Sunday, June 7, 2009

Review of Also Known as Harper by Ann Haywood Leal

Leal, Ann Haywood. Also Known as Harper. Henry Holt, 2009.

After Harper Lee Morgan, her little brother Hemingway (Hem for short), and their mom are evicted for not paying the rent, they move temporarily to a nearby cheap roadside motel. Because her mom is working extra hours trying to earn enough money to get them out of this fix, Harper Lee is forced to stay out of school to babysit her little brother, a particular onerous situation because this is the week that the entries for the Whaley County Poetry Contest are due at school.

Harper Lee, you see, is a poet. Like her mom, she has a love of the written word and a gift for setting her thoughts down on paper in a way that makes other people take notice, and she feels frantic that she’ll miss her chance. Luckily there is one bright spot in her life, in the form of another homeless girl who lives in an encampment near the motel. Another person Harper Lee meets is Dorothy, an old woman who lives near the motel and helps out the homeless folks nearby. Dorothy is one of those people who make you feel like you’re your best self when you’re with them, and her presence in Harper Lee’s life is pivotal.

Every single person in this book has suffered some kind of injury in the past and still carries a bit of the damage inside, and this is one of the things I like best about it. Whether it’s Harper Lee trying to come to terms with her negative feelings about her mercifully absent dad, her new friend Lorraine’s refusal to talk due to a trauma in her past, or Dorothy’s loss of her family long ago, they all have to make the best of the cards they’ve been dealt. Trying to cope with their own difficulties while helping, not hurting, others seems to be the path to redemption – and even the “bad” characters show a surprising good side now and then, demonstrating the fact that folks are complicated and unpredictable.

The awe and respect everyone, including children, shows Harper Lee’s poems doesn’t feel quite realistic, and neither does the way the children talk – the old-fashioned, folksy feel to their utterances sometimes makes them sound like little, wise, eccentric old ladies from a Southern novel. I’d also expect a lot more despair and resistance from Harper Lee about the situation she has been plunged into – sure, she’s a person who clearly puts the best face on things, but the grimness of moving into an old, abandoned building with no running water or electricity is barely touched on. If Harper Lee thinks going to the bathroom outside is at all awful, we don’t hear about it. Finally, the sudden good fortune that blesses Lorraine’s family, and also Harper Lee’s, is a relief but also way too pat to be believed.

Those quibbles aside, I do think this is a fine book to recommend to readers of realistic fiction in grades 5 to 7.

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