Tag Archives: coming-of-age

The Age of Miracles — Karen Thompson Walker

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 The Age of Miracles is an amazing book–a dystopia that reads like the front page and echoes the dark scariness of the crumbling world we live in. The earth is slowing in Karen Thompson Walker’s fictional account. Days and nights are getting longer and almost at once time goes completely off the rails. The birds begin to die, gravity is affected, droughts and tides intensify, people panic. Julia is eleven on the day they announce the news and this is a coming of age novel in which everything in her personal and planetary world will be stood on its head.

Julia’s best friend Hanna leaves at once for a Mormon encampment in Utah with her family.  The oceanfront Cailfornia properties are immediately abandoned as the sea washes over them at high tide. Julia’s mother starts to hoard emergency supplies and her father keeps delivering babies at the hospital. Seth, the skateboarder who is Julia’s secret crush, continues to ignore her but nasty bullies at her bus stop don’t. It starts to be dark when the sun should come up and stays light far past bedtime. Six astronauts are trapped at the space station because it is too dangerous to bring them back.

This is a pick-it-up-don’t-put-it-down book that reminds you of how perilous it is to be on the cusp of adolescence and then ratchets that challenge up a million times as the earth spins slowly–and more slowly–into a dead zone. The governments declare “clock time” that follows the old twenty-four hours even though the days and nights don’t sync. Some people cling to “real time” and hostilities break out. Julia’s grandfather suspects a conspiracy and starts to act distressingly weird. Julia spies her father through the window of her piano teacher’s house across the street, through her telescope. He is not taking a piano lesson. Hundreds of whales beach themselves and Seth invites Julia to the beach to try to save them.

That’s enough story. You should acquire a copy of this book at once and read it. Tremendously good, subtle, polished and true. My only quibble is that it seems so real, such a simple extension of our time, that it left me slightly depressed about the apocalypse of our civilization–the snowballing calamities people madly pretend do not exist. Our earth is off-kilter and losing its moorings. We are out of alignment, wide-eyed at the destruction all around us and wondering what’s next, waiting and hoping for miracles with none, so far, in sight.

The Age of Miracles: A Novel   Karen Thompson Walker | Random House  2012

The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster – Kaye Gibbons

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Kaye Gibbons launched Ellen Foster in 1986 to great acclaim. Ellen was a fully-realized original character who navigated her tumultuous life with courage and tenacity. We are still rooting for her more than two decades later in the self-narrated sequel The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster.

The novel opens with a letter to Derek Bok, president of Harvard University, from the unstoppable fifteen-year-old heroine. She tells him that she has taken the unorthodox step of applying directly to the head of the university because she knows hers is an unconventional bid but she wants him to know she is quite serious. Ellen is settled in a safe and loving home with Laura, a foster mother who protects and nurtures her fiercely. It turns out her IQ is off the charts and so she follows a program of independent learning and decides she will find a way to finance early-early acceptance to Harvard to pursue her goals of majoring in English and medicine, researching non-traditional cures for epidemics, and combining nutrition and poetry in a developing-nation instructional outreach. Her ambition is as oversize and dramatic as her life.

Ellen has a great heart and supports her intellectually-challenged friends in the southern backwater where she lives. But she struggles with the demons of her former life: a clinically depressed mother who loved her but committed suicide; an abusive alcoholic father and a caretaker grandmother–both dead; an aunt who kicked her out of the house one Christmas and stole her inheritance and her mother’s letters and jewelry. Ellen is aware of her emotional fissures but she is plucky, determined and unwavering in her belief that she can achieve great things.

Gibbons has created a second coming-of-age novel around Ellen Foster. The child who survived calamitous loss and abuse is the teen who tries to adjust to the first real home and security she has ever known while imagining a future for herself that is far from average. An old friend who is more than a bit slow decides to marry her; she shields Starletta, a younger developmentally-delayed black child, from bullying. Ellen battles a bad case of nerves on a solo train trip to a summer program for gifted children. At Johns Hopkins University’s camp for the gifted, she finds a shallow, privileged, ego-driven, competitive cohort of talented but arrogant kids who think she’s a rube. Back home, the swindler aunt resurfaces in rumors about the true nature of Ellen’s inheritance. Laura guides her through all this to slowly accept that someone has her back and believes in her.

The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster is warm, real, funny, sad and brave—just like its eponymous heroine. And it has a fairytale ending that you can’t help feeling Ellen has earned. So does her new pen pal “Your friend, Derek C. Bok”.

The Life All Around Me By Ellen Foster   Kaye Gibbons | Harcourt   2006

Finding Miracles – Julia Alvarez

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Milly—Mildred Milagros Kaufman—doesn’t talk about the fact that she was adopted as an infant in a country ripped apart by war. She’s a teen in a small Vermont town and her sister Kate, kid brother Nate, mom and dad are all the family she wants. But when a new boy arrives at Ralston High, a refugee from that same country, Milly can’t avoid her own discomfort with the questions his presence raises.

Julia Alvarez has written a journey of discovery for Milly and all internationally adopted kids who don’t know their biological origins in Finding Miracles. It’s a young YA book, complex issues simplified enough for easy comprehension. Milly struggles to deal with Pablo, her own ambivalence about knowing more, and the shifting emotions in her family as they befriend Pablo’s family and hear the tragic stories of political murder and genocide. Wealthy Grandma Kaufman, the perpetually unhappy Happy, is a temperamental diva and Milly is sure she doesn’t consider her a real member of the family.

But people and things are not exactly what they seem in this story and the events and characters shift, reconfigure and expose both open hearts and uncomfortable truths. Milly discovers her own courageous voice, sets out to visit the land of her birth with Pablo’s family, and grows up, testing friendships and family ties as she comes to terms with the terrible history that determined her life–and the warm people who value and love her.

Finding Miracles tells about loss and a lot of it is ugly. But the adventure contains plenty of laughter, hope and affection, too. Cultures are contrasted and presented evenhandedly. Different generations find common ground. Happy finds her happiness at last and generously shares it with the rest of the family. Milly reclaims Milagros as her name as she makes her peace with being a child of two traditions and celebrates her own colorful life. And she falls in love, of course, with two countries and one boy and the miracles that make her exactly who she is.

Finding Miracles  Julia Alvarez | Alfred A. Knopf   2004