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The Completist: Laurie Halse Anderson

2012 April 27
by Mark Flowers
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Ever since I started saving my allowance to buy all the Beatles albums on cassette tape (only to rebuy them all on CD a couple years later–blast!), I’ve been an avid completist. When I get into a new band, director, or author, I always try to listen to/watch/read as much of their work as possible. Part of this is just my general list mania (man does it feel good to check things off a list), but if an artist is any good, it is also incredibly rewarding to see the interconnections between their different works, and most of the time even books or movies that aren’t great in and of themselves can hold a lot more meaning for me if I know the rest of the author or director’s work.

With that in mind, I’m going to kick off what may turn out to be a series of posts (depending on how much time I have to read and reread) on reading the complete works of some of my favorite YA authors.

One caveat: a lot of YA writers write for other audiences or they write ridiculous numbers of short stories for various collections. I’m not a complete masochist, so the rules I’ve set for myself are that I only have to read officially YA published works, and short stories only if they are in a collection of the author’s own work (i.e., Margo Lanagan’s Red/Black/White books are fine, but I’m not going to worry about reading all the stories she’s published in SF anthologies).

So now on to my first victim: Laurie Halse Anderson. Anderson has written a largish series of middle grade novels called Vet Volunteers, as well as a bunch of picture books, but her YA output amounts to eight novels. When I started this project, I had only read two of these, Speak (1999) and Wintergirls (2009), both of which I considered (and still consider) to be among the best YA books around. I started by rereading those two books and then proceeded in a completely chaotic manner, based on which books happened to be at my library: {Catalyst (2002), Twisted (2007), Prom (2005), Chains (2008), Forge (2010), and Fever, 1793 (2000).  

Anderson has been heavily awarded: every one of her YA novels except Prom has been on its year’s Best Books/Best Fiction for Young Adults list. In 2009, she received the Margaret A. Edwards Award, which was a pretty impressive accomplishment: due to the award’s structure (only books five years old or older can be cited) only her first three books were eligible, and the committee chose to cite all three. She also has a Printz Honor, a pair of National Book Award finalist medals, and a Scott O’Dell Award.  

The interesting thing about these awards is that even though all but Prom have gotten their share of praise, the awards tend to clump around two novels: Speak (Printz, BBYA Top Ten, NBA) and Chains (NBA, Scott O’Dell). Based on that clumping, one might expect these two books to stand out dramatically from the rest of Anderson’s oeuvre, but I found exactly the opposite to be true. The most salient characteristic of her works is how uniform they are in quality. I agree with the general consensus that Prom is a misfire, but beyond that, I could easily make an argument for any one of her novels as being her best.

What makes them so great? Without a doubt the Edwards committee was correct in assessing her first three novels: “gripping and exceptionally well-written novels, through various settings, time periods, and circumstances, [which] poignantly reflect the growing and changing realities facing teens.” But what I found to be the most central component to her success was her narrators. All eight novels are narrated in psychologically complex first person, by highly intelligent, articulate teenagers who are often acutely aware of their own faults and flaws, even as they struggle with them. I will be fascinated to see if Anderson ever chooses to write in third person, considering what strong command she has over her narrators.  

I’ve written elsewhere on this site about Melinda’s powerful narration in Speak, but in many ways I think Twisted is an even better example of Anderson’s narrative prowess. Having written four novels with female narrators, Anderson turned with Twisted to a male narrator for the first time, and surprisingly (to this one-time teenaged boy) captured all of the conflict, angst, and hormones of young men as convincingly as she had young women in her previous work.  

No less impressive, of course, are her two (sometimes ex-)slave narrators from her still-to-be-completed Seeds of America trilogy (Chains and Forge; the third book, Ashes, is slated for October of this year). These are young people in even more dire circumstances than Anderson’s usually damaged characters, who emerge as complete individuals with substantially nuanced understandings of the Revolution around them, the institution of slavery, and their own roles within each.  

Anderson’s characterizations of Isabel and Curzon bring to the fore what I think is most crucial about her first person narration: Anderson’s obvious belief that teenagers (even the very young Isabel) are deserving of total respect for their thoughts and opinions, and can be just as (if not more) intelligent as the adults around them. Anderson’s insistence on this point sometimes recalls Roald Dahl’s similar beliefs about children–and although she never heaps Dahlian levels of contempt on her adults, Anderson is more than happy to reach for caricature in her portrayal of adults if it serves to bolster the claims of her teens (I’m thinking specifically of Melinda’s parents in Speak and many of the adults in Wintergirls).

Beyond characterization, I’ve already hinted at the other piece of Anderson’s writing that is so powerful: the agonizingly complex situations her characters find themselves in. The combination of war and slavery in Seeds of America is the worst, but yellow fever (Fever, 1793), anorexia (Wintergirls), and rape (Speak) are clearly in the competition. The problems in Twisted and {Catalyst are far less demanding, but perhaps more relatable for teens because the characters have brought their impending downfalls on themselves and because they center so squarely on the drama of high school.

Despite these overheated topics, Anderson never falls into sensationalism. Slavery in her hands is complex–one of the most sympathetic characters in Forge, Eben, has naive opinions on the subject, and even some of the slave owners are shown to be less than monsters. Similarly, Anderson does not use the terrible nature of rape and anorexia for shock value but to mine the depths of the psyches of the people in these situations.

These two characterizations of her writing, then, come together to produce psychologically complex portraits of teenagers in sometimes unimaginable situations, always in intense conflict with themselves. Obviously Anderson’s is not the only way of creating compelling literature for teens, but it is surely an amazingly impressive way that has been wildly successful.

Before ending this post, I thought I would offer a very tentative breakdown of these eight novels by (my version of) quality. Take this with a grain of salt, and fight me all you want in the comments!

Masterpieces:

  1. Speak: It may be Anderson’s most decorated title because it inaugurated so many of her themes, but it remains one of her most impressive works, and is clearly the wellspring of many of her later novels.
  2. Forge: Many prefer Chains, but I found the interweaving of the Revolutionary War in this novel to be more interesting. Completely readable without having read Chains first.
  3. Wintergirls: Lia’s brilliant, funny narration is so good that she (frighteningly) almost convinces the reader that anorexia may be a legitimate choice after all. Not for the faint of heart.

Must read:

  1. Chains: Almost as good as Forge and essential reading if for no other reason than the whole trilogy is bound to come together in Ashes.
  2. {Catalyst: The title page includes the bracket, so I do too. A great (and prescient) look at the increasing insanity of the college admittance process we inflict on teenagers.
  3. Twisted: I have a very personal love for this story, having been a nerdy high schooler who only wished he could have done something as outrageous as the prank Tyler pulls. But aside from my biases, it truly is an impressive look into the male adolescent mind.

For Fans:

  1. Fever, 1793: Anderson groups this with the Seeds of America trilogy as “historical thrillers” on her website. What she doesn’t mention is that Forge can be very loosely seen as a prequel to this title–with a shared character of a parrot named King George.

Take It or Leave It:

  1. Prom: The problem with this novel is that the stakes are two low (a senior prom) and the character not interesting enough, thus violating both of the major themes I found in the rest of Anderson’s work. The fact that it deviates so much might make it worth further analysis if it wasn’t so obvious that Anderson saw it as a dead end, turning immediately to the new challenges of Twisted, then Chains.

– Mark Flowers, currently reading The Collapse of American Criminal Justice by William J. Stuntz

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7 Responses
  1. Lana permalink
    April 27, 2012

    I agree with most of this! I would put Speak way above Wintergirls, though, even though Wintergirls was really good. Speak is just SO good. Belongs in the masterpiece category. I would argue that Fever, 1793 belongs in the masterpiece collection also. I read that novel again and again in middle school. It has heartbreak, a strong feminine character, and historical insight. It is a love story, a story about the mother and daughter relationship, and a story about what the hell are you supposed to do if all hell breaks loose. It’s so good!

  2. Mark Flowers permalink
    April 27, 2012

    Thanks for the comment, Lana. If I’m responding completely as a fanboy (which I most assuredly am) then I’d put all of them except Prom in “Masterpieces” ;) but I was trying to be a little more nuanced.

    Thanks for the response about Fever, 1793, though. As you see, I had a few doubts about it, so I’m glad to see others found it so moving.

  3. Leslie Carloss permalink
    April 30, 2012

    I agree with most of what Lana said: “I would put Speak way above Wintergirls, though, even though Wintergirls was really good. Speak is just SO good.” I also really liked Twisted.

    I’ve done the completist thing for many of my favorite adult authors, but I include all anthologies (at least the ones I can get at the library, order, or ILL). I tend to find new favorite authors through these anthologies. I’ll go to the author’s website and print the list of works available (sometimes that’s the only way I find out about the anthologies). I’m currently doing this for Cassandra Clare, Melissa de la Cruz, MaryJanice Davidson, Diana Gabaldon, Claudia Gray, Laurell K. Hamilton, Kim Harrison, Katie MacAlister, Melissa Marr, and J.K. Rowling (will always read everything by her). Yes, I sometimes get way behind on my lists, but I try to catch up whenever possible.

    I’m glad I’m not the only who is crazy enough to attempt these things!

  4. Avinash permalink
    May 4, 2012

    Thank you for writing this. Again, I agree with everything you have said. Although, I haven’t had a chance to read ‘Prom’.

    Just like you, I completely resonated with ‘Twisted’ and for the first time, I didn’t feel uncomfortable reading a YA story with POV of a male character.

  5. May 5, 2012

    I agree with much of what you said, particularly regarding Prom. It isn’t quite up to the brilliance of the rest of her YA works. I have read every one of her YA novels, and I have to say Speak is THE best one. I think Wintergirls is spot on, and I also really liked Twisted. I was incredibly impressed with Tyler’s narrative voice. As far as Chains and Forge are concerned, I agree that Forge comes out on top…which is saying a lot because Isabel is one of my favorite LHA characters.

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