Thursday, February 03, 2011
Mockingbird a powerful and affecting story of persistence and loss
Winner of the 2010 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine takes place in a small Virginia community in the weeks following a shooting at the local middle school.
Two students and a teacher were killed in the shooting. The story is told through the eyes of a 10-year-old girl, Caitlin whose brother was among those slain. Caitlin has Asperger's syndrome.
The choice of Caitlin as the narrator is at once a risky, yet inspired decision on Erskine's part. Risky because of the inherent difficulty in portraying Caitlin in a realistic manner. Erskine must convince the reader that the character on these pages represents an authentic inner portrayal of an autistic child. That she does exactly this says much about her talent as a writer and her keen observational skills.
Inspired because Caitlin interprets the world quite literally. Told to experience the world as if she was wearing someone else's shoes, she wonders how they would ever fit. She sees the world in black and white. Too, Caitlin is plain spoken. She says what she thinks. Although she intends no harm, some find Caitlin's candor rude.
Because a child's understanding is limited, because a child is inclined to remark on the obvious, a child narrator allow an author to furnish the reader the story in small pieces, allowing tension to build and understanding to emerge page by page rather than in a rush. Like a chess grandmaster, Erskine is able to use Caitlin in such a satisfying fashion.
Caitlin's brother, Devon, helped her cope with the world. Now that he is dead, she must find her on way. We follow her as she seeks to make friends and to find closure, both for herself and her father, who is virtually paralyzed with anger and grief at the cruel and unexpected death of his son.
Caitlin befriends a young boy. We later learn that his mother was the teacher who died in the shooting. She also crosses the path of another boy, a classmate, whose cousin was one of the shooters. Perceived as evil, although he had no hand in the shooting, the boy is shunned by other children.
Alongside Caitlin, we learn a little something about finesse in human relationships and in the importance of persistence -- an attribute that Caitlin is really good at.
"You have to Work At It . . . ," Caitlin tells her father. "You have to try even if it's hard and you think you can never do it and you just want to scream and hide and shake your hands over and over and over."
A Virginia resident, Erskine developed the idea for Mockingbird following the shootings of 33 people at Virginia Tech University at Blacksburg in April, 2007. She has fashioned a powerful and affecting story, filled with humor and pathos. It is a book not just for any age, but for the ages.
- - -
Erskine is among the participants at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. She will appear Thursday, March 17, at Buford Middle School.