Here is a thing that I am not: I am not a high school English teacher. But if I were...
The kids and I all read Half Bad by Sally Green in the last couple of weeks. It's on the reading list for Books for the Beast, a one-day YA conference put on every other year by the Enoch Pratt Free Library. I'm a facilitator and Milo's a teen attendee and I think registration is still open. You should come!
Anyway, the book is - I mean, not to put too fine a point on it - it's good. Characters are complex, plot takes unexpected turns, and settings are described really nicely. I'm a nut for setting - I believe a writer is fully inhabiting her character when she writes about how the air feels, or the ground underfoot, or describes how the sun slants over mountains or the roofs of a city.
There are some who will say that the premise of Half Bad is a bit too Potteresque - there are witches and there are non-witches, and the non-witches don't know about the witches, and there are Black Witches and White Witches. At one point the main character, Nathan, won't even say the name of his father, 'the most evil Black Witch there has ever been'. Yeah, Sally Green, I'm sorry hon but somebody already owns He Who Must Not Be Named.
BUT. In my experience, derivative doesn't bother kids much. My own kids, when this Potterish political milieu was pointed out to them, were like 'ehh...' Ezra said, "there's so much else in the book that is pretty original, it's no big deal."
So that's not my issue. Oh - I have an issue, did I mention?
My issue is... I have some discomfort with the extent of the violence inflicted on Nathan. Personal violence - he is slapped, punched, burned, choked, cut, kicked - I think everything but shot and drowned by nearly every other character in the book. Wait, no, he is shot. And then walks home barefoot in the woods. The brothers of the girl he likes stomp the shit out of him and carve letters into his back, and this is even before he's captured by the Ministry of Magic (uh, sorry, it's called something else but it's essentially the Ministry) and kept in a cage for a year. He is routinely knocked unconscious either by blows or pain.
And I feel like the author is kind of excusing all this punishment by giving Nathan - and all witches - magic self-healing ability. So there's no permanent damage... or is there?
And here's where my inner curriculum developer comes out. Nathan can't read (it's a Black Witch thing, just accept), but his Ministry-appointed captor reads to him occasionally, and the book that most captures his attention is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
One Day in the Life... describes one day in a Soviet prison camp. The protagonist, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, unjustly accused of being a spy after having been a prisoner of the Germans at the end of WWII, has been sentenced to ten years hard labor in Siberia. Language is more or less insufficient to convey the bitter hardship of Shukhov's daily life, which is, I think, why Solzhenitsyn wrote this short, readable book. Rather than attempt a large conceptual description - "conditions are brutal," say - he builds our understanding detail by quotidian detail. Thin soup, minimal bedding, subzero temperatures, etc etc.
Solzhenitsyn, who had firsthand experience of such a labor camp, emphasizes attitude, awareness, and routine as essential for survival. Shukhov is always on alert for opportunities to gain even a small amount of extra food. He responds to officers with prompt obedience - he has in fact transformed his outward demeanor into that of an ideal prisoner, and he considers this to be his real job, the job that keeps him alive.
Nathan in Half Bad is also unjustly imprisoned. During the initial period of his captivity, he is hyperalert for opportunities to escape. He times every routine, catalogs every moment when he is out of the sightline of his warden, hoards a stray nail. He develops mantras that distract him from pain.
Once his defenses have been broken, however, he adjusts to his imprisonment in the same way that Shukhov does - following instructions, concentrating on the present.
Throughout the novel, the White faction, which is in power, proves more and more despotic. The White Council claims that the control and persecution of Black Witches and witches of mixed blood like Nathan is for the protection of White Witches, but the brutal acts sanctioned by the Council call into question just how evil the Blacks could possibly be by comparison.
One Day in the Life... has been credited with lighting the spark that led to the eventual fall of the Soviet Union. The blood-curdling, banal cruelty and horrendous conditions Solzhenitsyn describes were real, as was the paranoia that caused the state to sentence suspected dissidents to long-term imprisonment on the slightest pretext.
I would love to make a batch of high school students read these books together. I want to know if reading Half Bad would lend One Day... additional immediacy, or if it would be the other way around. I would like to ask if a highly fictional book like Half Bad calling back to the nearly nonfictional One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich trivializes the suffering of gulag prisoners, or if it gives the reader greater empathy for them.
There is one marvelous line that people always quote from this book: "How can you expect a man who's warm to understand a man who's cold?" If I were an English teacher, or a history teacher, this would be the way I'd challenge myself every day.