To Kill a Mockingbird and Save Mr. Lincoln: Gayle Brandeis and the Political Young Adult

Categories: OC Bookly
Our little lit family's sojourns find us back from a week in Baja California Norte, Mexico by way of, yes, Chicago, Illinois and Maycomb, Alabama. Audio books are the absolute best travel companions (can pause, never need to go pee), and listening together to the first four cassettes (yes, old-school cassette tapes from the thrift store) on the nearly 500-mile drive down and Part II on the way back home put me in a vividly dreamy place of excitement, not to mention caused the hours to pass quickly, perhaps too quickly (!) as we concluded To Kill a Mockingbird somewhere in the Santo Tomas Valley just south of Ensenada. How enduringly great is Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel? Reread or listen again, and be convinced, no, reassured in the promise--fulfilled--of the novel as a complicated and complex art form, of the urgency of the narrative voice, of humor and wit as explicatory tool of revisionist history and, finally, of the vivid description of place and humane characterization of people as singular arbiters of moral conflict.

Dig the hat!
Throw in everybody's recent justifiable excitement over the terrific film Lincoln and this blog's jolly responsibility to promote Literary Orange 2013 on Saturday, April 6 and you will see how I arrived over our spring break so easily at Southern California writer Gayle Brandeis's Young Adult novel My Life with the Lincolns, which I read on the sand at the Sea of Cortez. It's the one with the nifty cover illustration of the Great Emancipator's stovepipe hat, a book published in 2010 but which offers me the chance to talk about YA fiction and promote one of the conference's participants, too. Oh, did I mention that Brandeis will be one of four local writers on the panel I am moderating that day?  

No kidding!  

Gayle Brandeis won the inaugural Bellwether Prize a few years back for her first novel, The Book of Dead Birds. That prize is, by the way, the one I wanna win myself, sponsored by the great novelist, essayist, memoirist Barbara Kingsolver and awarded in even-numbered years. Dead Birds is, in case you are--I hope--here anticipating the local connection by way of Literary Orange, very much a regionally-based story. As in San Diego. And the Salton Sea. But as is reflected, it seems, in her other writing, it's also borderless. Or anti-borders.  Brandeis is a teller of history, biography. She knows that the most radical idea in America is, as I am often compelled to repeat, a long memory. (Because people forget!) This book's memory is in Korea, at a massacre decades earlier, and a mother's secret.

I caught up with Brandeis's writing upon publication of her second book, Self Storage, about 
Bellwether woman
a heroine from Riverside with working class roots, a woman who lives in student housing at the UC. It's casually literary in the way that assumes readers will be well-read. The protagonist is "Flan," as in Flannery, as in, well, you know. And, to boot, Walt Whitman's work guides our heroine on her unlikely mission of figuring out a mystery located in, yes, the contents of a self-storage locker.

In the Lincoln story-for-all-ages book we meet yet another fetching heroine, the requisite YA protagonist who, however familiar by way of this genre, is still so very welcome: she's a bookish activist heroine, a literary second cousin of Jean Louise Finch, of course, from that enduring sorority of strong literary girl-women. She's Mina Edelman, twelve years old in a suburb of Chicago in 1966,  socially awkward-precocious-alienated pre-teen whose destiny will be shaped by events and decisions, good and bad, made while mirroring similarly or even identical decisions worked out by grown-ups.  She reads! She learns. She adopts the charming conceit that her family's life parallels that of the Lincolns: nutty mother, doomed murdered father, dead son. Her own dad, "Honest Abe" Edelman, who runs a furniture store, sneaks Mina off to civil rights rallies--the real-life effort to free up the once-"most racist city in America"--reminding us of the urgency which so nobly struck some parents of joining housing desegregation and other freedom struggles even as some others, well, did not. The next door neighbor's dad is in Viet Nam, and not there to do anything good.

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