All the light we cannot see by Anthony Doerr. Scribner, 2014. 978-1-4767-4658-6
I don’t think I can say much that hasn’t already been said about this beautiful novel. It won the Pulitzer Prize, the Alex Award, was a finalist for the National Book Award … the accolades are well deserved.
One of the main characters, Marie-Laure, is the daughter of a locksmith; the other main character, Werner, is a prodigy with radios and electronics. Doerr writes with the same attention to detail and narrow attention of a locksmith or an engineer, creating a delicately interlocking plot that weaves back and forth in time and place. This is a novel about World War II but its power is in the details: ration tickets, snail shells, museum corridors, loaves of bread, small kindnesses and small cruelties. After reading it, I feel as though I lived through the war, on both sides.
Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy. Balzer + Bray, 2015. 978-0-06-232718-5
Willowdean’s mother is a former beauty pageant winner, and the head of the pageant committee in their small Texas town. Most of Willowdean’s friends call her Will, but her mom calls her Dumplin’. Will has always been comfortable in her plus sized body, despite the fact that her mother is obsessed with fitting into her pageant gown every year and her beloved aunt Lucy died from complications of morbid obesity. Then she meets Bo, her co-worker at a fast food restaurant. Things heat up between them, but every time Bo touches her, Will feels fat and ugly. When she finds out Bo is transferring to her high school, Will slams on the brakes. How can she put Bo through the humiliation of being seen in public with a girl like her?
Since this is a YA novel, everything works out in the end, but of course Will makes some dumb mistakes along the way. She decides to enter the town beauty pageant and soon inspires a few other misfit girls to enter as well. She kind-of-sort-of starts dating a football player, has a huge fight with her best friend, and deals with her grief over the death of her aunt.
American society purports to celebrate individualism, but at the same time there is immense pressure to conform. Women, in particular, are chided if they do not fit the ideal physical form that is celebrated in the media … including beauty pageants. Willowdean and her friends buck the trend, proving that even if girls who deviate from the norm can’t win a beauty contest, they can still enter, and have a heck of a lot of fun while doing it.
The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry. Viking, 2016. 978-0-451-4699-2
This a historical YA novel that was named both a Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults and a Printz Award Honor Book by the American Library Association. The title character is a well-born young lady in 13th century Provensa who becomes a Catholic mystic. But this book is not really about Dolssa, but about Botille, a not so well-born young woman living in a small village on the coast where she and her sisters run a tavern. Dolssa escapes being burned for heresy and is discovered, weak and injured, by Botille. Even though her younger sister, who is a bit of a fortune teller, warns her of danger, Botille decides to help this stranger, who is still being hunted by the Church.
One of the things I love most about historical fiction is the way a good novel can immerse you in another time and place. This is not a generic medieval landscape, this is late 13th century Provensa, an area of France where even today many people speak not French but Occitan. Berry provides enough explanation to give 21st century readers a grasp of what life was like in that time, but enough is left to the exotic Old Provencal words sprinkled throughout the narrative to let us know this is a different world than our own. She also provides some back matter on the history of the region, especially the Albigensian Crusade, which took place not long before the action in the book begins.
Dolssa is a pious woman who speaks to her Beloved (Jesus) and performs several miracles throughout the book. Ranged against her are the inquisitors of the Church, just as pious but convinced that they must defend their flocks against heresy, even if that means destroying women like Dolssa. This novel raises questions about the role of organized religion in society and the conflict between personal faith and institutional dogma. To our modern eyes, Dolssa and Botille do nothing wrong; in fact, they do much good. But to the orthodox medieval eye, they challenged the authority of the Church and therefore the word of God. Everyone in this story believes he or she is doing the right thing, and almost every action is done in Jesus’ name.
Who is right and who is wrong? This is question we still struggle to answer today.