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Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Loud Silence of Francine Green, written by Karen Cushman. Clarion, Thomas Allen & Son, 2006. $19.95 ages 10 and up

"The girls shouldn't have called her names, and I shouldn't have let her walk away alone. Abbott would never have let Costello go alone. Or Laurel desert Hardy. And there were always Three Stooges, not two. But I let Sophie walk away. Why, if I had been one of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste who faced the soldiers of the Thundering Legion, there'd be only Thirty-Nine Martyrs."

I have no idea why I waited so long to read this book. It has been on a shelf in the library for a long time, obviously. It is surprising it took so long because I have loved reading every single book by Karen Cushman. This is the only one I missed. Not so any longer. I am thankful for that.

She is a truly talented crafter of books that matter. This book has much in common with her others. It's a great story, peopled with characters who resonate with the reader and whose tale is memorable. It is set in 1949, as McCarthyism is taking hold and it explores how Americans are feeling about communist Russia.

Francine is a young Catholic girl who is very proud of the fact that she does everything 'right' and
'good'. She sits when she is told to sit, speaks when spoken to and rarely offers an opinion about anything because she is rarely asked for such a thing. She is unlike Karen Cushman's other young women for those reasons.

After meeting Sophie and getting to know her better, Francine finds herself changing. She is encouraged by Sophie's outspoken nature and Sophie's father's willingness to include Francine in conversations. She begins to think about a variety of issues....the atomic bomb, peace, communism...and learns to speak for herself about them. It is not in her nature to do that. She has always been obedient in those family and school settings that encouraged her to be. As she watches what happens to Sophie at school and listens to talk about greater world issues, she begins to think outside her comfortable and convenient box.

Since the timing is just about right for me, I was interested in the many cultural references that Karen Cushman makes for her story. I, too, thought Montgomery Clift was a very handsome man and would have loved to be able to attend a movie premiere. There are references to Harry Truman, the atomic and hydrogen bombs, to school safety measures such as 'duck and cover' and to building bomb shelters to keep families safe in case of a communist attack. It was a time when fathers were the head of the household and made the rules that everyone was expected to follow.

The dialogue carries the story along whether between school friends, teacher and students, family, or adults and children. It leaves readers with a lot to think about and some historical issues to ponder. There is a good deal of unfair treatment for Sophie, for the girls who attend the private girls' school, for Mr. Mandelbaum and for Sophie's father. It does not have a happy ending for the two friends, but it can be described as hopeful and heartfelt.

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