Tuesday, November 17, 2009

By Carroll: Review of The Dred Scott Story

"Am I not a man and a brother?"

These words scroll underneath the figure of a slave in chains, hands held up in supplication, on the cover of an anti-slavery broadside published in 1837. The image and words are also used to great effect on the cover of the new book, Am I not a Man? The Dread Scott Story, by Mark L. Shurtleff.

Dred Scott, born into slavery as Sam Blow, was 38 years old when the broadside was published. Nine years later, with the help of former owners and others with anti-slavery sentiments, Dred began his battle for freedom. For the next eleven years, his case made its way through the Missouri court system and finally to the United States Supreme Court.

The decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford held that slaves were not protected by the constitution and could never be citizens of the United States, therefore they had no right to justice through the courts. The decision galvanized anti-slavery forces—one could say that it lead directly to the establishment of the Republican party, the election of Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War.

Who was this illiterate slave whose desire to be free set into motion events that formed our country? What conjunction of personal history with people, events, and ideas made his desire for freedom even seem possible? What kind of heart beat in his chest as he persisted in his quest for eleven years, despite discouraging setbacks?

The answers to those questions are in the pages of this engrossing book. Shurtleff's knowledge of Dred's life and times is amazing, but the real power of the book lies in the way he makes us care about Dred, his family, and other characters. The scenes he creates to bring the facts to life are interesting and often touching. One comes away with a new understanding of the profound struggle, both personal and national, that led to the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.

Given the complexity of the story, a listing of major characters and a timeline—especially of court actions—would be very helpful. This is especially true in the beginning of the book, where the action jumps forward and backward, introducing a dizzying cast of characters. I found Shurtleff's storytelling most compelling and readable when it was chronological (Part VII onward).

I was also surprised that Shurtleff began the book with the crucial scene when Scott learns that the 1850 decision granting him his freedom has been overturned. His cry, "Am I not a man like you?" lacks the emotional impact it would have if it came in chronological order. By then, readers caught up in the story and full of admiration for Dred would feel the devastation of the moment with him.

However, these are minor issues in a book that is well worth reading. It will introduce countless readers to a most remarkable man, a bright human spirit whose fight for freedom changed the course of history.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

By Carroll: Review of Alma by H.B. Moore

People read scriptures in different way at different times. They read them to study and absorb the word of the Lord to his prophets. To find inspiration and answers to questions. To enjoy understand the timeline and historical context of familiar stories.

Heather Moore has obviously read and studied the scriptures for all of these reasons. She has also read them with the mind of a writer, wondering about the story behind the story and the unmentioned men and women who are part of it.

And asking the question all writers ask when a story idea niggles in the back of their minds: What if?

The result of her study, thought, and imagination is Alma, the second book in a new series based on the Book of Mormon. The novel begins as King Noah demands that Amulon track down Alma and other believers who have fled into the wilderness following the death of Abinidi. From then on, one fraught situation follows another in this fast-paced read.

Moore uses details of ancient Mesoamerican culture to create a believable world. She paints a three-dimensional picture of Alma as a man haunted by his past but uplifted by his faith, a man who also longs for love and a family of his own. And she populates her story with an interesting cast of women who have pivotal roles in the story.

As someone who always wonders about the women behind the men in scripture, I appreciated these strong, courageous women who risk their lives to join Alma and the community of faith. (I'm very eager to read Moore's non-fiction book, Women in the Book of Mormon, which will come out this spring or summer.)

Pick up Alma for an enjoyable read that will have you going back to the correlating verses in Mosiah with heightened interest. My only caveat would be to start with Abinidi first. Because I hadn't, I initially found it hard to keep the characters straight.Happily my confusion got cleared up as I continued to read.

To learn more about Heather, go to her blog: http://mywriterslair.blogspot.com or her website: www.hbmoore.com.

Friday, July 3, 2009

By Carroll: Agent in Old Lace

The phrase, “It started with a bang,” has been used to describe the beginning of all manner of things, from the universe itself, to movies and, of course, to books. It’s meant as a positive description—except when used in tandem with, “and it ended with a whimper.”

Tristi Pinkston has avoided that pitfall in her new suspense novel, Agent in Old Lace. It starts with a bang as the object of Shannon’s affection, Mark, kidnaps her with the intent of killing her. It has plenty of action and suspense throughout, and it delivers a surprise at the end, which readers always enjoy.

The part of the plot that has Mark bilking many of Shannon’s clients through a Ponzi scheme (think Bernie Madoff) is timely and believable. When Mark escapes, an FBI agent (Rick) is assigned to protect Shannon. He has to show up in drag to do so, hence the title, Agent in Old Lace. While I found this plotline not so believable, it provides many opportunities for humor as well as some sweet exchanges that move Shannon and Rick’s budding romance forward.

I liked Shannon very much. She’s a gutsy character who doesn’t let circumstances take over her life. I only wish I’d had the chance to know her better up front. The downside to a writer jumping headlong into action is that readers haven’t been given the chance to develop empathy for the characters.

If Tristi had started the book with scenes showing Shannon meeting Mark, becoming impressed by his business acumen, and falling in love with his charming side, I would have felt how devastating his betrayal was rather that reading about how devastating it was.

That aside, I found Agent in Old Lace an enjoyable summer read. Congratulations to Tristi, who is known to readers for her historical fiction, for making a successful transition into the suspense genre.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

By Carroll: The Gathering of Good Women

In 2003, my husband and I moved from the Minneapolis area to Green Valley, Arizona. It was the right move for us, but adjusting to being in a new place wasn’t easy for me. Even after we’d been there over four years, I didn’t feel like I had a community of women friends. Then I started seeing Diann for massage, and she began introducing me to people she’d connected with over years of living and working in Green Valley.

These very interesting and talented women were also very busy. I decided if I wanted to spend time with them, I would have to make it happen. So I invited some of them over for potluck and evening of conversation. We enjoyed each other's company so much, we decided we should meet again the next month.

That was the beginning of The Gathering of Good Women, an almost monthly evening featuring potluck and some kind of activity or sharing. (Yes, the inspiration for that name came from the title of our series, The Company of Good Women.) Last year, our meeting ended up being the same night of one of the presidential debates, so we included husbands. They enjoyed it so much, we invited them again a couple of months later. Once in a while, the evening is more properly entitled The Gathering of Good People!

While the group of women (and people) who come to my home the last Thursday of the month varies, we always have a wonderful time. Here’s some of the activities we’ve done.

Walked the labyrinth at a local church
Made Zuni-style fetishes from self-hardening clay
Dressed up in 70s clothes and watched Mama Mia
Fixed Indian food and discussed vegetarianism
Collaged the future we wanted to create for the new year.

In May, we had The Great Giveaway. Everyone brought things they no longer needed or used, including jewelry, clothing, books and household items.We put those items on display, and after eating our supper, we looked over what others had brought to see if there were things we could use. I tell you, items flew off the jewelry table and the clothing rack!

Buy the end of the evening, everyone had found things they were thrilled to have, and we all felt lighter for having cleared some space in our own homes. The books that weren’t claimed went to a garage sale being held by a local church. The remaining clothing will go to a local Indian tribe, the Tohono O’Odham, People of the Desert. (The photo is of Ramona, who'd just claimed a beautiful coral necklace that went perfectly with her outfit!)

I’ve been hosting The Gathering of Good Women for almost two years, now. Those evenings have brought a wonderful spirit into our home and has helped me find my community and feel at home in Green Valley.

If you’ve read this whole post, consider hosting a Gathering of Good Women yourself. And if you do, please let me know!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Lael on Writing for Young Readers: How to Get There

After spending the last few months getting two creaky knees replaced, I'm excited to be teaching at the BYU Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Workshop from June 8th to the 12th. For more info, click here.  

I will be teaching the principles I learned from the best writing teacher in the world, Helen Hinckley Jones, who taught an ongoing extended day classs at Pasadena City College, and after retirement a class in her home for a chosen few. I studied with her for over twenty-years, until her death. After that, a group of twelve of her students continued to meet twice a week. Out of this group has come over 600 books for children and young people (as well as a few women’s novels).

One of the wisest things Helen, whom we called our ‘literary mama,’ ever said was, “Remember in writing for kids that they don’t want to look at the forest. They want to meet the bear.” She said that in writing for kids you get to the action immediately. Forget about beautiful descriptions. Bring on the bear!

Whenever one of us started a new book, Helen insisted that we be able to state the story question in one sentence. Why is Carlene having memories of a town where she has never lived? Will Robin discover the secret of the haunted dress? Will Selene be able to choose between her two families, the one that raised her and the one she was kidnapped from thirteen years before? “The story question is your roadmap to where you are going on your journey through the book,” Helen said. “It keeps you focused.”

Some rules were made to be broken if you write well enough, Helen admitted. But one of her inflexible rules was that the character must solve his/her own problem. The stakes must be high. What is the dreadful alternative if the character can’t solve the problem?

We, her students, came week after week after week, learning from her. She was hard on us and didn’t let us get away with being lazy about our writing. But we loved her classes. I told my brother once that her class was the highlight of my week. His face bunched up with sympathy. “You poor thing,” he said. And my husband said, “You women get together at least twice a week. Don’t you ever run out of things to talk about?” No. Any writer worth his/her salt will understand that.

We all went through hard times. An astute writer named L. Rust Mills has said, “The sinister thing about writing is that it starts off seeming so easy and ends up being so hard.” But Helen never let us give us during the hard time. “Persist,” she said. “That’s the secret.”

We persisted. And succeeded. Over 600 books attest to that fact. 

And so I hope to encourage my class in June to persist. Learning the rules, as taught by Helen, will help. Although Somerset Maugham said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”           

But we will have fun talking about what is a passion with all of us writers -- writing.