A Whodunit YA Novel: Dovey Coe by Frances O’Roark Dowell

Our Bimonthly theme for May/June: Whodunit!

Myra here.

I’ve had this book for years now but I never really had the chance to read it until now that I have the perfect excuse given our Suspense, Mystery, Whodunit theme for May-June. I was able to finish it in two-days, it’s a fairly quick read. It also happens to be the recipient of the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Juvenile Novel in 2001 and the William Allen White Award in 2003 (source here).

Distinct Voice of the Book. I have always felt that a book’s quality can be seen in how distinct its voice is. A lot of people look at me like I’ve gone mad each time that I say that a book ‘speaks’ to me. Truth is, it does. Just check out this oft-quoted line from Dovey Coe as found in the very first page of the book:

My name is Dovey Coe and I reckon it don’t matter if you like me or not. I’m here to lay the record straight, to let you know them folks saying I done a terrible thing are liars. I aim to prove it, too. I hated Parnell Caraway as much as the next person, but I didn’t kill him.

Throughout the narrative, you have this feeling of Dovey just telling her story as she sits next to you, her voice vivid – recounting the events, and declaring her innocence with such fierce sense of pride, haughtiness that borders on the defiant, and willful, determined cock-eyed self-sufficiency. Yup, she grows on you.

Since the book is written from Dovey’s eyes, you have this mountain twang evident in the pages (setting is Indian Creek, North Carolina).

Indian Creek, North Carolina. From ActiveRain.com – click on the image to be taken to the websource.

While younger children might get a tad distracted and may not be able to follow the narrative, I feel that it is an important exercise that children should be exposed to: the realization that each book has its own flavor and having them acquire different tastes that would allow them to savor each sentiment expressed by the author as the story is gradually being shaped in their minds.

As the quote above indicates, our young Dovey Coe is being tried for murder – she was found next to a dead Parnell Caraway, her lovely sister’s suitor. Dovey had motive, opportunity, and she was at the scene of the crime. Things kind of look bleak for her, especially if you add the fact that she has a greenhorn for a lawyer defending her innocence.

Beauty and the Struggles (and Perks) that go with it. Dovey has a sixteen year old sister named Caroline who happens to be a beauty. She describes her older sister in this manner:

She was so pretty, sometimes I could hardly look at her. It was like she had a white light around her setting off her long dark hair and big green eyes. Daddy said Caroline could stop an army of men with them eyes of hers, and I believed it. I have gray eyes myself, and there ain’t enough about them to comment upon (p. 7)

Despite this, I don’t think Dovey really felt that she was in the shadow of her sister – she had a spunky attitude that allowed her to speak her mind simply because everyone made such a huge fool of themselves in the presence of her sister (especially men).

My favorite Hollywood sisters: Singer-songwriter Zooey Deschanel and Doctor Temperance Brennan – Emily Deschanel. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Moreover, she is the adventurous, reckless kind of girl who couldn’t be bothered with lady-like manners and dainty things: “the life of proper things, tiny stitches and delicate sighs” (p. 16). She would much rather buy a pocket knife for hacking weeds than a pretty silver mirror. Was she jealous of her sister? I suppose this quote would paint us a picture of how she feels:

I wondered some about what it would be like to be Caroline, to have boys coming at you this way and that, their hearts in their hands. Not that I was all that interested in boys, mind you. Nor did I wish to be some raving beauty, since my interests did not lie in the area of romance. Just sometimes, I get curious, is all.

While Caroline enjoys the perks that go with being a veritable beauty, it’s a double-edged kind of gift since people tend to look at her as just another pretty face. There is also that expectation that she would get married early and that there is no need for her to attend university since she would most likely settle down after high school. Caroline, however, has dreams for herself. She wanted to go to the university to become a schoolteacher and to “become cultivated.” Her suitor, the dead Parnell Caraway, however, was determined to change Caroline’s mind: he feels that she should keep house, cook him great meals and bear his babies. On occasion, they can go to the city, dine out in nice restaurants and of course he promises her pretty dresses and nice things. He firmly believes that “a little learning is wasted on someone as pretty as Caroline” (p. 89) and that she should stay in their town to be his “pretty thing” and not waste herself on being a teacher (p. 90). He is a piece of work, ain’t he? Little wonder he ended up dead. From the beginning, Dovey has made no secret of her disdain over Parnell and that she feels he was an arrogant, spoiled bully who has good looks on the surface but quite “rotten to the core.” Perfect suspect for murder.

Appalachian Mountains, North Carolina. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

My Brother’s Keeper. Aside from an older sister, Dovey has a brother, a little older than her named Amos. He has never gone to school (the entire mountain range his classroom and Mark Twain from the library his source of erudition) primarily because they had no provisions for a child who has hearing impairment. Dovey explained that:

… he got a sickness when he was little, and it caused water to be in his head and make his brain swell, and because of it he turned deaf. (p. 18)

Given Amos’ condition, Dovey has taken it upon herself to be her brother’s protector. For someone like Amos who is different, the world isn’t always a safe place. What people do not understand, they fear, and when people are afraid, they tend to do stupid things. Dovey shared:

Some folks thought that because Amos didn’t hear and he didn’t talk, he must be stupid, and a lot of folks treated him like he was, though it was a far sight from the truth (p. 18)

The book was able to perfectly capture the sense of alienation that Amos felt and how non-inclusive most children or even a school can be given the challenges faced by someone with his condition. The great thing about this book is that the author was able to communicate this without sounding preachy, cloying, or ‘false’ in any way. It is a book that speaks to one’s inner sense of truth. And as such, I believe, it is a perfect introduction to middle-school children or even teenagers of how damaging some of what they may perceive to be innocent and casual remarks can actually be. I also like how the book was able to highlight how intense the bond between siblings can be.

Cane Creek Park, North Carolina. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Measures of Wealth. One issue that was explored in detail in the book is this definition of what constitutes wealth and poverty. Again, this is in reference to how Dovey perceives the murder victim Parnell, who by virtue of his wealth, has the entire town doing his bidding. Dovey Coe’s family is an exception since they have their own land (however humble it is) and they grow their own food. Her father, John Coe, is described as a “jack-of-all-trades” who can just about fix anything; he also plays the guitar and described as a ‘free thinker’ who is not afraid to speak his mind. Dovey’s mother grew up in Cane Creek and is a full time homemaker. They don’t make much, but it’s enough. I feel that we could learn a thing or two from Dovey’s wisdom. She noted:

The wau I seen things, us Coes had everything we needed in this world. Some might see us as poor, but that was their problem. We had saved up the money to send Caroline to college, which is more than many a richer family in town had done for their children. Parnell Caraway, for one, would not be packing his bags to go off to an institution of higher learning anytime soon. And if he had his way, nor would Caroline.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

To my way of thinking, Parnell was a prime example of riches not necessarily making a man satisfied with his life. He had just about everything he could want, plus a little extra. He had silk shirts and ten pair of shoes, a genuine cowboy hat from San Antonio, Texas, and an automobile his daddy bought him secondhand. But for all them things he had crowding up his life, he still walked around looking for new, shiny things to add to his collections, and Caroline was one of the items on his list.

That struck me as an indication of her knowledge and deep-seated insight way beyond her twelve years. This girl is sharp. Makes one wonder about the things “crowding up” one’s life and exactly how important it is.

I was asking myself exactly what it was about Dovey Coe that has drawn me to it. Clearly, it is not just the fast-paced, suspense-driven kind of feel of the book. I’ve read quite a number of YA lit recently involving mystery, suspense, and the like, and I find that while the action is riveting, the character portrayal is weak or hackneyed or even stereotypical, and at times makes me yawn and grimace in distaste. Dovey Coe, on the other hand, is a feisty protagonist that you won’t be able to forget easily. Like I said earlier, she grows on you. While there is that gradual unfolding of suspenseful events until the mystery is laid out before you in detail – there is that journeying to the human spirit that is clearly evident – and is superimposed on the drama and crime. It is multi-layered in essence.

Teacher Resources for Dovey Coe. I am very pleased to note that there are quite a number of resources available for teachers who would like to make use of this book in their classroom. Let me outline a few that I found from the web. This is a Reading Group Guide created by Simon and Schuster which includes Discussion Questions and Activities that teachers can use in class. This lesson plan is created by Scholastic and includes a ‘Warm up Activity’ and an After-Reading Activity.

This downloadable pdf link is one of my favorites – Teacher’s Notes on Dovey Coe created by Alan Pearce for Harcourt Education Limited. It’s a luscious 14-page spread that includes a Glossary of Dovey’s expressions, a research activity on difficulties faced by students with a hearing impairment, an activity that involves writing a newspaper article on Dovey Coe’s trial and sooo much more! It’s amazing.

About the Author. Frances O’Roark Dowell is a multi-award winning YA author who currently resides in (surprise surprise) Durham, North Carolina. She has also received the ALA Notable Book and NCTE Notable Book awards for The Secret Language of Girls and Chicken Boy respectively (source here). If you wish to know more about Frances Dowell, click here to be taken to her official website.

Dovey Coe by Frances O’Roark Dowell. Aladdin Paperbacks, New York, 2001. Bought my own copy of the book.

2 Comments on A Whodunit YA Novel: Dovey Coe by Frances O’Roark Dowell

  1. Hi, just want to ask if the books in Kallang for 1 sgd are still available?

    Like

    • myragarcesbacsal // May 23, 2011 at 12:41 pm // Reply

      Hi Glenda. Unfortunately I didn’t find the stalls the last time I visited (around three weeks back)- so I suppose it’s gone now. =(

      Like

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