This month I read two books that were new to me and two I’d read before but didn’t remember well.
36 Children by Herbert Kohl
Mr. Kohl was a white, Jewish graduate of Harvard and Columbia who agreed to teach sixth grade in a public school in Harlem in 1962. The school was only 29 blocks from his apartment, but it was in a different world. His 36 students were all African-American or Hispanic. He says, “It is one thing to be liberal and talk, another to face something and learn that you’re afraid.” He faced it, but it took him a while to rearrange his approach. His first breakthrough moment came when he asked the kids why they used the word psyches to insult each other: What did it mean? “Like, crazy or something.” Why? Mr. Kohl showed them the word’s unusual spelling, explained that it is Greek, told the myth of Cupid and Psyche, and listed some words derived from those names. The students became fascinated both with the concept of root words and with ancient myths, and these interests helped to guide the whole year. He also brought in a wide variety of books and magazines from his home and the public library, to compensate for the inadequate textbooks provided, and let the kids spend long stretches of time reading and writing about what interested them, doing science experiments with materials found in forgotten closets, or even playing jacks while expressing their new understanding of language by talking about jackomania, jackophilia, and jackophobes. The book includes many examples of the children’s writing, like Franklin’s attempt to write a fable:
Once upon a time there was two men who were always fighting so one day a wise man came along and said fighting will never get you anywhere they didn’t pay him no attention and they got in quarrels over and over again. So one day they went to church and the preacher said you should not fight and they got mad and knock the preacher out.
Can’t find no ending.
The class had a long discussion about whether this wasn’t really a fable because it had no moral or “Can’t find no ending,” was the moral. Mr. Kohl’s degree in philosophy came in handy! His students learned new approaches to learning while teaching him about the reality of their lives–racism, poverty, crumbling buildings, seeing violence and junkies every day. He encouraged them to express themselves and their reality instead of pretending they lived in the sanitized world of their textbooks. It was an inspiring year for the 36 children–but for most of them, it wasn’t enough to counteract the bad experiences they had in subsequent schooling and life in general as many of them kept in touch with Mr. Kohl over the next several years.
This was my grandma‘s book, which she recommended to me on a visit when I was a teenager because we both were interested in how different people are shaped by their different experiences. One of the fascinating things about rereading it now, nearly 50 years after it was published and now that I’ve learned so much more about how schools operate these days, is the things that went on then that would be out of the question today: Mr. Kohl took the class on a field trip to his apartment! The school was a “bean school” with no kitchen; the lunch was room-temperature plain boiled beans every single day in that era before the National School Lunch Program. There was no gym, playground, or gym teacher; Mr. Kohl was to meet the physical education requirement by taking the class to the nearest city park.
I highly recommend this book as a way of getting to “know” a group of real kids from a specific time and place that’s probably quite different from your childhood, and as inspiration for thinking about how people learn both in school and elsewhere.
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
Molly is a 17-year-old foster child in small-town Maine who needs to do community service after getting caught trying to steal a copy of Jane Eyre from the public library. Her boyfriend arranges for her to work helping 91-year-old Vivian organize her cluttered attic. In time, Molly and Vivian discover that their life stories are more similar than they thought: Each of them was in elementary school when her father died and mother went to a mental institution. Vivian, an Irish immigrant to New York City, was placed on an orphan train that brought children to the Midwest in search of families who would foster or adopt them. Like Molly, she had some very bad experiences and was rejected by some families–but Vivian then found the right family and grew up to be rich and happy (as Molly sees it), which gives Molly hope. Ultimately, each of them helps to improve the other’s life.
This book was a little too “chick lit” for my taste and annoyed me by being written entirely in present tense. (It seems to me that when a book has two timelines, “the present” and “the past”, it’s obvious which tense should be used in each!) There were a few minor but jarring anachronisms. However, the characterizations and descriptions were pretty good, and the plot was more original than it might have been. I got really into the story and was genuinely angry with Vivian over the big surprise plot twist.
Finding Fraser by kc dyer
Emma is 29 and sick of dating losers. She wants a man like Jamie Fraser, the hero of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander (a book that blew my mind), a brave and virile Scotsman who treats his lady like a person and respects her intelligence. Emma leaves her dead-end job in Chicago and heads off to Scotland, starting a blog to document her quest. An embarrassing adventure before she even leaves the United States sets the tone for a journey that isn’t at all what she expected.
As is often the case with stories about (and even real-life examples of) a woman looking for the perfect man, I often wanted to grab Emma and shake her. She’s kind of shallow and, for plot purposes, often ignores obvious clues. This was a fun story in many ways, though, with a lot of slapstick humor, and I’d recommend it as a one-time read for any Outlander fan.
Harm Done by Ruth Rendell
I picked up this title from my favorite mystery author at a used-book sale and had the feeling that I’d probably read this one before but only once and at least 15 years ago. This impression was reinforced by my recognizing some brief moments, as well as the starting situation–but I’d forgotten enough that the plot kept me guessing anyway!
Inspector Wexford is called to investigate the disappearance of a teenage girl–who then walks into her home, three days later, cold and wet but essentially unharmed, and can’t explain where she’s been. After extensive questioning, she gives away some details. Then another girl disappears and reappears under similar circumstances and gives a very similar story. Unable to find the suspects or the house the girls describe, the police are inclined to think they’re just lying to cover up trysts with boyfriends, but Wexford still feels suspicious. Meanwhile, a convicted pedophile is released from prison, and his neighbors freak out. Then a three-year-old girl disappears. Meanwhile, Wexford is worried about his adult daughter, whose volunteer work at a battered women’s shelter has led to threats from some abusers. How are all these things connected?
This is a pretty good mystery, if not Rendell’s very best. (Try Shake Hands Forever for a really perfect Inspector Wexford mystery!) The one thing that bothers me is the depiction of residents of a housing estate (British equivalent to a low-income public housing project in the United States) freaking out about a pedophile: It’s hilarious, but it’s overly stereotypical, as if all lower-class people are bumbling idiots; there isn’t any point in this book when anyone currently living in the housing estate is depicted as a reasonable human being. It’s just a little too politically incorrect for a book published in 1999.
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