Thursday, July 24, 2008

I eat books like moon pies

I'm midway through my third novel in two days. Today, I'm reading Godless by Pete Hautman, the National Book Award winner about teens who turn the town water tower into a god. Yesterday, I finished Where I Want to Be by Adele Griffin and Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth by E.L. Konigsberg, which I hadn't read since childhood.

It's funny to compare my memory of the book with the book itself. I hadn't remembered the positive resolution, only the disillusionment when the girls give up on witchcraft because I had been so on board with the fantasy and didn't want it to end.

Also, in my memory I'd given extra weight to the scene in which it's plainly stated for the first time that Jennifer is black. Her mother's come to see her in the Christmas pageant, and Elizabeth picks her out because she's the only black mother present. This is a book from 1967, and it's pretty cool that a cross-race friendship is handled in such a subtle way (in the edition I just read, Konigsberg's word, "Negro," has been changed to "Black," but the original gives a sense of how old this book really is).

Jennifer's illustrated as being black in the book, but I remember reading that scene as a child and still being surprised and attributing importance to it. In my memory, that scene occurred near the climax, which isn't the case at all.

Even though there's no suggestion of racism in the book, I felt worried for Jennifer. She's portrayed as an outcast, although no more so than Elizabeth, and she hides the fact that her father's a caretaker on a wealthy family's estate. Elizabeth's one of the only kids in town who lives in an apartment building. There are certainly hints of racism and class difference floating around, but they're super subtle.

The revelation that Jennifer was black probably affected me so much as a kid because there weren't any black students at my Alabama private school -- diversity meant the one Jewish kid, Elliot, whose mother always taught us how to play dreidel before winter break -- and I'd probably never read a book with a black character, or at least not one where race wasn't the central issue of the book. Go E.L. Konigsberg! Her subtlety, the space she leaves for the reader, is at least part of the reason this book stuck in my head as a kid, why I read it aloud to my little sister, and why I'm coming back to it now as a an adult.

The other funny thing I hadn't remembered about this 1967 book is how many references there are to cigarettes -- some of the kids at Elizabeth's school even dress up as cigarette boxes for Halloween. No big deal.

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