I knew when I read this several months back that I had to find a way to feature this book on our site. Helen Frost has been a favorite ever since I discovered some of her award-winning poetry for our novels-in-verse theme last November to first weeks of January (see my review of Hidden here). Now that we are at the tail-end of our Girl Power and Women’s Wiles theme, I thought that the character of eighteen year old Muriel Jorgensen would be a lovely addition to our ever-growing collection of YA lit that highlight female empowerment.
Historical Fiction that Speaks Volumes and a Deafening Silence that Engulfs. The story is set in 1917 and there are several historical events that define and shape the life story narratives of our young protagonists in the novel. For one, this was the height of the women’s suffrage movement when women from near and far would converge together to fight for equality and their inalienable right to vote. They would gather peacefully and tirelessly stand for hours on end despite the proverbial ‘sticks and stones’ being thrown at them in all directions – in the hopes of enlisting the support of then President Wilson.
At the same time that this was happening, young men are being drafted into the army – it was World War I and one can sense and smell death in the clotheslines, in the creeks, and in the lined faces of exhausted mothers. The latter part of the book also spoke of the “deadly influenza epidemic spread through the battlefields, killing millions, and when the soldiers returned home, many of them carried it back to their families and communities.” (p. 177)
While 1917 may seem like an entire lifetime away, Helen Frost was able to effectively demonstrate how the same burning issues may be experienced (albeit in different forms and intensities) by teenagers of today: the search for one’s self, the raging need to be someone, and to do something meaningful with one’s life. I also marveled at how outspoken and seemingly-fearless eighteen year old Muriel Jorgensen is amidst her vulnerabilities and fumbling uncertainties about who she is, who she should be and who she is expected to be by others. These lines spoke to me deeply (I am taking a photo since there are limitations in the way I could type down poetic verses in WordPress):
I was also moved by the deafening silence between young Ollie (back from the war) and his family – a vast darkness occupying the space between himself and his loved ones where previously none existed. Perhaps there are things one sees during wartime that would forever change the look in one’s eyes – a quiet filled with wordless noise.
A Note on Form. One of the most amazing things about Helen Frost is her painstakingly-deliberate attention to poetic form and structure. I believe that she has managed to carve a niche for herself in a genre that is often-misunderstood by literary critics, writers, and the average bibliophile. Her novels in verse are tastefully and artistically crafted that the poetic structure in and of itself adds a different dimension to the narrative entirely. She described her creative process for Crossing Stones at the end of the book:
I’ve created a formal structure to give the sense of stepping from stone to stone across a flowing creek. I think of this kind of writing as painting with words, a process involving hands, eyes, ears, thought, and emotion, all simultaneously working together. (p. 181)
In this particular book, the reader gets to listen to three predominant voices: Muriel, our protagonist; Ollie, Muriel’s brother; and Emma, Muriel’s best friend. To distinguish these three voices, Frost has developed an ingenious way of making the poetic structure symbolic of the character in question:
The relatively free style of Muriel’s poems represents the creek flowing over the stones as it pushes against its banks. Ollie’s and Emma’s poems represent the stones. I “painted” them to look round and smooth, each with a slightly different shape, like real stones. (p. 181)
There is clarity of purpose in Helen Frost’s narrative. There is amazing subtlety that chips away at your heart – each poetic line a distilled version of truth painted in poetry. As per usual, I find myself hiccuping (despite myself) when I reached the ending, my heart in splinters as I drown in Muriel’s “white shirt crumpled in the mud.” This novel you would have to experience for yourself.
Teacher Resources. I found a number of resources for this novel through Helen Frost’s official website. A Readers’ Guide has been created by graduate students Jennifer Pennington and Cynthia Cruz, as seen in the Lee B. Hopkins Poetry Award Teaching Toolbox. The guide includes a summary, a list of questions that can be raised beforehand to invite the children to think about specific themes, as well as a list of suggested extension activities that can be done in the classroom.
Crossing Stones by Helen Frost. Frances Foster Books: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2009. Book borrowed from the community library.
Winner, Children’s/Young Adult “Best Books of Indiana” 2010, Booklist Top Ten Historical Fiction for Youth, Lee Bennett Hopkins Award, Honor Book, YALSA Best Books for Young Adults 2010, 2010 Amelia Blooomer List (Recommended Feminist Literature for Birth through 18), Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) Choices 2010, Kirkus Reviews “The Best Young Adult Books of 2009”
AWB Reading Challenge Update: 49 (35)
Novels in Verse Reading Challenge Update: 6 of 10