Friday, May 26, 2006

Good For You and Tastes Good, Too

I tend to hold a reverse prejudice against literary fiction. Not that I haven't read a lot of it in my day. Honestly, some of the best books I've ever read are literary fiction. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. Sea Glass by Anita Shreve. Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts, although this last one might be labeled a romance by the purists among us. I've been in book clubs and I consider myself fairly well read, so it's not like I avoid literary fiction as a rule. My snobbery comes in the form of defense against those who snub their noses at anything non-literary. Any time a group of people shoves something in my face and declares it better than what I do/read/write/enjoy, I'm prewired to reject it as a matter of course.

This said, my latest read is what I would consider a literary novel. It's actually labelled Young Adult, but I enjoyed it thoroughly on a very adult level. Whatever it is, it's certainly not romance in any shape or form.

Red Kayak by Priscilla Cummings is the story about 13-year-old Brady Parks, a boy who lives and works on the shores and waterways of the Chesapeake Bay. He's a good kid, mature beyond his years, with loving parents and a good if not easy life. His friends are true, and until one fateful morning changes everything, Brady's future looks bright. A young mother and her son, Brady's neighbors, take a morning kayak ride that turns tragic when the kayak sinks and the three-year-old boy nearly drowns. Brady is instrumental in the rescue of Ben D'Angelo, but his efforts prove fruitless when the boy eventually dies from over-exposure to the chilly water. Brady is crushed and finds it difficult to handle the senseless death of someone so young.

But things become even more complicated when Brady discovers evidence that the kayak accident might not have been so much an accident as sabotage. Even worse, it looks as if his two best friends might have had a hand in it. Brady struggles desperately with what to do; the right thing, which might ruin his own life as well as those of his friends, or the easy thing, which isn't necessarily the easiest when his own conscience begins to pull at him.

The story is told in first person from Brady's POV. He's an amazing kid, level headed and responsible beyond his years. In fact, if I'd have any criticism at all, it might be that Brady is somewhat adult in his outlook on the world considering his lack of time in it. But this didn't detract from the story one bit because when Brady finds himself facing the grieving Mrs. D'Angelo the first time or when he discovers the evidence that implicates his friends, his utter lack of direction rings so very true. He struggles terribly in situations that would make any adult squirm.

The suspense in the story is tightly woven yet so subtly accomplished you don't realize why it is you just can't put the book down. From page to page I turned, wondering what Brady would do. Yet there wasn't that heart-pounding tension in so many suspense novels where the good guy is running from the bad guy, trying to prove himself innocent or them guilty. Brady's struggle was mostly internal, and time after time I ached for him to just tell his parents or his older cousin, Carl, so the poor boy could unload his heavy burden from his own, narrow shoulders.

The ending is not pat. Things don't get easy for anyone. Cummings has a chance to cop out with some easy solutions, giving heart-string-tugging motivation behind the actions of Brady's two misguided friends that could allow her to wash her hands of the mess she's created. But she doesn't do that, even though all loose strings were tied up neatly and there is a definite sense of completion and hope. Brady grew on me as a character in such a way that I want to know what happens to him next. The sign of a truly good book for me is when I'm sad to finish the last page and leave the character behind when I'd just as soon keep on hanging out with him or her. I'll miss Brady Parks. A lot.

This book reminded me a lot of John Knowle's A Separate Peace. I read that book over 20 years ago, in high school, but the theme of the actions of meanness and their repercussions still echo in that dusty corner of my brain occupied by Great Works of Literature I was made to read.

If you are looking for something that goes down smooth yet leaves you with more than empty calories, pick up this book and give it a chance. Red Kayak is up for a 2007 Rebecca Caudill award, and I certainly think it deserves a lot of recognition. At the very least, I hope teachers out there discover this potential classic and encourage kids to read it. It certainly make you think about what's right and what's easy and what you might do in such a situation.

It gives literary fiction a good name.


Julie said...

Y'know, it's sad, but I never used to feel that way until a friend of mine went on a classic-literature reading binge and started rubbing it in my face, that what she reads is "better" while I mostly prefer contemporary lit (not just YA, but the YAs she was especially snotty about).

I've read and loved lots of classics, so it's not like I was completely passing by them in the library before. I guess I really took it as a hard hit because I've always considered myself (and been considered one since I can remember starting to read) a bookworm. So to suddenly be treated like I've never read a good book in my life - well, I even stopped reading altogether for a month or two because picking one up made me feel queasy.

It felt really good to start reading like I used to again, though, when I did. I've just resolved never to discuss books again with said friend.

[/End whine] (g)

Steph T. said...

I LOVE The Red Tent & Poisonwood Bible - LOVE THEM!!

*sighs* Now I want to go spend the day rereading them instead of writing...