Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Braid by Helen Frost

This book reminded me very much of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas...not the plot of course...but in the seemingly simple way it is told. Yet, like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, this story also had much more depth to it...the story and literary techniques were much more than the reader first surmises.

This book also received "starred" reviews in the various journals. I was introduced to it at a YA reading workshop. And, I have to confess, at first I didn't think I would like it, but boy was I wrong! I read it through the first time because the story line compelled me. I loved the language and the narrative poems and the voices of the two sisters. The metaphor of the braid was powerful, and yet I was also intrigued by the historical component of the story and was anxious to learn more about this time period. Then I read the author's notes about the form of the poems and how they were "braided" together, how the line lengths are based on syllabic count etc... and this made me go back and read them more carefully. Wow! Amazing! I also loved the "praise" poems. I'm not an English teacher but I would think this book would have a wealth of fodder for the classroom. Is this a historical period we explore in global? Maybe Cathy could let us know.

And again, although the story seems simplistic I can really see this book working well for high school students...from honors to 15:1. I think the adventure and romance (teen pregnancy) would definitely draw in reluctant readers. What do those of you who work with special ed think? Reviewers had various suggested reading levels most suggested "grade 8 and up" and I would agree with this.

The only thing that bothered me was the almost too easy success of Jeannie and her mother in Canada. Did anyone else think the author glossed over their struggles? And I thought for sure that Sarah and Murdo were going to cross paths looking for each other....again their meeting up seemed too pat...but these little issues would not prevent me from recommending the book.

Looking forward to your thoughts.


cathy said...

Finally I got in I am running out of e-mail addresses. For some reason it will not accept my password but then tells me I have an account. Enough complaining.

This book has been my favorite so far. It is poignant and certainly could be used in the Global reading list. Although we do not study England/Scotland/Canada, we do study refugees, migration, diasporas, the British Empire. I had not known about the effect of the famine on Scotland. You always read about the Irish Potato famine. I agree that some things were a little too pat as Kathy said but that would not stop me from recommending this book. I found it similar to the movie Far and Away of course a shorter version. The British have forced many people off thier lands "for the good of the British" I loved it when they were looking for the muscles and told they couldn't have them because it would hurt the British fishing. Students would be come enraged and engaged at this point.I thought the arrival of Jennie and her family into Canada to be very realistic. I could see making comparisons to refugees in ohter periods of history. The Jewsish diaspora and how they were not accepted in Europe but eventually made a good life for themseleves, Darfor refugees- The Lost Boys, Isreal's not taking in any more African refugees. Lots of discussions could be developed about the social, political and economic impact for refugees on a country.Canada did not want burdens on their towns. If the migrants could not support themselves they were "discarded". On the other hand Canada offered the opportunity for those who survived to improve themselves. I liked the importance of education. Jennie learns to read and write while her sister remains illiterate and depends on others to read the letters. I thought the description of life in Scotland was very accurate. I thought the dealing of the teen pregnancy was very good.First the osctrasizing, then acceptance but still the difficult life of a single parent.
I liked the use of the braid, the thread that binds all together. The idea that families are bound by the braid no matter how far apart they may be is important. Many of us have family in different parts of the country or world and it is nice to know that fmaily is family. So Kathy add this book to my global list. It is perfact for the 15-1 class as well as CT classes.

Kim Seeley said...

I am not a huge reader of historical fiction and did not want to read this book. However, I am glad I did. I actually enjoyed reading it. However, I wish Frost would have told us how the poems intertwine before reading it. Since this is a short book that addresses teen pregnancy, homelessness, and poverty, I can see students 8th grade and up enjoying this. I cannot imagine what the people who crossed over to North America had to endure. So sad that she lost members of her family. The only annoyance I had at the end was that things were just too easy. I mean, the chances of Murdo finding her family and then enduring the travels back to be with her. But, other than that, I really enjoyed this book. Once again, a great pick Kathy!

Dawn said...

I have to say that I was somewhat surprised by how I enjoyed parts of this book. Like Kim, I am not really into reading historical fiction, but I did enjoy the overall plot of the book and would recommend it to students in the future. Since I am not a history buff, I feel like I needed more information about what took place in the Western Isles of Scotland.

I really enjoyed reading about Jeannie. I felt for her in many situations throughout the book. She is a strong character and someone for girls to look up to. As mentioned in another blog, I too question the likeliness that Murdo would make it back and forth to Canada and find Sarah's family. It just wasn't realistic to me. I was expecting that the family would try to reunite after Murdo's trip to and from Canada, and I was somewhat disappointed that they didn't in the end.

Overall I enjoyed the story of the two sisters, but I did not like the poems. I felt that it was an interruption to the novel verses adding to it. Even though I didn't like the poems, I do believe that they could add to an English class and possibly help prep students for the ELA.

Becky said...

I enjoyed the story and although I am a huge fan of poetry I did not like having a poem in between every chapter of the book. I did not read the poems as I read through the story. I found the poems to be disrupting and went back after I had finished the story to read them. I am not certain how students would view the poetry.

I do think the book had great symbolism and an intriguing story line. I agree with Cathy that the effect of the potato famine on Scotland is not something that is often discussed.

I also agree with everyone that the end of the book was a bit too tidy. I too expected Murdo and Sarah to cross paths between Canada and Scotland. I was also surprised that the family did not choose to reunite especially after hearing of Sarah's pregnancy.

I think overall students would enjoy the storyline and the literary devices employed throughout the story and poetry would offer some great classroom discussions.

cvanslyk said...

I totally enjoyed this book. It was beautifully written and I really like historical fiction. I think that my students will like it as well, especially the girls. I had wanted to do more with poetry this year and this book might work very well. The vivid imagery that Frost uses will help students visualize what they are reading about. The issues discussed in this book are issues that interest students and that many of them can relate to. I really liked the ending. Jeannie, her mother and baby brother were impoverished and homeless until Jeannie aggressively grabbed the farmer's torch, that he was going to use to burn down the potato shed, and stomped on it. This symbolized the death and hunger they had experienced being extinguished. It really was not an easy ending for them. Jeannie had to really fight for their survival. I was glad that everything worked out well at the end. The characters were very well developed and likable. This book would be great to stimulate class discussion. Also, some of the poems could be used for journal responses. This is an awesome book!! I would like to read more of her writings. She is a brilliant author. Do we know if Helen Frost is any relation to Robert Frost? This was a great pick, Kathy.

Pam L said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pam L said...

Yes, this book is a keeper! I've already decided to use it in a poetry unit with my freshmen honors students. I too thought we should give this book a read since we don't read a lot of literature featuring Scotland, Wales, or Ireland. We read so much that we call British but a lot of the times it's mostly English. Many of the freshmen don't realize that Great Britain includes Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

I also think that these characters are very likable and legitimate. The books our students read and the shows and movies they watch on their own primarily leave them in a very comfortable familiar world--a place where kids have cell phones and nice cars and don't worry about much. Even our students who are struggling financially keep up with the electronics and clothes fashions--that seems to be what's most important. We try to expose them to literature and media in which teenagers are a little less self-absorbed and a little more cogizant of the world at large. I don't know if all students would "grab onto" this book immediately but I think with some prodding they'd be interested. And these characters help remind us that people can overcome great adversity with dignity. They also remind us that there's a vast difference between what we need and what we want.

There could be great discussions about desperate decisions made in times of great trouble: Sarah deciding to stay without family; her family deciding to leave without her; Jeannie's grabbing the torch out of the farmer's hand; Murdo's decision to look for Sarah; Sarah's decision to go find Murdo. WOuld the students agree or disagree with these decisions? I can only imagine the discussions!

I noticed a lot of people were uncomfortable at the ease with which Murdo and Sarah were reunited. I was at first but then I remembered how people coming into a new country tend to gravitate to places where they've heard their countrymen have settled. This gives them moral and sometimes financial support. When a boat landed in port it wasn't odd for a person to recognize a familiar accent, strike up a conversation, and ask about certain family members or friends. The fact that Murdo arrived on the exact morning that Sarah was planning to leave was, I agree, a little contrived; but I would have been far more disappointed if they had missed each other and never reunited at all. There was enough hardship througout the book; I wanted a happy ending...I'm a sap.

Lastly, I loved the format of this book. And would love to see how many students caught on, with a little prodding, about the poems intertwining and the fact that the whole book is written in a poetic format. This is exactly what I needed. I noticed my freshmen really like narrative poetry and seem more comfortable moving into other poetry types when they see how much you can do with rhythm.

I have a feeling we'll be seeing this book a lot at different levels. I will also look for more Helen Frost. And this will definitely be a Christmas gift for several readers on my list this year!


Kathy J. said...

I'm thrilled that Pam is using this with her freshman honors students...and I agree, I think this book will instigate lots of discussion about other ways of life and material needs. It would be cool if you had one of our students from the Ukraine in your class...or maybe have one of the junior/senior girls come to speak. They are wonderful kids and very smart...and I have talked with them at length about their sense of maintaining their culture and importance of community in this new "world." Might really add to the experience for your freshmen.

I also agree that Ireland and Scotland get lost in our literature...so I'm glad this book fills a need. And I will definitly add it to the global list!


Amanda said...

I also enjoyed this book more than I originally thought. I was nice to read some historical fiction about a part of global history that I do not know much about. I thought the description of the boat ride to Canada really showed how difficult a trip across the Atlantic was. We take the fact that we have airplanes today that can take us anywhere safely in a day or less. I thought the storyline about pregnency before marriage would be one that students would be interested in and perhaps compare and contrast the stereotypes and struggles now in our culture with those offered in the book. I too thought the poems disrupted the flow of the story. At first I started to read them in the order they were presented, but then I skipped the rest and went back in the end. I wasn't impressed with them until I read the author's note about the way the intire book was written and "braided" together. I also wish this this information was given at the start of the book so I could appreciate the author's effort better.
This book would be a good way to teach poetry to our 15:1 students I think. It's poetry that's intertwined with a story that I think teenagers would find interesting and the reading level would be appropriate for those students as well.

rebeccakryger said...

I, too, thought this book would fit well in freshman level. For a classroom novel, the integration of poetry was interesting and could create much discussion.

When I first picked up this novel, I thought I may not like it. However, I really got into it. My sister recently moved and I found myself grabbing for some tissues when the sisters were separated. There were several points that I thought would be great for classroom discussion. Sarah's pregnancy, what Jennie and her mother had to go through to survive, and the struggle of life in an unfamiliar place. I am a fan of historical fiction, so the only thing I was wishing for was more to the story; it came to an end too quickly when I felt like I was just getting into it...I wanted it to be a longer novel!

I struggled a little with the level for this book. The topics seemed more appropriate for high school, but the reading level is not very difficult. I think Pam's right on with 9th honors. The poems' link to the text should generate some great discussion.

Darla said...

I agree that the ending did seem too"pat".

Darla said...

What were the chances that it would all come together so easily at the end? But what bothered me more was the way that Murdo was swept away. That part didn't seem very realistic with me and in keeping with the plight of the rest of the story, I think it needs to be in order for us to believe the other parts. However, I agree with everyone. It was nice to have a happy ending and I was very much satisfied with the entire story. Students can learn a lot about teenage life through the characters' determination and perseverance and that bad things can happen to good people. Knowing that becoming pregnant after only one encounter could be one of those valuable lessons.Hoipefully, too, students may become more appreciative of what they do have and a little more compassionate for those less fortunate. I would like to see a project or activity following the reading of the story in which students devise a way to help those less fortunate in our area. And perhaps it would not be at Christmas, but at another well chosen time when people, particularly teenagers,are in need. This book was a winner and I would like to use it with all my freshmen and sophomores. Thanks, Kathy, for all the selections this summer. This and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas were my favorties.

Lisa said...