Friday, September 30, 2011

Five 4ths of July

Historical fiction may be the single largest genre represented in the Newbery canon. At first thought, this genre seems under-represented by the Printz...until you examine a list of all the winners and Honor Books and realize that a work of historical fiction has been recognized virtually every year -- though sometimes "history" means only twenty or thirty years ago (JELLICOE ROAD; TALES OF A REVOLUTIONARY MADMAN) or is depicted in a verse format (YOURS, SYLVIA; A WREATH FOR EMMETT TILL.) Some of the other recognized titles include LIZZIE BRIGHT AND THE BUCKMINSTER BOY, A NORTHERN LIGHT, and perhaps the greatest historical work written in ages, the two-volume ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, which received a pair of Printz Honors.

In some regards, Pat Raccio Hughes' FIVE 4THS OF JULY is a very traditional work of historical fiction, placing its protagonist smack in the middle of the American Revolutionary War. What distinguishes this novel is its depth of characterization and unusual narrative format as it follows teenage Jake "Mal" Mallery from July 4, 1777 through July 4, 1781. In 1777, he's a fourteen-year-old, mostly concerned with teasing indentured servant Hannah and trying to join a ship's crew. By 1779, he's in love with Hannah and helping to fight off the British invasion. The following July 4, he's held captive on a prison ship with his best friend. The grueling prison scenes highlight a seldom-discussed aspect of the Revolution; the author's note later informs us that about 11,500 Americans died on British prison ships, compared to only 4,500 American deaths in all the Revolutionary War battles combined. Authoritatively-written, the novel is abundant with gritty details and doesn't place its characters on lofty pedestals, but instead features down-to-earth, full-blooded individuals who make mistakes, crack vulgar jokes, and change with the times. The format -- showing Jake's life only through the events of five successive Independence Days -- is fascinating and allows the reader to watch this character grow into maturity, just like his incipient country grows, over the course of those five years.

Printz-worthy? Though it seems to be lacking "buzz" at this point, FIVE 4THS OF JULY is an unusually strong novel that definitely deserves consideration from the Printz committee.

What do YOU think?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for noticing. I really appreciate the post as well as your comments about the book.
    - Pat