Mrs. Mumford was my 12th grade English teacher–a gracious, well-educated, lovely woman–and she taught me many things. Because of her I still (usually) remember when to use the subjunctive tense; because of her I know the origin of the term “malapropism”; and because of her I know that even Shakespeare, while amazing and (sometimes) hilarious, produced a dud–or so she assured me. (One of these days I’m going to read “Titus Andronicus” for myself, but her judgement was generally impeccable.) According to her, everyone does.
And while I certainly haven’t read a sample of EVERYONE’S work, I discovered just this week that (believe it or not!) Lois Lowry certainly has a dud. Because I just read Autumn Street, and OH. MY. GOSH.
I actually googled her when I’d finished the book, wondering if it was her first novel, because one of the two biggest problems with it is just how many different plot lines are going on. Unfortunately for her, it’s not nearly her first (although it’s certainly an earlier one); she doesn’t have that excuse. The problem with Autumn Street, however, isn’t just how much it’s got going on–it’s WHAT is going on as well. The book contains–in no particular order–the following:
1)Racial Tension. It’s subtle, but it’s there, and it comes out of subtlety so that it can be a catalyst at the end.
2)A father fighting in WWII. He eventually comes home, but with a prosthetic leg.
3)A love triangle. It’s in the distant past, but it still comes up to affect how the narrator views her world.
6)A benign, dignified grandfather who suffers a stroke and can no longer speak.
7)Situations very pointedly affected by social and financial status.
8)A new baby in the family.
9)Mild sibling rivalry.
10)The deaths of two children. (Under ten, no less!) A third becomes dangerously ill with pneumonia.
I got to the end of the book and just thought–seriously? And here’s the thing–it’s still Lois Lowry, and so it’s still powerfully written. It still has incredibly poignant moments. (For Pete’s sake, the woman wrote The Giver AND Number the Stars. The WORLD knows she can write.) I wanted to love this book. Historical fiction about WWII? East coast setting? Coming of age themes (because yes, they’re there too!)? This is generally a recipe for success for me. At the end of the day, however, it was just too much.
A book narrated by a six-year-old can have a sociopath OR a psychopath. I just don’t think it can–successfully–have both.
Ultimately, it’s a dud. Right again, Mrs. Mumford.
(If she were still alive, we’d go to lunch and talk about it.
I miss her.)