Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Review - From Anna (DNF)

From Anna (Anna Solden #1)
by Jean Little
Date: 1972
Publisher: Scholastic Canada
Reading level: MG
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 211
Format: e-book
Source: library

Anna hated being different. Special, though, was something else... She did not look special, she knew. She was too big and not one bit pretty.

Anna Solden, with her wispy braids and prickly personality, is nothing like her tall, likeable sisters and brothers. She's always the odd one out. Everyone but Papa seems to expect so little of her — even Mama — she comes to believe it herself. What could she, Anna, possibly have to give?

(synopsis from Goodreads)

DNF @ 31%

I like to try to read books by Canadian authors every once in a while. There are some really good ones out there, and I hoped this would be another. I think I read one of Jean Little's books many years ago, though I couldn't tell you anything about it now. I'd never heard of From Anna, but the library had a copy of the 40th-anniversary edition, so I thought I'd give it a try. I read the first few chapters, took a break, and procrastinated about ever going back to it.

The problem with this book is that it comes across as one of those books that we had to read back in elementary school. It's the kind of book that kids are supposed to read, because it'll be good for them. But this literary equivalent of broccoli has a few problems that are obvious even in the first third of the book.

The first problem is that Anna's disability is not entirely believable. She obviously has some sort of severe visual impairment. I have no problem with this at all as a character trait... but it was handled surprisingly badly, especially considering the author is visually impaired herself. Anna's issue was so obvious, and I could not for the life of me figure out how this kid's problems could've gone unnoticed for so long. It was 1933 in a developed country, not 1133 in the middle of the jungle. People did wear glasses back then, so they must've had people who could diagnose vision problems. But poor Anna is left to be bullied by her siblings and viewed as simply clumsy... even with obvious issues like not being able to thread a needle (she thinks it odd that her mother can do so, because for her, the eye of the needle simply does not exist), ending up completely illiterate because she can't see the blackboard at school, or even tripping over a footstool. (I didn't skip ahead to find out what, exactly, Anna's problem was... but I'm fairly certain she was legally blind.)

This unbelievable portrayal of Anna's disability leads to yet another problem: the way things are described. The prose is visually bare... which makes sense. I thought perhaps this had been done on purpose, because the story was told from Anna's point of view. However, I then realized that none of the other senses picked up the slack. This led to some very lackluster worldbuilding. You wouldn't have known the first part of the story took place in Frankfurt. It could've been anywhere. There were no particular sounds or smells or even a feeling in the air that would've given the reader a sense of time or place. Perhaps the worldbuilding got better when the family arrived in Canada (since it would be a more familiar setting to the author), but I didn't get that far.

It was kind of the last straw for me when the family was on the boat and, out of nowhere, the third-person limited omniscient point of view suddenly switched to Anna's father for a couple of paragraphs before going back to Anna. It was so weird, and it really threw me out of the story. That was the only point-of-view switch in what I read, so I'm assuming it was just a mistake. Still, it's one that shouldn't have been there.

The book also shows its age, with the intentional avoidance of the word "said"; it almost comes across as a school writing assignment where the teacher instructed the students to avoid that word as much as possible... and use anything else instead. On one page alone, the characters muttered, probed, wheedled, and growled. It might've been an amusing exercise to see what other dialogue tags the author came up with... but I found it too annoying to really want to bother.

This book might pick up later, but it just didn't hold my interest enough to make me want to find out. There are better works of historical fiction for kids out there. For books with a similar theme about children coming to Canada, I'd recommend the Guests of War trilogy by Kit Pearson (another Canadian author) instead.

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