewildered. There are SO many books published every year, it's hard to keep up with them based on buzz and word of mouth. Oftentimes many of the weighty "worthies" which are awarded are virtual unknowns to us -- but not this time. When this year's National Book Awards were announced, we cheered again for Jacqueline Woodson, one of the winningest authors we know. We're familiar with Jacqueline Woodson's work, much of which can be characterized with the words "quiet," and "intelligent" and "revealing." Despite the hype about other writers inventing realistic fiction, anyone who reads a Woodson book knows that's simply not true - and hasn't been for her entire career. Because much of what we'd read of Woodson's was a.) middle grade, and b.) picture books and c.) a long while back, we hadn't blogged more than one of her books here. We decided to read and tandem-blog a Woodson book - one we knew nothing about, one that hadn't won any particular awards - and randomly chose HUSH. As we explored this short, poignant book, we found it wasn't nearly as straightforward as it appeared. While we've done our best to outright avoid spoilers, some of the plot is revealed in a general fashion, so reader be advised. Without any other caveats, we invite you to join us as we discuss this book, which we discovered was a National Book Award finalist (Ms. Woodson seems to be inescapably award-winning - that's what we get for just going by sticker/lack of sticker on a cover). We're...

Two writers,
& Two readers,
With one book.

In Tandem.

Evie Thomas is not who she used to be. Once she had a best friend, a happy home and a loving grandmother living nearby. Once her name was Toswiah.

Now, everything is different. Her family has been forced to move to a new place and change their identities. But that's not all that has changed. Her once lively father has become depressed and quiet. Her mother leaves teaching behind and clings to a new-found religion. Her only sister is making secret plans to leave.

And Evie, struggling to find her way in a new city where kids aren't friendly and the terrain is as unfamiliar as her name, wonders who she is.

Jacqueline Woodson weaves a fascinating portrait of a thoughtful young girl's coming of age in a world turned upside down.
We read library copies of this book in the treehouse. You can find HUSH by Jacqueline Woodson at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you.

tanita: So, this book... surprised me. I tried really hard to avoid reading the jacket copy or knowing much of anything that it was about, aside from the single-sentence WorldCat description. And then, I was reading along and the phrase "the blue wall of silence" just sort of popped out at me. And, I was like, "Hmmmmmmmmm."

I wanted to read HUSH because of the microtrend identified at STACKED awhile ago, as Kelly Jensen blogged about the sudden splash YA witness protection novels were making. I didn't know anything about witness protection or why the people in HUSH were even in protective arrangements ... and the reason now makes me wonder about the people - the families of the people - involved in the recent police violence and filmings of police brutality and misconduct, and in the ensuing court cases... where are they now? Is this their lives now? I love it when a book just pulls me right into the moment and slaps me upside the head. I love when it takes me off-center from what would normally be my focus. What's ironic/weird/funnynotfunny is that this book was written in 2002. We've either entered a serious time warp or society is going backwards. Either way....

aquafortis: I've read the first chapter and I am already in love with the author's sense of the musicality of language, and how quickly she draws these characters, this family, for us. I'm kind of in awe.
It's also very interesting that a book which might traditionally be framed as a suspense story and go straight to the danger and whatnot, really isn't about that, at least so far. What we're getting instead is a story of what's been lost, of coping and grieving, of having to give up who you are just when you're starting to figure it out. I remember reading, ages ago, a Lois Duncan book about a family in witness protection, and I think that's the type of story I tend to associate with witness protection as a theme: suspense, somebody's-after-you-- Don't Look Behind You was the name of the book. Rarely, it seems, are the PEOPLE and their feelings and their upended lives the focus.

tanita: Oh, I agree -- I love Jacqueline Woodson's writing style - how her "quiet" books nevertheless have a massive, ringing impact on the reader. Woodson keeps our focus tightly honed in on the characters - how she structures the novel really works toward that. Opening the story in the "before," with all that Toswiah had and what she lost feels like the right decision because it helps articulate the now so much better, and the heartbreak she experienced.
Right there, that evening with Inspector Albert Oliver standing on our porch, biting on his cuticle, is the point where I'd pause. Then I'd press stop and my father would still be a cop in Denver, his uniform pressed, his shoes shined, his face calm and smiling. HUSH, by Jacqueline Woodson, p. 50

aquafortis: YES--that moment right there was so poignant and sad. This book is packed with images like that, almost like static photos of Toswiah/Evie's life before; still frames that she can never have back.

tanita: Yes - I like that use of imagery. So, the theme is identity - loss - loss of identity, and there's this sense of desolation -- not a lot of whining, but desolation brought to life in just a few word pictures. Continuing through this story, I'm drawn as well to the characterization. The language is still somehow spare, even with all if evokes.

aquafortis: I agree--it's impressive how the author has such a spare use of language and yet packs so much in. It's not at all surprising that she's written books-in-verse. There's the constant sense that the words are conveying so much more than they're saying on the surface, as with poetry.

tanita: Interesting that you mention poetry - Woodson is a poet, and I think that actually informs a lot of her prose writing style. It gives each word she chooses that certain heft and polish that poets seem to use.

"Afraid" is this hollowed-out place that sometimes feels bigger than I am. Most days my fear is as long as my shadow, as big as my family's closet of skeletons." p. 77

Along with the evocative and beautiful language, the narrative really resonates with me on a personal level because I find myself, day after day, nostalgic for a time when I waved at the police from the backseat of our station wagon, a time when I trusted the police, when I proudly wore the little silver star my adopted uncle left me with his badge number etched on it, and the words "police niece." Toswiah -- Evie -- is not only grieving for the name she's lost, she's grieving for lost innocence. That's huge, and to lose innocence and identity so early in life is devastating... because innocence, once lost, is not recaptured, and our identities are always a shifting thing anyway - we chase after who we are for so much of our lives, once we become adolescents anyway that this seems like loss piled upon loss. Even if she recovers herself, to my mind, Evie will always have a cynical part of herself, and that's really painful -- and really true -- of our society in many ways right now.

aquafortis: It is cynical, and true, and so, so sad. Stories like this, and like the ones we are seeing reported so often in the news recently (as opposed to before, when they would happen and go unrecorded and uncontested) make me want to cry because it's not the type of world I want to live in or want young people to grow up in, and yet it IS, and the stories must be told if we ever want to change anything. Evie is a perfect narrator for this story because she epitomizes the lost innocence of the observer, caught up in events beyond her control.

tanita: Having finished with this novel, I know why it was shelved and marketed to YA readers, but at twelve, then thirteen, then fourteen, Evie is definitely a young adult, with all of the growing and changing that implies. I think this novel would appeal so very much to thirteen- to-fifteen-year-olds, just experiencing those shifts, wherein life kind of transitions from one piece to the next -- because this novel would help them maybe understand and articulate the things that are going on inside, from being able to have such an articulate character go through some of the same thing.
: Right, and one of the most powerful themes that comes in here with her coming of age is the idea of names, and their power, and the power we have to name ourselves and in doing so, not only invent ourselves but fix our sense of self in place. One of the most touching moments of this story for me was when Evie's track teammates decide to start calling her Spider, and she settles into it, into an identity, for the first time in a very long time. Names are such a fundamental part of how we connect with others; and one of the many ways in which their family was uprooted, besides physically, was psychically--they couldn't be themselves, NAME themselves, even to one another.

The bullet holes were like small black caves against the white kitchen wall. I stared at them without blinking. I was not afraid. Some part of us that had been the same way forever was gone. The holes in the walls proved it... p. 54

tanita: You mentioned that danger wasn't what the book focused on -- but in a way, in many ways, it's what's underneath, as we see later in the story.

This is a short novel -only 180 pages in hardback - and so it's taken me a very short time to read it, yet it's taken a much longer time to take it in emotionally. This is... a kind of huge book. It's about identity and race and the limits of friendship and family -- all terribly personal and painful, yet beautiful. It brings you in, with the language, but I kept flinching away from and circling back to the... reality.

aquafortis: Yes, I've been reading it in slow sips, because I need the time in between to let the story sink in and...sort of expand inside my mind. Like the TARDIS, it's bigger on the inside. There is so much here.

tanita: Final thought: Two things stand out to me - one, that adults can have these losses of self, too, which can actually be pretty vital information to teens, since it's easy to get caught up in your own drama and forget that everyone is fighting a battle. Both of Evie's parents fall short, in their own ways. Two, the truth of that lovely quote from A Farewell to Arms - "The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places." I can see this so appealing to teens finding out about those first breaks - and giving them a peculiar kind of comfort, that everyone fractures, and that those fractures heal. I look at Evie - and Anna - and I know, I just know, that to be true. And more than that, it reminds me that this can be true of all of us, too.
: Yes. It CAN be true of all of is, and it so often is, whether we're young or adult. Having that hope that our wounds will heal, even if we aren't the same afterward--is so important. We all need to remind ourselves that the fact of not being the same, the fact of growth and change and metamorphosis, doesn't mean that we are negating ourselves in the process.

Thanks again for reading another of our Tandem Reviews! There will be more...

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