Sunday, November 28, 2010

YA Book Review: Leaving Gee's Bend

Set deep in the heart of Alabama during the early 1930s, Irene Latham's Leaving Gee's Bend retells the story of a community starving and trying to survive among dire conditions.  The heroine of the story, Ludelphia Bennett, goes on a physical journey to save her dying mother and in the process ends up saving much more.

Latham's historical fiction familiarizes the reader with the community of Gee's Bend and its rich history of story-telling through quilting.  These quilts and stories still exist today. In keeping with the tradition of the region, Latham makes Ludelphia a quilter who gathers scraps of fabrics on her journey to save her mother, all while stitching a quilt together to lay across her mother's shoulders.  Her quilt will be her story of her journey.

Alone, Ludelphia experiences the very American story arc of someone young lighting out into an unknown world.  Barefoot and without a penny in her pocket, Ludelphia spends two tumultuous days and nights away from home while her mother suffers from pnumonia after just giving birth to a baby girl named Rose.  There is no medicine to help her mother as she further succumbs to her sickness.  There is the very real fear that her mother may die, and Ludelphia knows there isn't much time to find a way to help her mother.

Ludelphia's journey to bring back a doctor forces her to experience both the kindness and cruelty of the world, and confirms in her mind that there is no place in the world she would rather be but at home.  Home is meager and scant, but there is family.  There is no doubt Lu feels rich with family.  Yes, there are good people reaching out to help Ludelphia on her journey, yet there is also the villain of the novel, Mrs. Cobb, who grips a shotgun throughout the story and soon proves herself someone who can not be trusted.  She actively strives to harm both Lu and her family.

The strength and charm of the novel is in the dialogue.  Written with the affect and voice of a young Southern girl, Latham's use of dialogue rings true of the time and place.  This is a story which takes place in a part of Alabama at a time when America began to just feel the onset of The Great Depression, when a teacher traveled to poor communities to teach the young people and if there was nothing to pay the teacher with (eggs, goods, let alone cash) then there was no education.  Lu can read as can her father, but money was very tight: she had never tasted a Coke, ridden in an automobile, or washed herself in anything other than a bucket or a stream.  The dialogue brings all of these elements together and makes them authentic.  You believe Lu and you care about her story.

Ludelphia is a terrific American character which YA readers will actively enjoy.  She is tough, but feels real fear; she is adventurous, yet also needs a kind push (or shove) at times; and she is equally aware of the importance of family and personal responsibility:
Mama always said you should live a life the same way you piece a quilt.  That you was the one in charge of where you put the pieces.  You was the one to decide how your story turns out.
Reminiscent of classic Newberry winners past,this is a classic American tale of hardship and perseverance.  I've read that is has garnered at least some early Newberry attention this year which comes as no surprise.  Highly recommended for the middle school audience, Leaving Gee's Bend is a great book to pass along to any level of reader no matter what subject matter they typically might read.

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