Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Alice in April

I've been reading my way through the Alice series for about 18 months now.  They aren't the only thing I'm reading, as you can tell from my other entries.  But every time I pick up a book from this series, I gulp them down in a very short amount of time.  As I read, I fold down the corners of pages I want to go back to.  When I'm done reading, there are usually many dog-eared pages throughout.  There are so many ideas about growing up that really resonate with me, both remembering life as a young teenager and looking at Alice as an adult.  That's why I'm always so pleased to share these with you - if just one teen reads this series because of my writing, I'll feel like I did my part!

Alice in April begins right before Alice turns 13.  One of the most dated plot points in this novel (this was published almost 20 years ago, in 1993) involves Alice's Aunt Sally.  Since Alice's mother died before Alice was even in Kindergarten, Aunt Sally is the closest thing Alice has to a mother.  Sally advises Alice that as she turns 13, she will need to become the Woman of the House (capital letters intended), to support her older brother and father.  Sally reminds Alice that Alice's mother was a homemaker.  When Alice questions what a homemaker is, Sally "said a homemaker just makes a better home." (p.29).  She also gives Alice a laundry list of tasks she needs to begin, including all of the mending.  Eventually Alice's father discovers Alice's worries about being the Woman of the House, and reassures her that he does all the mending, and that no one needs to start spring cleaning just yet.

It is difficult for Alice to remember her mother, so she relies on other people's stories and memories of her.  Often in the past Alice has told her father she remembers something about her mother, and it turns out she's really confusing her mother with her Aunt Sally, who helped care for Alice after her mother died.  This is always painful for her father, and of course it's painful for Alice, too.  She is constantly reminded that she is the one person who has no idea what her mother was like.  That sort of mistaken memory is mentioned in every book - sometimes matter of factly, sometimes sadly.  As readers, we have grown accustomed to this, and accept that Alice will not ever remember anything about her mother.  So in Alice in April it is such a surprise, and such a gift, when Alice does finally remember something involving her mother.  "The more I thought about that scene, the clearer it became.  Yes, it was definitely my mother, and I remembered hugging her legs as we sat on those steps...." (p. 51).  In the memory, a young Alice tells her mother that she will never marry, and stay with her mother forever.  Her mother replies that Alice will find someone kind to love her.  It's a little bit of throwaway wisdom that I'm sure Alice's mother never thought would become a treasured memory.

Alice has thought and talked about her mother's death in all of the books so far.  This series is realistic in depicting Alice's grief.  While her family moves on with their lives, they all feel their mother's absence.  But in all of the previous novels, Alice has looked at her mother's death from her own sense of loss and perspective.  In this story, Alice goes to get a physical, and has a shocking moment of recognition: "It was weird, but I suddenly thought about Mom just then - wondering if she'd been sitting in a doctor's office in a paper robe like this the day she found out she had leukemia." (p. 41).  Alice is growing up, and this is just one way Naylor demonstrates that.  It is only for a split second (just seven lines of text) that Alice puts herself in her mother's place.  But it is poignant and heartbreaking and all too real.  You really see her mother, sitting on the table.  She has always been a shadowy character, since we can only know what Alice knows, but here she comes into sharp, tearful focus.

This isn't the only heartbreaking loss in Alice in April.  Alice spends some time with Denise, who we originally met in Reluctantly Alice, two books ago.  Denise began as a bully, but eventually she and Alice have become tentative friends.  Alice knows that Denise's life at home isn't good.  Denise shows up unannounced at Alice's house one night, and stays the night because she doesn't want to go home.  When Alice's father can't reach Denise's family, he notifies the police that Denise is safe with them, but no one ever comes looking for Denise.  Alice can tell Denise is hit on a regular basis, but doesn't question it.  Denise shrugs it off, and seems to accept it.  She tells Alice that her mother "won't change.  That's the problem - no matter what I do, I can't win. (p.69).  Alice shows empathy and compassion for Denise, and supports her as best as she can.  But sadly, it isn't enough.  Readers will be as shocked as Alice is to find out that Denise has committed suicide.  I felt the impact of this act as I read - I hadn't seen it coming, as bad as Denise's life was.  The school is told about Denise's death in an assembly, but Alice is in total shock.  "He went on talking, but I didn't hear.  I found myself crawling down through the seats in the bleachers, pushing aside people's feet to make room." (p. 155).  For many students today, this is unfortunately something they've heard about either locally or on the news, but to see Alice experience it is still emotional and visceral.  It leaves readers shaken.

Denise's death happens at the end of the book, and Alice definitely isn't okay by the final scene.  She is contemplative, wondering what she could have done differently.  In the end, she realizes "...all we can do is be the best friends to each other that we can and hope it's enough." (p.159).  Growing up is never easy, and Naylor's willingness to share this struggle is just one of the things I love about this series.

Alice in April.  Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.  Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1993.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark library

No comments:

Post a Comment