This is the last of our reviews of Karen Cushman’s previous titles for this week, though there are more lovely ones we could talk about. Next week is all about Meggy Swann, but for now, I’m going to talk about her latest book prior to Meggy, set in the early days of the Cold War.
Thirteen-year-old Francine Green lives within walking distance of Twentieth Century Fox studios in 1949. She sees most of the world in terms of her favorite movies, but her own life isn’t nearly so exciting. She has a hardworking father, a homemaker mother, and is the middle child with an obnoxious older sister and cute but pesky younger brother. She goes to a strict Catholic girls’ school and never questions the nuns or her family until Sophie Bowman, who lives down the street, transfers to her school.
Sophie is full of radical ideas instilled in her by her widowed father, and she takes on the strictest nun in school, Sister Basil the Great, with questions ranging from why hats are required for church to whether crossing the international date line on a Friday enables you to eat meat. While the nuns are exasperated with her nit-picking of church teaching, things grow more serious when she questions the growing hysteria over communism. And Francine slowing begins to ask the same questions in the midst of going through puberty and dreaming of Montgomery Clift.
This book has much in common with Karen Cushman’s other books, not the least of which is superb story telling firmly grounded in a particular time and place, but it also offers something a little different. Maybe because it’s closer to the modern day and the issues it raises can still be felt in America. Maybe because modern Americans feel much the same way toward Arabic Muslims as post-WWII Americans felt about communist Russia. Francine also has an “every-girl” quality about her that other Cushman heroines don’t, largely because her story is more recent. Young girls (and not-so-young girls, a-HEM) can relate to Francine’s dilema of wanting to seek truth but wanting to keep a low profile all at once.
Like every good Karen Cushman book, though, Francine has her favorite expression of disbelief, annoyance, or anger. In fact, she has two: “Ye gods!” and “Oh nausea.” No one has Karen Cushman’s way with historical explitives, and it is one of the many reasons she gets two whole weeks of lovin’ here on Damsels:)