Friday, February 26, 2010

Review: RUBY HOLLER by Sharon Creech

Published by:  Joanna Cotler Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 2002
310 pages

First line:  Dallas leaned far out of the window, his eyes fixed on a bird flying lazily in the distance.

From now on, I will include the first sentence of any book I review. We are told as writers that the job of that first sentence is to hook the reader so that they have no choice but to continue reading. By the time the reader finishes the first page, the hook should be deeply embedded in the gristle of the reader's jaw. That just didn't happen with this book.

As a child, I found myself reading a lot of first pages before tossing the books aside when those first pages failed to tantalize. At some point around junior high, I decided that was unfair and began reading the first one hundred pages before deciding whether or not to continue. So I did with this book.

Ruby Holler is a book of characters. I hear you. You're saying, "Sharon, all novels have characters." That's not what I mean. These people--on and all--are, to quote Merriam-Webster Online, people "marked by notable or conspicuous traits."

The protagonists are a set of orphaned twins, Dallas and Florida, who were abandoned as infants, left in a box on the steps of an orphanage operated by a couple named Trepid (think Miss Hannigan, Carol Burnett's character, in Annie). The Trepids treated all children in their care cruelly, but they especially disliked Dallas and his sister Florida, whom the Trepids called "the trouble twins."

If a line can be drawn between sympathy and pity, I drew that line, for I felt sorry for the twins, but it took awhile to truly sympathize with them. They were unlikable children who seemed bent on destroying everything around them that could be destroyed.

When Tiller and Sairy Morey, a couple of "old people," arrange for the trouble twins to spend the summer with them, Dallas and Florida expect more of the same treatment. They're astounded that the Moreys seem prepared to forgive any mischief they do.

Usually the foster parents (all of them quite bizarre)--and certainly the Trepids--dole out cruel punishments for misbehavior: hours of solitary confinement in dank, dark cellars with nothing for company but hairy spider, lizards, snakes, and "putrid" rats; scant rations of tasteless, meatless food; and days of back-breaking, heavy labor such as well-digging. The kids are baffled by the love the Moreys give them. There seems to be no limit to forgiveness, even when the children break two precious, hand-carved objects, split the railing of the front porch, cut down Tiller's favorite maple tree, and hack a "window" hole in the barn "to let in more light."

Love and forgiveness are streams that run through Ruby Holler. Though no one ever says, "I love you," it is expressed by the things the residents do for one another, even the trouble twins.

The book ends leaving a lot of questions unanswered, inviting a sequel. For example, who is Z, a character who jumps in and out of the story, gaining prominence toward the end? Are his suspicions about Dallas and Florida correct? Where is the twins' mother? Why did she desert them?

Ruby Holler can be understood on several levels, making it an excellent choice for multi-generational book discussion groups. In my days as a classroom teacher and gifted/talented facilitator, I often lead such groups that were made up of both the students and their parents.

Sharon Creech is the author of the Newbery Medal winner Walk Two Moons and the Newbery Honor winner The Wanderer.  Ruby Holler was a Young Hoosier Book Award winner in 2005. Creech has written many other books, as well.

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