Sunday, July 5, 2009

Across the Wide River 2: Good points

I mentioned yesterday that Stephanie Reed's Across the Wide River has enough actual history to qualify as edutainment. There's also some other info for us geeks to enjoy--fiddly bits about life in the eighteen hundreds. But what about non-geeks?

Character. Since this is a character-driven story, character development is a big issue--and shyness is a big issue for a lot of people. (Not just kids!) Some people might be bothered that there's no quick fix offered: Lowry changes with increased perspective, otherwise known as age. But it's good for people to know they aren't alone in their problems, and a quick fix would trivialize the issue. ("If you were as smart as I am, you would've figured this out too!")

Life choices. On a related note, Lowry takes a while to figure out--well, not what he's supposed to do, but that he's going to do it. It's one thing to know God's will; it's something else to do it. I think a lot of people who complain about not knowing God's will actually want a reset on the part they do know.

Back to Abolitionism. We tend to think that slavery is a thing of the past, but it still occurs in several parts of the world. For that matter, using human fetuses for research is worse than normal chattel slavery, as there is no escape but death. So long as the US believes that it is acceptable to buy and sell human beings, we will not only give up the moral high ground in dealing with more old-fashioned slavers, we risk judgment. It helps to remember how dehumanizing slavery is to both slave and owner, and this story makes that point. Even a "good" master may have to do bad things with and to his slaves.

Learning from history. It's possible that the anti-life policies we're seeing these days will call for civil disobedience. In a story I once plotted, health-care costs were used as an excuse to require unborn children with birth defects to be aborted, resulting in a kind of Underground Railroad for pregnant women. What would we do in such a case? Perhaps the best answer lies in our past, with the people now generally recognized as heroes.

Concision. I nearly forgot to include this craft note, though it was one of the first things I noticed: Reed doesn't go rabbiting on and padding the story. In general, if something doesn't advance plot, character, or setting (setting being nearly as important as character), she doesn't dwell on it. So the cholera epidemic I mentioned last time would probably take up three fraught yet needless chapters for another writer, but here gets as many paragraphs, since the main point is who died. A fair amount of the story maintains this Spartan ethic, which is refreshing after all the Baroque excrescences other authors wallow in.

Tomorrow we'll look at the weak points of the story.

In the meantime, is there more on the CFRB tour? You bet your buttons! Or better yet, try mine:

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