Friday, March 31, 2017

Sonya Sones's _Saving Red_

The Plot: Saving Red (2016) is Sonya Sones's sixth verse novel for young adults. Like her first verse novel, Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy (1999), Saving Red takes on the topic of mental illness; the protagonist, 14-year-old Molly, experiences severe anxiety and panic attacks, while other characters in the verse novel suffer from PTSD and schizoaffective disorder. A poem early in the collection provides insight into Molly's panic attacks: "I can't breathe...! // ... I'm having a heart attack! // But then Pixel's here--" (12). Pixel is Molly's service dog that accompanies her everywhere. The narrative begins cryptically alluding to the root of Molly's anxiety by referring to "the awful thing / that happened last winter" (26), but readers don't learn that "the awful thing" has something to do with her brother, Noah, until 163 pages into the narrative. Beyond exploring Molly's family and personal history with mental illness, the verse novel also examines Molly's encounter with a homeless youth named Red and her quest to reunite her with her family before the holidays.

The Poetry: Like many verse novels for young adults, Sones's work is a problem novel and is devoted primarily to narrative. Saving Red is over 400 pages and told in short, free verse poems. Sones's verse novel conforms to expectations readers of poetry might have about the way a collection should be presented (multiple stanzas, each poem titled, poems that are 1-3 pages in length). Each poem title runs into the poem, but beyond that, there is little attention to the ways poetry can use language and imagery to communicate to readers differently than traditional prose. The only poetic techniques evident in Sones's verse novel are her use of the space on the page and a sporadic simile. For example, in the poem "I suck in a Breath," the speaker describes feeling "something like / a steel plate // splitting / apart // deep inside / of me" (371). This is the closest Saving Red comes to a poetry that allows the reader to slow down or focus on language; this seems like a missed opportunity in the collection.

The Page: The end of the verse novel includes an acknowledgements and author's note section in which the author describes her own experiences of having a family member with a mental illness and how these experiences inspired her to write Saving Red. Overall, the most compelling part of Saving Red is the plot; I found the poetry to be pretty lackluster. I give it three stars.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Patricia Hruby Powell's _Loving Vs. Virginia_

The Plot: Patricia Hruby Powell's Loving Vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case (2017) with artwork by Shadra Strickland is an interesting approach to the verse narrative form. Powell's work tells the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, who fell in love as teenagers in Caroline County. The Loving's story underscores the ways in which the cruelties and injustices of segregation and racism impacted one couple. The narrative begins in the fall of 1952 and follows the couple through the US Supreme Court's final ruling on their case in 1967. The narrative describes Mildred and Richard's experience growing up together in their small community, their love story, their marriage and the birth of their three children, and their almost decade-long court battle to allow them to live together as husband and wife in their hometown.

The Poetry: Powell's Loving Vs. Virginia is a polyvocal narrative that alternates between poems from Mildred and Richard's point of view, with each poem titled with one character's name and often with a date and place. The poems are told in free verse and make use of short lines and the space on the page to encourage reader contemplation. Interspersed throughout the poems are various documents and photographs (as indicated by the subtitle of the narrative) illustrating the historical context of the Loving's story. While the poems in this collection don't stand out particularly in their lyricism or use of language, together with the documentary elements of the work, the most successful poems in the collection seem to be those that focus on the characters' emotions. For example, in one poem in the middle of the work, the speaker of the poem Richard relates his experience of seeing Mildred "holding a bunch of greens / like they was a bouquet of wedding flowers" and the way that her smile makes "any doubts I might've had-- ... / drifted away on the wind" (142). The poem ends with the lines: "My country gal / I am her husband" (142). This short 12-line poem is juxtaposed with an illustration of Mildred smiling in the family's garden.

The Page: One of the most striking elements of Powell's Loving Vs. Virginia is the way in which various formal elements are woven together to tell the Loving's story: Strickland's artwork, the blue-toned photographs, the quotes from court cases and public figures, and the poems co-mingle together to make this a unique work. The narrative includes several timelines, an epigraph from Langston Hughes, a bibliography of sources, and notes from the artist and author.

I enjoyed the hybrid, collage-style form of Powell's verse narrative. I give it four stars.