SPUNKY HEROINES: I've lived my life since girlhood wanting to be one and to this day they remain my preferred characters in fiction. But, in reading these two new novels, Them That Glitter and Them That Don't and The Callender Papers, I missed that familiar frisson of identification with the protagonists of either book. This isn't, I hasten to add, simply because I'm from the wrong age-group, or I don't think it is; certainly, I continue to become Alice or Dorothy over and over again, when I reread their adventures. As for fiction of more recent vintage, that holds no youthful associations for me, I've found myself melding into the heroines created by such authors as Katherine Paterson, Lois Lowry, Hilma Wolitzer, Rosa Guy.
This magical process of "identification" can't be achieved by formula; rather, it's like what they say about love: it's chemical. Or, as her publishers tell us Bette Greene says "I want to connect with people, and that comes from my emotional, not my intellectual equipment. I want readers to say, 'Wow, I know how she feels.'" I didn't, after I'd put down Them That Glitter, and I didn't, as I read The Callender Papers. In fact, there wasn't a single moment in either book that I had that connection with, and I want to explain why.
Both Bette Greene and Cynthia Voigt have chosen to write about worlds which they are viewing from the outside. Greene has set her story among poor rural gypsies in the Arkansas she herself knew as gorgio, or non- gypsy; Voigt places hers in the later 19th century and has given us a gothic plot ("eine kleine Gothik"), the conventions of which she takes on earnestly and with a funless air of being duty-bound to provide the necessaries. In The Callender Papers the self-contained and resolute but unconvincingly juvenile heroine is a mere 12-year-old, an orphan, sent to a mysterious manse to help an old acquaintance of her guardian sift through and arrange some family papers. Carol Ann Delaney, in Them That Glitter, is a high school senior, with great musical gifts, who's ostracized by her schoolmates because her family lives in a ramshackle trailer, her dad's a well-known lush and her mom tells fortunes, in between brushes with the law.
Though the authors are strangers to the situations they're portraying, both novels are narrated in the first person by the heroines. A set-up like this is hardly an invitation to failure--witness a large portion of our literary classics--but neither Greene nor Voigt is up to the job. Though it's hard to tell, Jean Wainwright of The Callender Papers is still a teenager, though some years have gone by, as she recounts her story. But the sensibility she conveys is a rather middle-aged one and her gothicky discoveries are predictable (beyond my affection and tolerance for such predictability). But, mostly, one hears Voigt's own voice mouthing the words.
Greene, on the other hand, isn't content just to mouth the words; instead, she shouts through her characters' conversation, bringing a sophisticated, wise-cracking tone and a cosmopolitan awareness that doesn't match up with the folk of Dexter County, Arkansas. Carol Ann Delaney, not surprisingly, wants to flee her surroundings and better herself, and the way she envisions doing it is by becoming a country singer, "all aglitter in a gown of sequins and feathers," lavishly praised by "the country and western music critic for The New York Times." Or, singing some of her favorite songs, Carol Ann thinks of herself as "there inside those batty Beatles' world within a world. Their zany, joyful world of 'The Yellow Submarine.' " None of this thought or language rings true. Bette Greene may have grown up in Arkansas, but she's East Coast now, through and through. And there are dozens of similar examples scattered around the book: it's like dress-up in reverse, with a grown woman hunched down, trying to fit her shoulders into a child- sized jacket.
Both Voigt and Greene are award-winning writers; Voigt won the Newbery for Dicey's Song, published last year. Neither Them That Glitter and Them That Don't nor The Callender Papers are actually bad books, but for me, they're the kind of novels one might settle for and shouldn't. One doesn't have to identify with a protagonist in order to love a book, but one's senses should be engaged, or one's intellect, if not one's central emotions. Both of these spunky heroines seem too artificial to be affecting. And they seem older than their years; however, it isn't their circumstances that have made them that way. No, one doesn't have to look any further than their authors to understand the reason for their unnatural maturity. But it shouldn't be so.