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In Search of the Novel

Ten Novels

A Lesson Before Dying

by Ernest Gaines

Synopsis

 In a rural Cajun community in 1940s Louisiana, a white shopkeeper had died during a robbery attempt. Jefferson, a young black man, is in jail awaiting execution for the murder he did not commit. A country schoolmaster, Grant Wiggins, understands that the verdict and the penalty were inevitable for any African American. Likewise, Wiggins finds that he is also deprived of liberty. Although university-educated, his ways are barred. He can find no better job than teaching in the small plantation church school. When visiting the house of a white person, African Americans must come in by the kitchen door. Custom and the law rigidly separate the races. He longs to leave Louisiana with his girlfriend, Vivian—to leave the antebellum attitudes persisting eighty years after the Civil War. However, Jefferson’s grandmother, Miss Emma, pleads with Wiggins to teach her grandson pride and how to die as a man. During the ensuing weeks, both Wiggins and Jefferson learn lessons before dying—lessons about love, salvation, and their common humanity.

Reviews

Before he is to be executed, Jefferson is instructed by the white sheriff to write in his journal that he has been treated fairly. The prisoner obeys, but fairness is far from reality in this Southern town in 1948. The wretched segregated jail that holds Jefferson is merely a miserable extension of the Jim Crow system that prevails outside and condemns all blacks. It is a system that, according to Carl Senna, “will break down educated men like Grant and prisoners like Jefferson to ‘the nigger you were born to be’ ” (“Dying Like a Man: A Novel about Race and Dignity in the South,” The New York Times Book Review, August 8, 1993, p. 21). The novel explores how any black man—the doomed, impoverished Jefferson or the college-educated teacher—can rise above that condemnation. It also dramatizes the social distances not only between white and black but also between Grant, the teacher, and Jefferson, the poor illiterate.

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Bridge to Terabithia

by Katherine Paterson

Synopsis

After running in the fields around his farmhouse all summer, Jess Aarons hopes to be the fastest boy in his fifth-grade class. Then a new classmate—a girl named Leslie Burke—moves into the next farmhouse, and she is faster. She turns out to be the fastest in the class. After Jess recovers from the surprise and humiliation, he discovers that he might like Leslie as a friend. The two of them create an imaginary and secret kingdom across a gully in the nearby woods, which they name Terabithia. The children can travel to this secret place only by swinging across the gully on a rope. Their time together is rich in imaginative play and in real companionship, as they rule Terabithia as king and queen, defeat giants, and share stories. Then tragedy comes, and one child is lost forever.

Review

Bridge to Terabithia is unusually believable on many counts—its realistic characters, the real friendship between a boy and a girl, and the reality of tragedy. Even Jesse and Leslie’s fantasy kingdom of Terabithia obtains a reality; it is a place where children can be friends. Mrs. Hildagarde Gray writes that Bridge to Terabithia is a beautiful love story, “encompassing all the tones and nuances of deep feeling, all the entanglement lovers feel with each other’s sensitivities and interpretations of life … [but it] is not a love story of physical encounter but a fusion of souls and minds. To shy Jess, Leslie’s philosophy opens new doors. Her sudden death threatens to crush him before he has learned to live her teachings. Her strength, however, continues to move within him, permitting him to move toward maturity and carry the land of Terabithia in his heart” (Best Sellers, Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation, February 1978).

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Ceremony

by Leslie Marmon Silko

Synopsis

When Tayo returns emotionally distressed from the war in the Pacific against the Japanese, he cannot find comfort among other Native American veterans and their retreat into drunkenness. With the help of a medicine man, he finds his ancient connections to the land and the healing ceremonies of old rituals. The patterns of the old stories and myths, all fitting together, bring healing, peace, and redemption to Tayo. They also bring hope to the tribal peoples of the Southwest.

Reviews

Tayo is a half-white, half Native American who has survived World War II, but is emotionally damaged. He eventually finds peace through the traditional healers and the ceremonies that reconnect him to the old patterns. According to Prudence Hockley’s review in 500 Great Books by Women,Ceremony is somber in tone, its narrative interspersed with fragments of myth, the writing imbued with the grace and resonance of a ceremonial chant. It powerfully evokes both a natural world alive with story and significance, and the brutal human world of Highway 6 and the streets of Gallup, where Navajos, Zunis, and Hopis in torn jackets stand outside bars ‘like cold flies stuck to the wall.’ ”

“Story is to engender life, and Ceremony speaks upon the very process by which story, whether in oral or written form, substantiates life, continues it, and creates it,” writes Simon J. Otiz (“Towards a National Indian Literature: Cultural Authenticity in Nationalism,” The Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States,1981).

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Flowers for Algernon

by Daniel Keyes

Synopsis

According to Charlie Gordon, who tells his own story through his journal, he is a mentally retarded adult. He works in a bakery as a janitor, but he is ambitious and hard working. He yearns to have friends and to be smart, like his fellow workers. As such, he is a perfect candidate for an experimental brain operation that promises to increase radically human intelligence. Already tested on Algernon, a mouse, the procedure promises wonderful success. Both mouse and man become brilliant. But Charlie the man now must question his new self and what it is to be a person and to be happy. He confronts the cruelty that marred his childhood. Soon, Algernon’s intelligence diminishes, and Charlie has to face the inevitable reversal.

Reviews

The story of Charlie Gordon, a profoundly retarded adult transformed briefly into an intellectual giant by medical science, first appeared in 1959 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The one element of science fiction is the transforming operation, performed first on the mouse Algernon and then on Charlie. The story was expanded into a full-length novel in 1966 and then made into a movie titled Charly. As Charlie Gordon tells his story through his journal, we glimpse the world of the retarded. According to Mark E. Hillegas (Saturday Review, March 1966), Keyes “offers compassionate insight into the situation of the mentally retarded; how they feel, how they are treated by parents, friends, institutions.” We also see Charlie’s evolving life in his changing style. As critic Robert Scholes writes (Semiotics and Interpretation, 1982), “Charlie acquires a competence in grammar, an extensive lexicon, and a rich, vigorous syntax—and then gradually loses all these, as his mental powers fade. He also becomes an impatient, aggressive, arrogant, and unlovable man as his powers increase… But as he loses his mental competence he regains the affection of those around him…”

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Frankenstein

by Mary Shelley

Synopsis

Rescued from the polar wastes by Robert Walton, an obsessed young English explorer, Victor Frankenstein tells him his terrible life story. As a brilliant student growing up in Switzerland, he excelled as a student of natural science. After discovering the terrible secret of creating life, the young scientist assembled the necessary parts from local butcher shops and dissecting rooms to create a living, eight-foot-tall creature. As Victor questioned his actions, he became sick with fright at the sight of the creature and fled. Soon, news came that his brother William had been strangled. Justine, a family servant, was convicted of the crime. Victor later learned that it was the creature, whose hideousness had separated him from human friendship and kindness, who had killed William. The creature demanded that Victor create a companion for him. Victor reluctantly agreed, but he later reneged. A second and then a third murder followed—Victor’s friend and, later, Victor’s bride. Racked by guilt and grief Victor travels to the polar north, where he dies in pursuit of the creature he created.

Reviews

On an evening in Switzerland in 1816, there had been a philosophical discussion about science and the beginnings of life with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. There had been a challenge: a horror-writing contest. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the result. Written when she was only nineteen, Frankenstein has entered the language and culture as a tale of warning to the modern world and its unthinking faith in science. Dr. Frankenstein attempts to satisfy his ambitions and to broaden human knowledge, but he brings only a curse. In her 1910 essay, Clara H. Whitmore writes that “the monster created by Frankenstein is closely related to our own human nature. ‘My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy,’ he says, ‘and, when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change without torture.’ There is a wonderful blending of good and evil in this demon, and, while the magnitude of his crimes makes us shudder, his wrongs and his loneliness awaken our pity.”

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Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

Synopsis

Mysterious people enter the life of the young orphan called Pip. Once, in a misty graveyard, he is accosted by an escaping convict needing help. Pip brings a file and food and witnesses a desperate struggle with an unknown man. Pip is later entertained and bedeviled by the strange Miss Havisham and a beautiful young protege, Estella. Years later, Pip comes into a mysterious fortune. The now arrogant Pip boards a coach to London to join the ranks of the idle rich young gentlemen. He assumes that he is being groomed to marry Estella. The convict returns to reveal that it is he who is responsible for Pip’s fortune. Eventually, after learning much about human frailty and steadfastness, malevolence and kindness, Pip becomes a wiser man. Many years later, he meets again the dazzling beauty Estella in the ruins of Miss Havisham’s garden, where he comes to terms with the illusions and promises of his “great expectations.”

Review

“Mr. Dickens may be reasonably proud of Great Expectations,” the Saturday Review of London opined in 1861. “He has written a story that is new, original, powerful, and very entertaining…Great Expectations restores Mr. Dickens and his readers to the old level. It is in his best vein, and although unfortunately it is too slight, and bears many traces of hasty writing, it is quite worthy to stand beside Martin Chuzzlewit and David Copperfield. It has characters in it that will become part of common talk, and live even in the mouths of those who do not read novels. Mr. Dickens has always had one great fault…This fault is that of exaggerating one particular set of facts, a comic side in a character, or a comic turn of expression, until all reality fades away, and the person who is the centre of the extravagance becomes a mere peg…on which the rags of comedy hang loosely…But if this new tale is marked with faults of its predecessors, it appears to us to surpass them in one point. There are passages and conceptions in it which indicate a more profound study of the general nature of human character than Mr. Dickens usually betrays.”

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

by J. K. Rowling

Synopsis

Some boys find themselves cruelly under the thumb of unsympathetic and unloving foster parents. Harry Potter had to spend his first ten years sleeping under the stairs with the Dursleys in their smug suburban life—despised and neglected. Most boys discover some idiosyncrasy in their looks; Harry has a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. Some children learn a surprising thing or two about their heritage, sometimes from a mysterious visitor. Harry receives a visit from Hagrid, a giant, who brings the news that Harry’s father was a wizard and his mother a witch. They were killed by Voldemort, the evil sorcerer; Harry escaped with the scar on his forehead. Harry must leave the horrid Dursleys, explains Hagrid, to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. And so begins Harry’s education and his return to his birthright. He goes off to boarding school as a typical English child might, but his supplies include a message-carrying owl and a wand. There are new friends, new teachers, new sports, and a world of danger and enchantment.

Review

Publishers Weekly, July 20, 1998: “Readers are in for a delightful romp with this award-winning debut from a British author who dances in the footsteps of P. L. Travers and Roald Dahl…There is enchantment, suspense, and danger galore (as well as enough creepy creatures to satisfy the most bogeymen-loving readers, and even a magical game of soccerlike Quidditch to entertain sports fans) as Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione plumb the secrets of the forbidden third floor at Hogwarts to battle evil and unravel the mystery behind Harry’s scar. Rowling leaves the door wide open for a sequel; bedazzled readers will surely clamor for one.”

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Song of Solomon

by Toni Morrison

Synopsis

The materially successful African American businessman, Macon Dead, attempts to hide the working-class, Southern roots of the Dead family and to protect it from the life of the African Americans in his neighborhood. Macon Jr., nicknamed Milkman, rebels. Discovering heresay about the family’s lost wealth, Milkman begins his journey to Pennsylvania and thence to rural Virginia to find it. There is neither gold nor land. However, after he drops some outward forms of civilization and undergoes an initiation into sensitivity and knowledge, he discovers and accepts his family’s past and himself. At the end of the story, Milkman feels fully alive and human but strangely ready to die.

Reviews

In this celebrated novel, Nobel Prize–winning author Toni Morrison created a new way of rendering the contradictory nuances of black life in America. Its earthy poetic language and striking use of folklore and myth established Morrison as a major voice in contemporary fiction.

Song of Solomon begins with one of the most arresting scenes in our century’s literature: a dreamlike tableau depicting a man poised on a roof, about to fly into the air, while cloth rose petals swirl above the snow-covered ground and, in the astonished crowd below, one woman sings as another enters premature labor. The child born of that labor, Macon (Milkman) Dead, will eventually come to discover, through his complicated progress to maturity, the meaning of the drama that marked his birth. Toni Morrison’s novel is at once a romance of self-discovery, a retelling of the black experience in America that uncovers the inalienable poetry of that experience, and a family saga luminous in its depth, imaginative generosity, and universality. It is also a tribute to the ways in which, in the hands of a master, the ancient art of storytelling can be used to make the mysterious and invisible aspects of human life apparent, real, and firm to the touch (Oprah Book Club selection).

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Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

Synopsis

It is late-nineteenth-century Nigeria, and life is measured by ancient rhythms of market weeks, dry and wet seasons, and war and rituals. Men grow in stature as they become strong and generous. Through transition rites, they grow closer to their ancestors. Okonkwo’s life flourishes in this rich and sometimes violent culture until events overwhelm him—an accidental murder, his subsequent exile, and the arrival of Europeans, with their Christianity and government. Tribal customs are disregarded and outlawed, prisons are built, and clans are thrown into confusion. Men lose their manliness and their very lives: “Our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

Reviews

The story of Okonkwo and the Ibo people of Nigeria is the story of British colonization and the collapse of the indigenous culture. The first to arrive were the missionaries, who appear to the village outcasts as having a superior faith. Then came the army and the government. The disintegration of the culture becomes complete when Okonkwo hangs himself and the Commissioner appropriates that fact for material for his book, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger. Obviously, the tribes had been peaceful; it was the British who had brought violence. As Reed Way Dasenbrock writes, “Colonialism in a sense deprived Africans of both their past and their future. They were assured that they had no past worth bothering about, only a past of brutish savagery. Europe was the continent with the glorious, rich past, and the history they studied in school was the history of Europe and the European presence in Africa… And when today we speak of developed and underdeveloped countries, we are of course subscribing to the same sense of history.” (“Creating a Past: Achebe, Naipaul, Soyinka, Fara,” Salmaguni, Nos. 68 BS 69, Fall 1985 and Winter 1986, pp. 312 ff.)

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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

Synopsis

Scout Finch recalls three years of her childhood during the Depression in Maycomb, Alabama, beginning the summer before first grade. She lives with her older brother Jem and their lawyer father, Atticus, a widower. That summer they find a new friend named Dill Harris, whose interest in stirring up drama leads the children to try to entice the town bogeyman, Boo Radley, to come out. Meanwhile, a drama affecting the adults begins as Mayella Ewell, the daughter of an often-drunk, violent white farmer, accuses Tom Robinson, an African American, of rape. Atticus is called on to defend the accused while Scout and Jem struggle to understand issues of prejudice and justice. The two dramas intersect as one person is killed, Jem’s arm is broken, and Boo Radley does indeed come out.

Reviews

Harper Lee’s first and probably only novel tells many stories, principally the story of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her family during a particularly significant period in her life and in the life of American race relations. According to Frank H. Lyell, “Harper Lee writes with gentle affection, rich humor, and deep understanding of small-town family life in Alabama” (“One-Taxi Town,” The New York Times Book Review, July 10, 1960, p. 5). “The style is bright and straightforward; the unaffected young narrator uses adult language to render the matter she deals with, but the point of view is cunningly restricted to that of a perceptive, independent child,” according to Richard Sullivan (“Engrossing First Novel of Rare Excellence,” Chicago Sunday Tribune, July 17, 1960, p. 1). Another reviewer comments that the story is “dominated by [Scout’s] complete love and devotion for her father and older brother, her admiration for a boy her own age [the real-life young Truman Capote], her acceptance of Negroes as fellow human beings with the same rights and privileges as those of white people, and her hatred of all hypocrisy . . .” (Nick Aaron Ford, The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture, 1961, Atlanta University, PHYLON, Vol. XXII, June 1961)

Web Sites

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
    This page includes a note to teachers about the book, questions for class discussion, and topics for writing and research projects.
    http://files.harpercollins.com/OMM/to_kill_a_mockingbird.html
  • To Kill a Mockingbird: The Student Survival Guide
    An annotated guide to Lee’s novel, containing more than 400 definitions for words, idioms, and allusions found in the text.
    http:/www.lausd.k12.ca.us/Belmont_HS/tkm
  • To Kill a Mockingbird: Then and Now
    This Web site was created by the Prince William Network in honor of the 35th anniversary of the release of the Academy Award–winning film To Kill a Mockingbird. It contains primary source documents, lesson plans, and student work.
    http://library.thinkquest.org/12111/
  • Monroe County (Alabama) Heritage Museum
    Information on the museum’s exhibits on To Kill a Mockingbird and Truman Capote.
    http://www.tokillamockingbird.com

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