Thursday, February 13, 2014

2015 Contenders: Miss Emily, by Burleigh Mutén

The title character of Miss Emily is arguably the most famous bearer of that name, Emily Dickinson herself. The circus is coming to her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, and she has a plan to lead a few local children (including her niece and nephew) to watch the circus's midnight train pull in.

This is the setup for a gentle adventure, the kind that was more common in children's literature a half-century ago than it is now. The cast of characters is small, and the focus is on family and neighborhood relationships. Even the event that's the catalyst for the plot -- the arrival of the circus! -- is something of a throwback.

I'm not a scholar of Dickinson's life, but author Burleigh Mutén volunteers at the Dickinson Homestead, and the blurb on the back from Polly Longsworth (who wrote The World of Emily Dickinson) praises Miss Emily's "true-to-life plot and characterizations, and, above all, accuracy." I'm willing to accept the opinion of the experts here, and instead, focus on the questions I had about the book's format and structure.

Miss Emily is a verse novel, and as a book about a poet, that makes perfect sense. However, I don't understand the kind of verse novel it is. Dickinson was one of the most idiosyncratic poets in the history of American Literature; it's impossible to mistake one of her poems for anyone else's. The vast majority of her poems are in iambic heptameter (which simultaneously recalls many hymn texts and, as generations of snarky English majors have learned, enables nearly any Dickinson poem to be sung to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas"); she makes heavy use of slant rhymes; and her highly individual punctuation uses dashes almost as weaponry. However, Miss Emily is essentially in unrhymed free verse, and dashes are used only fitfully. Even though the book isn't narrated by Dickinson, but by Mac, the child who lives across the street, this seemed like a really strange choice to me. Why write about a poet without making any use of her instantly recognizable style?

Additionally, the children aren't very sharply differentiated, which is what would be necessary for the thin plot to work. I didn't find myself either concerned with or interested in any of them -- or with Dickinson either, as the insights offered into her character are general and superficial. Longtime readers of this blog will know that the plots of many of my favorite books can be charitably described as "understated," but Miss Emily doesn't provide the other elements necessary to make this kind of book work.

My favorite thing about the book, as it happens, isn't relevant to the Newbery discussion at all. The more I see of his work, the more Matt Phelan becomes one of my favorite illustrators working today, and his drawings here strike just the right notes of whimsy and subtlety. Bluffton was one of my favorite books of last year, and Phelan's work here shows that he continues to do very well when given an interesting historical context.

It wouldn't surprise me if Miss Emily were to attract plenty of discussion, and perhaps other reviewers will like it more than I did. For me, however, it's not really a Newbery-caliber book.

Publication in March by Candlewick

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