This post reviews Angie Renich, The One and Only Miss Violet Remy (Wildwood Digital Publishing, 2011). [Digital Download available here].
A couple of weeks ago Angie Renich contacted me and asked if I’d like a free copy of her book for review. It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a piece of children’s literature, though I have done so on many occasions before. A summative post that has links to most of my reviews of children’s books where homeschooling features is available here.
I googled Ms. Renich and couldn’t find much except that she doesn’t like Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and that she composed some music for a ballet version of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. That last one is relevant to the story, so here goes…
Without giving away too much of the plot, The One and Only Miss Violet Remy focuses on the lives of four families, all of whom are part of a homeschooling co-op that began as an informal thing and grew gradually as the children grew. Renich explains it like this,
[Violet] and Ruthie Bewkoski had played together as toddlers, when their moms met at the park at the end of Lupine Lane…. When the girls were three, their moms decided to do preschool together for their kids, sort of like a co-op. The Green family had recently moved into a house just a few blocks from Lupine Lane, and they were invited to join the group…. As preschoolers, they spent one morning a week at each family’ shouse, playing and counting and saying their ABCs. Then suddenly they were kindergartners and it became five days a week, each mom sharing the job of teaching reading and writing and two plus two.
By the third grade a fourth family has joined, and that’s when the story takes place. It begins at a field trip when Violet, the titular protagonist, defies her conscience and walks with her friends through the restricted section of a park so that they can identify a plant species. While off the beaten path one of the children discovers a mysterious bag with a roll of film and $200 in it. As the story unfolds we see several plotlines come together, culminating in the solution to the mystery of the bag and much more.
As a straight up narrative I found the book to be a success. It reminded me a bit of the Boxcar Children series, what with the mystery and the sense that nobody at any time is in any real danger. There is no mortal peril, no bad guy, no cosmic good vs. evil metanarrative. It’s just as story about a few kids working through some of the daily events of life, complete with funny kitchen accidents, jitters before a ballet recital, feelings of inadequacy when Violet compares herself to her more athletic and graceful friends, and so on. My eight year old started reading it and plans to finish. She said she’s enjoying it, but I do note that she’s not eating it up like she does many books.
I’d like to make a couple of comments about other aspects of the book, though. In the post about children’s lit I linked above I note that to date none of the homeschooled characters I’ve come across in children’s fiction have represented the world of conservative religious homeschooling, despite the fact that religious conservatives constitute the great majority of homeschoolers. Well, Renich’s characters are from this world. It’s not foregrounded, but it’s clear from the setting and interactions between characters that this is a Christian co-op closely identified with religious values. Perhaps the most explicit statement of this comes from an interaction between Violet and her father, who Renich portrays as a sort of idealized version of the perfect Christian husband and dad:
“Remember Violet,” he said gently, “you are a child of God, a princess. And a princess knows she must be a shining example of dignity–wherever she goes and whatever she does. A princess must be careful to behave in such a way as to always bring honor to the King and his kingdom–even when she thinks no one is looking.”
Despite what this quotation may suggest, the book is not a heavy-handed morality tale for the most part. It is, however, and this is important and gets at something fundamentally true about many Christian homeschoolers, totally free of irony. In her wonderful spiritual memoir Facing East, Frederica Mathewes Green explains this very well:
Christian art is, in general, in a dilemma. The great bulk of painting currently done on Christian themes is produced for popular consumption…. Is it good art? Apparently, it does a good job of what it’s trying to do, namely to present scenes to the faithful that will provoke feelings of devotion, assurance, and comfort. Most popular Christian art is, like popular music and popular novels, aimed at a broad sensibility. As such, it’s not subtle or complex and usually is ignorant of ambivalence, conflict, and tragedy (though a sentimental pathos may apply)…. Popular Christian art is lambs and children and happy Jesuses. (p. 94)
That’s the feeling I got when I was reading this book. It’s a nice story, but it just didn’t seem plausible to me, for the characters are all so one-dimensional, so good, so free of any real problems. What problems that do exist (one of the fathers is a workaholic and misses his son’s birthday party, for example), are easily resolved (he reads his son’s newspaper article, is convicted, and vows to spend more time with his family) in ways that to me oversimplify human reality, a reality children intuit even if adults try to whitewash it. To me this is a serious dilemma for an author wanting to tell stories about Christian homeschooolers. For those stories to be interesting, they’ll need to engage real issues truthfully. But if they do that, some Christian parents will not want their kids to read them.
A second and related issue that bugged me as I was reading the book was the depiction of the children themselves. Very, very frequently I found the dialogue put into their mouths to be simply implausible. Here’s an example:
“You and I need to talk,” Aaron said to his sister once they were home from writing class. Karen was unloading her backpack in her room.
“What about?” She asked indifferently, ignoring Aaron’s apparent urgency.
“About you,” Aaron replied with authority.
“Oh yeah?” Karen raised one eyebrow, unimpressed with both Aaron’s topic and his commanding tone.
Aaron put a hand on his sister’s arm. “I’m serious,” he said persuasively.
Karen shrugged. “Okay.” She settled into her pink bean bag chair on the floor.
[Aaron confronts Karen for being sullen to the other girls in the co-op because she misses her old home and school.]
“Did you ever think that me being sullen is me just being myself?” Karen snapped.
“I know you, Karen,” Aaron said, the tone in his voice softening. “And I know that it isn’t you.”
Aaron had been waiting for the right moment to say what he’d been getting at, and the time seemed right.
“You’re smart and funny and talented and caring,” Aaron said kindly. The room was quiet as Karen absorbed the compliment her brother had just paid her. “I know it’s been hard here, adjusting to a new town and to new friends and to Dad being gone all the time. But I miss my old sister.”
This is how the kids talk throughout this book. In my view this just doesn’t get it right. To me scenes like this do to children what Thomas Kinkade does to woodlands and cottages. Renich romanticize them, turning them into stereotypes that are closer to Precious Moments figurines than to real people. Now, I know that many Americans deeply love Kinkade and Precious Moments figurines. But to me these cultural products are not fully Christian, for they try to deny or at least ignore the reality of sin and evil. Ned Bustard, in It was Good: Making Art for the Glory of God, says,
Inevitably it seems that most attempts to picture good tend to offer the viewer disingenuous, sugary sweet propaganda. Ignoring the implications of the Fall, these artists paint the worlds as a shiny, happy place. The quintessential example of this in our day is found in Thomas Kinkade’s general philosophy. Kinkade professes to be a Christian but has said, “I like to portray a world without the Fall.” [hat tip to Richard Beck]
That’s the sense I got reading Renich’s book as well. There’s no real evil in the world or in the human heart. There are only little mistakes we make that, if we’re good little boys and girls, we feel really guilty about and confess to our parents, who always respond with the perfect mix of forgiveness and discipline.
Having said all of that let me conclude by reiterating that at the level of plotting and craftsmanship the book coheres and is quite engaging. Its multiple storylines converge and are resolved in a satisfying way. This aspect of the book suggests to me that Renich has the storyteller’s gift and, if she’d allow her characters to be thicker and her dramatic tension fuller, I bet she could produce a real masterpiece illuminating the world of Christian homeschooling.