In Kimberly Newton Fusco's The Wonder of Charlie Anne, the protagonist's family is falling apart. It's the middle of the Depression and Charlie Anne's mother has died giving birth to her sixth child. A distant cousin, Mirabel, has come to help her father manage his household while he sees to their farm. It seems to Charlie Anne that Mirabel is piling on the chores (including making a lot of vinegar pie), and trying to make her into a polite young lady by quoting The Charm of Fine Manners to her all the time. Then, her father leaves the family -- taking her older brother -- in order to build some roads and send some money home. Soon another member of the family is taken away. The only solace for Charlie Anne is quietly communing with the family cows and long conversations at her mother's gravesite.
When things are at their bleakest however, a spark enters Charlie Anne's life. "Old Mr. Jolly," the neighbor farmer, brings home a glamorous wife, Rosalyn, who wears "red-pepper red" pants! Accompanying Rosalyn is a young girl, Phoebe, just Charlie Anne's age. Phoebe and Rosalyn are from the South, and Phoebe is African American. Her mother and Rosalyn were very close, and Rosalyn adopted Phoebe when her mother died. Charlie Anne and Phoebe soon become fast friends, but other residents of their small New England town have a less-welcoming attitude. It may just be one too many burdens on poor Charlie Anne.
Even though Charlie Anne is a lyrical and evocative narrator, this didn't do anything for me. I found her to be a bit of a whiner and the whole story raised more questions than it answered. Granted, some are questions that might not irk a young reader. How come Rosalyn, raised in the South, is so racially enlightened? How could Charlie Anne's father go "north" from New England to build roads? Who's running the farm? Is Mr. Jolly the only adult in the community without racial prejudice? Did the community just find it OK to not have a school? How come Charlie Anne's older sister doesn't -- indeed -- seem to have any household responsibilities? And the really adult question: How did Mr. Jolly and Rosalyn meet?
The ending is a trifle neat, and I just got the feeling that I've read this story several times before -- Moon over Manifest being the most recent iteration. (Digression: I was recently booktalking Newbery books -- at the request of a teacher -- to some fifth graders, and it seemed like every single book I talked about had a missing or dead mother!)
Since my interest was lagging early on in this book, I read some reviews before I finished it. I learned two things that I believe were never actually mentioned in the novel itself: 1) Charlie Anne's family lives in Massachusetts (relevant ... give me a minute) and 2) Phoebe is Rosalyn's daughter (irrelevant). Now that I look back on this, I believe that Rosalyn refers to Phoebe as her daughter, but not in a biological way. I must have interpreted the review to mean that a nasty little secret would be revealed. Another reason not to read those reviews until you're done!
The Massachusetts part is relevant because, for the first disc of this story, I thought we were in the South. Narrator Ann Marie Lee was reading with an accent -- a slightly odd accent -- but my head told me it was a Southern accent. It was only when I read the review that I began hearing it as a New England awwhk-cent. So, did I assume the book was located in the South because of the references to the "north" and the presence of Lee's non-standard speech? What does this kind of mid-course adjustment do to one's appreciation of a book?
Lee -- an experienced narrator, but new to me -- reads this story with warmth and a lot of spunk. Charlie Anne is our unreliable narrator, and Lee keeps her front and center of her narration. She doesn't try to make her more likeable ... or more honest. There are a number of other characters who all have consistent and distinct voices. I found Lee's M-awwh-ssachusetts awwhk-cent to be a bit thick, but it contrasted nicely with Rosalyn and Phoebe's Southern-tinged voices.
There's a moment in the novel when first Charlie Anne, and then Phoebe each sing a verse of Amazing Grace. Charlie Anne can't sing very well, and Phoebe has the "voice of an angel." Lee does a good job of singing both ways. I do enjoy singing in audiobooks, and so was disappointed when, later on in the story, Phoebe sings another hymn (a Christmas carol?), Bright Morning Stars are Rising ... except no singing occurred. :-(
Other, more articulate bloggers than I have examined the issue of the lack of children of color in stories for young readers. I try to read broadly, but I know that the books I select are more likely to be about white kids as well. But I think the "sidekick" of color irks me more than the absence of color. If you're going to conscientiously put children of color in your work, why does the white kid always have to be in charge? (Two books reviewed here recently -- Virals and NERDS -- do this.) Now, granted Phoebe is really not Charlie Anne's sidekick, but still it's the white folks who fix things for her. To me, this makes Phoebe a position, not a person. And who wants to read about a position?
[The gentlemen working the road crew in 1933 are courtesy of Library and Archives Canada and were found through Wikimedia Commons.]
The Wonder of Charlie Anne by Kimberly Newton Fusco
Narrated by Ann Marie Lee
Listening Library, 2010. 6:38