Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Hold Fast

I wish I could remember who mentioned Hold Fast first.  I read a lot of blogs that mention children's literature, and I apologize for the fact that I can't remember who it was.  But they mentioned that the book was about homelessness and that it was written by Blue Balliett.  I read both Chasing Vermeer and The Wright 3 when they came out, but I hadn't read anything since then.  I thought this book sounded like it was something I wanted to try.  So I put it on hold, and then finally picked it up at the library.

The reason it appealed to me especially was because of its subject matter.  My cubicle at the MT Office of Public Instruction is quite close to our State Coordinator for Homeless, Neglected and Delinquent Education's desk.  I've heard her advocate for homeless children over and over again.  And I was hoping this book would make this situation real for children all over, while also being something children who are currently homeless would also be able to relate to.  I think Balliett scored on both points.

The book begins with the Pearl family.  There is Dash (Dashel) - the father, Sum (Summer) - the mother, and Early and Jubilation.  Early is in fifth grade, and Jubilation (who is mostly called Jubie) is still at home with Sum at four years old.  The Pearls' life is not easy - there is only one income, and that isn't very much.  Dash works at the Chicago Public Library as a Library Page.  Balliett says "The Pearl family rents the biggest apartment they can afford.  It is one room." (p. 8)  There isn't much there, but what is there is crucial to their growth and survival - words and books.  Dash often says to his children "'Words are free and plentiful'" (p. 6).  They use their library to its fullest extent - checking out books upon books and absorbing them.  They are learners.

But money is scarce, and when Dash is asked to do a side job, for which he's paid in cash, he agrees.  It's book-related, but has an air of mystery about it.  And then, one day, on his way home from work, Dash disappears off the street.  All that's left is his bicycle, a notebook, and a bag of groceries.  What could have happened to Dash?  Is he even still alive?

While Sum and Early are trying to find out what happened to Dash, they are visited by people claiming to be the police.  The "police" break down their door and rip apart all of the Pearl family's belongings.  Oddly, the "police" take all of the family's books, except one that got pushed under the coffee table.  It's rescued by Early - it is a book her father saved for her, Langston Hughes' The First Book of Rhythms.  At this point, the family doesn't feel safe in their home any longer (and the apartment is totally destroyed).  A neighbor tells Sum "' You and the babies shouldn't be where they can find you again.  No place near.  You best get you to a city shelter..." (p. 60).  The family has nowhere else to go, and any money they had was taken by the criminals.

I don't want to give away the plot's twists and turns because they are intricate and well-done, just like all of Balliett's books.  What interested me about this book were its two main themes - homelessness and books/reading/words/libraries.

The family's time in the shelter is difficult, for sure.  When they first arrive, they are placed in a large room of bunkbeds, called a cluster, crammed with families.  Balliett is compassionate in her descriptions, but realistic too.  The rules are laid out in a matter of fact way by the director" "Know where your kids are at all times, and never leave the shelter without them... You can use the shelter phone to make fifteen minutes of calls anytime between nine A.M. and four P.M....patience and politeness go a long way.  Everyone's call is important." (p. 82-3).  There is no privacy, but there are shelter residents who hold fast to their kindness and generosity, even in bad situations.

The shelter tests the Pearl family's strength.  Already frazzled beyond the breaking point and worried about Dash, Sum is trying to make calls - both to notify people of their whereabouts and also to try and find some job to sustain them.  But even after Sum waits in the endless phone line, she quite often has to leave messages, and there is no way for anyone to call her back.  The family is required to eat meals at specific times, and if they miss a meal, there is nothing else to eat, so the Pearl family also has to shuffle errands around their meal times.  It is constantly noisy, even at night.  Sum is beginning to shut down, and stop functioning.

Early and Jubie are the ones who "hold fast" - to their belief in finding Dash, and to their belief that they will get out of this shelter.  As Sum begins to give in to her depression, the Pearl children, particularly Early, encourage Sum to hold fast and keep fighting.  "Hold fast" comes from a Hughes poem in The First Book of Rhythms.  The words of that poem inspire Early to dream: "Dig down, fly high, remember where you want to go, and one day you'll get there: Roots + Wings + Dreams = Home!" (p. 42-3).  She, like many children, is resilient enough to take this experience and use it to propel her forward, instead of collapsing under its weight.

Of course, as a former librarian, I love any book that incorporates books and reading into its pages.  But this one does so much more than that.  It is instilled in almost every word of this book, and Balliett does that with such love and tenderness.  Reading is what saves this family over and over again.  Balliett writes about their relationship with words and books so beautifully.  "Dashel Pearl offered words to his kids from the day they were born.  A man who loved language almost as much as color or taste or air, he explained to his daughter, Early, that words are everywhere and for everyone." (p.6)  "This was a family of important words and their important histories." (p. 15)  This family has little besides words, but to them, words are all that matter.

This book is sad, joyous, scary and thoughtful.  It is chock full of energy, compassion, misery and struggle.  But most importantly, it is full of reading, learning, and the love of words all wrapped up in a mystery.  Don't miss it.

Hold Fast.  Blue Balliett.  Scholastic Press, 2013.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

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