Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hard Times Book Club

My high school look didn't exactly spring from the pages of Vogue. Outside of the dreaded polyester school uniform (the kilt would melt if you tried to iron it), I had another one for weekends: jeans, T-shirt, a pair of black boots, and my dad's old Army jacket. (Picture Linda Cardellini circa “Freaks and Geeks” with frizzy hair and minimal coordination.) 

In other words, I never really got the whole “Gossip Girl” or “Blue Bloods” ethos. Nothing wrong with a little wish-fulfillment in your reading – after all, what are books if not escapes? But if shopaholic reading material is feeling a little shopworn, lo, these many months into the recession, here are some great heroines whose closets were also a little lacking in the Prada department.

For teens:
1.“I Capture the Castle,” by Dodie Smith. Cassandra's dad is a genius who has had writer's block so long that the family is mired in eccentric English poverty. This means they get a picturesque, leaky castle to live in, but little food. I didn't find this book until I was grown-up, but lordy, is it a good one. Please hand it to as many bookish teens as possible.

2.“Little Women,” Louisa May Alcott. OK, this one's a gimme, but I'll take any excuse to hang out with the March sisters. (Bonus points: “An Old-Fashioned Girl,” also by Alcott. Poor country girl helps her rich friends adjust to life after their dad loses everything in a business crash. Perhaps she could teach seminars.)

3.“To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee. Tomboy grows up in the Great Depression with possibly the world's most perfect dad.

4.“Little Heathens,” Mildred Armstrong Kalish. This terrific memoir is not technically a young adult book, but my son had to listen to it as my mom and I read it out loud to each other on a road trip, so on the list it goes. Kalish's memories of growing up just about destitute on an Iowa farm under the care of her strict grandparents is full of life and free of self-pity. Plus, there are recipes for homemade marshmallows.

5.“Where the Lilies Bloom,” Bill and Vera Cleaver. After her daddy dies, 14-year-old Mary Call tries to keep her siblings together and her “cloudy-headed” big sister out of the clutches of their landlord. The North Carolina girl finds money by heading up into the mountains and harvesting medicinal plants. No matter how hard the recession has been, the Calls had it worse.

6.“Homecoming,” Cynthia Voigt. Another teenager trying to keep her family together – this time in the 1970s. Thirteen-year-old Dicey's mom abandons her kids in a mall parking lot, and Dicey has to get them to their great-aunt's house in Bridgeport, Conn., with only $7 and a few sack lunches. Voigt won a Newbery for the sequel, “Dicey's Song.”

7.“The Hunger Games,” Suzanne Collins. There are no hard times like post-Apocalyptic hard times. Katniss Everdeen, a sci-fi descendant of Mary Call, uses her woodscraft and hunting skills to keep her mother and sister alive in the poorest remnant of what used to be the United States. Then her sister gets chosen for a “Running Man” style reality show, and Katniss volunteers to take her place. The sequel comes out in September. I can't wait.

For younger readers:
8. “All of a Kind Family” series, Sydney Taylor. These charming books follow the story of five sisters living in New York's Lower East Side during the turn of the 20th century. The family doesn't have much money, but Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie seem never to have heard of the disease of boredom. To this day, I can't dust a room without thinking about their mama's game involving buttons and pennies (and wishing someone would liven up the chore for me). Only three are still in print, but I remember lugging home more than that from the library.

9. “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” Mildred Taylor. This Newbery-winning story follows one harrowing year in the Logan family, as 10-year-old Cassie's family struggles to hold onto their land during the Great Depression in Mississippi.

10 a. “The Little House” books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Life with Ma and Pa and Half-pint wasn't exactly brimming with creature comforts, but I sure wanted to give pioneer living a try as a third-grader.

10 b.For a multicultural twist with a literary pedigree, try Louise Erdrich's native American answer to Wilder's much-read series, “The Birchbark House.”

11. “Ramona and her Father,” Beverly Cleary won a Newbery Honor in 1978 for this entry in the Ramona series. Ramona's dad loses his job and the family has to scramble to keep afloat (Ramona's dreams of winning a contest, notwithstanding). I can still remember poor, hungry Ramona, stuck in the neighbors' living room when her family is late to pick her up one evening, realizing that there wouldn't be an extra pork chop for her.

1 comment:

  1. What a great twist on the more mundane booklists. To go from Dicey to Katniss in one fell swoop- great thinking. I also loved your Christian Science Monitor review of Pat Conroy's new book: Minimalists can go mope at a Soho installation. Conroy is here for the story telling.
    Love it!