Monday, December 5, 2011
Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet
(Karen Silverman, Heavy Medal blog, School Library Journal website)
Mal Peet can't write a grocery list without winning a major award. Despite that, it's true that his name doesn't trip off the tongue of the average teen reader, at least here in Canada. He's not an easy author to get into. His writing is challenging and his themes are serious. His humour, when it's there, is cerebral and ironic. His stories are often told in flashback by adult narrators, who range from mildly world-weary to downright bitter. His endings tend towards ambiguity. There is a constant undercurrent of debate in the teen lit world about what, exactly, makes his work teen rather than adult fiction. My opinion? Life: An Exploded Diagram is teen fiction because Peet published it that way, and if he and Candlewick believe that there are enough young readers around who find a detailed exploration of the relationships between 20th-century social history, military history, and personal narrative compelling, well, more power to them. I'm sure not going to stand in the way of their optimism.
That said, however, I do think Peet's books are for older teens with lots of reading experience behind them. For one thing, the way he hangs a story together can be a little complicated. The protagonist of Life is Clem Ackroyd, who is born in chapter one as World War II draws to a close:
"Ruth Ackroyd was in the garden checking the rhubarb when the RAF Spitfire accidentally shot her chimney pot to bits. The shock of it brought the baby on three weeks early.
'I was expectun,' she'd often say, over the years. 'But I wunt expectun that.'"
Fair enough. But no sooner have we met baby Clem, who had "grown in Ruth, struggling and undiscussed" while his father was at war, than we are whisked back in time to become better acquainted with the life of his dour grandmother Win, and later, his mother Ruth and her soldier husband. They are not particularly happy people, and they live in an unsettled time. Win grows up in rural Norfolk, in a time where horses pulled plows and landowners collected rent once a year on Lady Day and celebrated the harvest with a feast for the workers. As pastoral as it sounds, it's not idyllic; Win and her family must cope with illness and poverty and their many consequences. As the years go by Peet gives us a long-term view of 20th century modernization: the farm is slowly mechanized, the family moves into a new suburban home, and the landscape of the country changes. Win's daughter Ruth marries and has a son, and that son, Clem, wins a scholarship to a fancy school and gets an education far above his station. And all of that is merely context for the heart of the story, which is Clem's intense adolescent experience of falling in love with the landowner's daughter Frankie Mortimer. After two dreary generations of emotional repression and marital disappointment, it feels like spring after a long, cold winter.
One of the things I liked best about Life: An Exploded Diagram was how Peet provided a political backdrop to his love story. As Clem and Frankie are courting, Kennedy and Khruschev are becoming embroiled in what would later be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The way that Peet plays these two stories off of each other sharpens them both, the Missile Crisis reminding us of the fragility of life just as Clem and Frankie's love story is affirming the value of it. I'm a person whose mind normally shuts down when confronted with political history, and even when I try desperately stay tuned in all I tend to hear is "blah blah blah blah blah", so it's a tribute to Peet's excellent writing that I not only stayed wide awake during these chapters but totally understood what was going on.
Here's the publisher's book trailer: