Friday, May 6, 2016

Book Review - Beverly Cleary's A Girl from Yamhill

A Girl from Yamhill by Beverly Cleary
Published by: Yearling
Publication Date: April 22nd, 1988
Format: Paperback, 320 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Long before Beverly Cleary became a household name to generations of children who love her books, she was just a girl who grew up on a farm in the small town of Yamhill, Oregon. When she was a little older her family leased the farm and moved to Portland where Beverly's life took on a more typical existence. Instead of wandering through meadows looking for wildflowers, she had school and friends. She was a voracious reader and one of her greatest joys was graduating eighth grade and getting an adult library card. Growing up during the Great Depression with stresses at home with her father scraping by on work that was unsatisfactory and a mother that was controlling, Beverly escaped into the world of books and soon showed a talent for writing herself. While she was encouraged in her scholarly pursuits, her mother tried to maintain a firm grasp on the shape of Beverly's life, even guilt-tripping Beverly into a chaste relationship with a man named Gerhart for many years. If Beverly's mother had had her way Beverly would have ended up just like her, a frustrated housewife with ambitions of having been a writer, luckily for her, and us, things turned out differently.

When I was in sixth grade I became more then a little addicted to the Scholastic Book order forms we'd get at school. Prior to sixth grade I'd order a poster or two, most likely of a cat, maybe a book, but in sixth grade I started to pour over them with religious fervor, trying to pick just which books I wanted. My parents were accommodating, there weren't may bookstores in town and the fact that I showed an interest in reading beyond my few books I'd read at least a hundred times made their publishing hearts happy. The core of my book collection is still all these books I ordered from Scholastic, from Beverly Cleary to Judy Blume. But when I discovered Roald Dahl's Matilda, many of these books languished on my shelves. I spent most of sixth grade reading and re-reading Matilda, secreted in my desk at the back of the classroom near the sink. A Girl from Yamhill was one of these books that was brushed aside for Matilda. I have a vague recollection that I was sad it was a biography, and put it on my shelf to wait. Interestingly enough at some point my grandmother must have taken it down and started to read it. How could I intuit this almost thirty years later? My grandmother had a habit of using whatever was to hand to use as a bookmark and about a third of the way through this book I found a Queen of Hearts playing card. While not her common Halls wrapper, a playing card was as sure a sign she had been there as an "x" on a treasure map. She must have abandoned the book, and, seeing the book from her jaded POV I can see why. It's simplistic, lacks depth, and at times can be deathly boring. But there's something there that still makes it worthwhile.

The key aspect that I needed to keep in mind while reading A Girl from Yamhill was who Beverly Cleary's audience is. I mean, it should be obvious because I ordered this book from Scholastic in sixth grade, but it's easy to forget that her writing is aimed at children or adults who grew up on her books and have a fondness for her writing style. If, like me, you haven't read any of her books in years and are expecting some amazing depth or insight with this book you are sadly mistaken as to what kind of book you are about to read. It isn't entirely simplistic, but the prose are straightforward and almost stark. She lays things out simply and tells her story without embellishment, and this leads to a lack of depth. But likewise this means that anyone can pick it up and read it and find something to connect with. Cleary also sticks to incidents that would be universal to her readers while having the barest framework of the historical era. She talks about struggles with her parents and touches on money problems they had without going into too much depth about the Depression. She has the typical worries of all kids, will she like school, what about friends, what about boys. She sets out her life to be relatable while also telling how she became a writer. Though I wish I had known going in that it's the second volume of her biography that deals with her writing career. Perhaps that's why A Girl from Yamhill starts to flag at the end? Maybe she was saving up the good stories for the next volume and just resorted to bland entries in her diary to sum up this section of her life. Why else would anyone resort to the sloppy writing of "looking in my diary"?

Overall it's the unflinching honesty that makes this book unique. She doesn't sugarcoat her life. Bad and good things happen and she doesn't hesitate to mention them. This is most seen in her relationship with her Mother. I have a feeling that Mrs. Bunn and Norma Bates would get on rather well. They both have a clinging need to be the center of their child's life, they aren't overly demonstrative with affection, and are just plain nightmares to live with. Beverly's mother has a pathological need to live vicariously through Beverly, whether it's in managing her friends, her boyfriend, her parties, or her "accomplishments" from dancing to the piano, whatever her mother says goes. She is a tyrant. Beverly has almost no say in her life and you can feel her yearning to break free. If it wasn't for her father laying down the law and saying that Beverly was going to go to California for college I don't think she would have ever broken free from her mother. The creepiest thing though is her mother's diary. Only, her mother doesn't write her own day to day exploits, oh no, she writes her daughter's dairy. Which she keeps secret from Beverly. This is just, what is she, psychotic? It's almost too creepy to discuss. I think at this point even Norma Bates would be shying away from Mrs. Bunn. There's being a controlling parent, and then there's this, whatever this is. In Beverly's defense, at least she didn't try to make her mother a saint and she didn't kill her like Norman Bates.

The one aspect of the book though that makes me question that Beverly is always unfailingly honest is the prophetic nature of her life. With teachers as early as grade school telling her to be a writer. I think the first mention is in third grade. I can get behind high school teachers advising her on her talents, she did so much writing for the paper and even wrote the school play, then it makes sense that her abilities would be commented on. A grade school teacher, when she's barely started to write telling her? Um, no. It's fairly obvious that she wanted to be a writer her whole life, despite saying that she wasn't sure what direction her life was going. So she foisted this belief onto other people so that she could be uncertain about her future, which most of her young readers would relate to, while at the same time laying down the law that a writer she was going to be. This felt all just too pretentious. Like a higher being shined a light from the sky and said "Beverly Bunn YOU ARE A WRITER!" Yes everyone might have a calling, something they are good at. But she just made too big a deal about this and I can't get behind the propaganda of it. Sure, it might have been inevitable. Was it prophesized? No. Not at all. If her mother had had her way Beverly would have been a homemaker, and NOTHING is set in stone. It just worked out and Beverly seems to think this was fate. Sigh.

The real question I wonder though is is A Girl from Yamhill still relatable to kids growing up today? I don't think it is. My generation is the last generation to grow up with kids running wild in the streets with their bikes akimbo on the playground as they played till dusk. There is a lack of freedom and a focus on technology that today's kids grow up with. To read about someone growing up during the depression when school concentrated on penmanship and how to diagram a sentence, it might as well be a foreign language. Personally, I think it's more important then ever to make kids read books like this because they can relate to some of the struggles but it is also a more tangible, understandable, history lesson. This is what the world was like not too long ago before everyone had cellphones when having a private phone line to your house was a luxury. I can relate to the book because it's the world my grandparents and my parents and to an extent myself, grew up in. The world is just changing so fast that we need to look back to a time when things seemed slower. But more importantly, you see the maxim of history being doomed to repeat itself, think of the Depression and our current recession... they are very similar, if decades apart. Kids today need a little wake up call.


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