Thursday, July 8, 2010

Your NeverEnding Story

I have just finished my first day at LEEP (the on-campus portion of online learning program at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana) and I probably should be reading or studying. However, my mind cannot stop thinking about the experiences that I shared with my classmates today. Each person was given about 30 seconds to introduce him or herself, and in those 30 seconds, I learned that each person had a story that was unique and important. I believed this was true before I came to LEEP, but I never realized how varied and fascinating each person would be – and how much I can learn from each one. The ability to tell our own stories, to explain our decisions and journeys, gives us the power to make our lives extraordinary. As we head into the 1980s, a slew of Newbery winners and honor books celebrated the art of memoir, introducing young readers (and myself) to worlds unknown.
           A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl's Journal, 1830-1832 by Joan W. Blos rightly deserved to win of the 1980 Newbery Medal, grabbing the reader into the intricate world of 1830’s New Hampshire. It is narrated by Catherine Hall, a young teen whose resilience in dealing with death, responsibility, and politics. The issue of slavery comes to forefront when Catherine helps a runaway slave from freezing. (I particularly enjoyed the stance of her abolitionist schoolteacher and the ruckus he causes by speaking his mind.) While this is a fictionalized journal, the details are so rich, the characters so vivid, and the setting so real that after you finish it, you feel like you knew Catherine, and she may well has been your great-great-great grandmother somewhere. Unlike A Gathering of Days, which is based on historical research, The Road from Home: The Story of an Armenian Girl by David Kheridian, the Honor book for 1980, is the true story of his mother’s survival and faith after her family is killed by the Turks. I had no idea about this event in history and it was a wake-up call about the horrific destruction of the Armenian people and culture. Throughout it all, his mother finds reservoirs of strength to overcome set backs and danger and eventually finds a new home for herself.
           I was a little more familiar with the subject matter of Upon the Head of the Goat: A Childhood in Hungary 1939-1944 by Aranka Siegal, a 1982 Honor book, which describes an idyllic childhood that comes to an end with the Nazi invasion. And yet, while I know the historical facts and background, hearing an individual’s experience carried tremendous emotional weight. With unsparing attention to detail, Siegal describes the acceleration of persecution, while retaining a compassionate spirit and faith in humanity. I cannot fathom how Siegal retells her own story without anger and bitterness, but this novel proves that even when a person is made into a nonentity, there is an eternal part that can rise above.
           Homesick by Jean Fritz, a 1983 Honor book, documents her life as a child in China and her difficult return to the United States. Fritz intersperses historical information with her experiences of being a “foreign devil” in a country at the brink of revolution. As the big picture is revealed piece-by-piece, Fritz’s story is never slighted. She clearly shows how Fritz does belong to either world and her process to reconcile these two separate parts of herself. For anyone who has ever felt torn, Fritz lets us know that we are not alone. For me, the knowledge that someone else has had a similar emotional experience is the best part of reading memoirs. As unique as we think our reactions are, they really aren’t. Everyone gets overwhelmed, scared, unsure of themselves, and conflicted; and they also get excited, fascinated, inspired and hopeful. After hearing these various reactions today, I know that I am not alone. And neither is anyone else.



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