Tuesday, May 1, 2012

2013 Contenders: May B and Kindred Souls

Sometimes I meet a book that's just not right for me. This month, I met two. Oddly enough, they're both about sod houses. I'm sure that's a wacky psychological profile waiting to happen. Or maybe sod houses are this year's magical boarding schools.

May B, by Caroline Starr Rose

May, whose family shares a cozy sod house on the Kansas prairie, is sent to help out on a neighbor's homestead several miles away. When the neighbor and his wife disappear, May is left to face a harsh prairie winter on her own. And she's dyslexic. But she has plenty of time to work on her reading, being snowed in on the verge of starvation and all.

Verse novels are a pretty tough sell for me. I admit that I don't really "get" them as an art form. When I read one, I feel like I should at least understand why the author chose that particular medium over another one. In the case of May B, it makes some sense - spare, unforgiving landscape begets spare, unforgiving text - but I'm still not sure it works. I prefer powerful prose to less powerful poetry.

The book does have a lot going for it, including sharp imagery and clear descriptions of May's ordeal. May herself is a strong, believable character, though I think her dyslexia is an unnecessary addition. It distracts from the main conflict and dilutes the force of the story.

Anyhow, May B received at least two starred reviews, so your mileage may vary.

Kindred Souls, by Patricia MacLachlan

The author of Sarah, Plain and Tall turns her hand to a short, plainspoken story of the love between a grandfather and a grandson on a peaceful prairie farm. Jake and his 88-year-old grandfather, Billy, are unusually close - kindred souls, in fact. When Billy falls ill, Jake knows that the one thing that will help his grandfather heal is a sod house - a replica of the one he grew up in. The whole family pitches in to build him one.

And there we have my problem with this book, in a nutshell. I keep fiddling with that summary, trying to make this book sound less ridiculous, but in the end... yeah. It's about a family who drops everything to build a sod house for a beloved elderly relative. I know it's really about the difficulty of saying goodbye to those we love, and the meaning of home, and etc., but... a whole sod house? I'm not sure my relatives would go too far beyond fluffing my pillows.

It's not that I can't appreciate a quiet, homespun story of loss. Missing May is one of my favorite Newbery winners. In that one, though, Rylant's prose is both raw and transcendent. Though MacLachlan's writing is perfectly good here, the characters feel underdeveloped, the setting is too idyllic, and the addition of an "angel dog" lends the whole enterprise an aura of Hallmark Movie-ishness.

Ah well. Maybe the sod houses caught me on a bad day.  

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