Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Feathers: What Happens When Jesus Meets the '70s?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

January 6, 1971 - That's the day Jesus walks into Frannie's 6th grade classroom. At least that's what the new kid calls himself - he doesn't pronounce it the Spanish way, either, but the regular, Bible way. As if that's not enough to make him stand out, the kid is white. Not just light brown like Trevor, who has a caucasian daddy, but white white. Almost blue-white. White like no one else at Frannie's school, like no one else on her side of the highway. The only explanation for his strange, sudden appearance, according to Frannie's friend Samantha, is that he really is Jesus. Even though Samantha's a preacher's daugher, Frannie can't help but wonder if she's a little delusional. Still, the boy's calm, cool in the face of ridicule, and forgiving of his tormentors. Frannie's not exactly the churchgoing type, but she's beginning to wonder if there isn't something to Samantha's theory. After all, as Samantha says, "If there was a world for Jesus to need to walk back into, wouldn't this one be it?" (33)

Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson brings Frannie's world to vibrant life. It's a time of Afro picks, Black Pride, Michael Jackson moves, and bridges over troubled water. It's also a time of war, worry and racial tension. When Jesus walks in, it also becomes a time for Frannie and her friends to confront their own prejudices. The girls avoid the kid, preferring to discuss him from a distance; some of the boys, however, decide to confront the problem with their fists. When Jesus shows them his true colors, the questions really start to fly - who is this kid?

Frannie knows firsthand how ignorant people can be - she hates it when people assume her brother's stupid just because he's deaf. Still, Frannie's not exactly ready to sit with Jesus at lunchtime. She just wishes she could get the white kid out of her mind. His gentle example's making her think of hope and miracles and healing the world. If that's not God's influence, what is? The more Frannie questions, the more it all makes sense. Maybe not the world's kind of sense, maybe just her own kind. And, maybe, just maybe, that's enough.

It's hard to describe this middle grade novel, except to say that it's exquisite in its simplicity. It examines the idea of hope from the standpoint of the most hopeful among us - the children. It also looks at prejudice in its many forms - against those with impairments and disabilities, toward those with nontraditional families, and between different races/cultures. I've read countless books about racism, most of which focus on mistreatment of African-Americans by caucasians - it's oddly refreshing to read a story about racism exploding in the opposite direction. I don't mean refreshing in a "See-it's-not-just-white-people" kind of way, but in a "See-we're-all-just-human" kind of way. Feathers makes a brave admission: All of us harbor prejudices of some kind. The important thing is to be able to look past them, to judge people not by their appearance, but by their actions. I think Frannie's mother sums it all up very nicely: "If that's the way he came into the world, that's the way he's staying. It's us we need to change" (51-52).

This kind of understated eloquence is what made Feathers stand out to me. I know several reviewers rank it among their least favorite of Woodson's books, so I guess I'm in the minority when I say I love it. So be it. I loved it.

Grade: A

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG - Although there's no profanity, Feathers contains some mature subject matter (like miscarriage, racial slurs, etc.) that may not be suitable for children under 10

3 comments:

  1. This was my first Woodson book that I read. I liked it enough to seek out her backlist and since then have been falling deeper and deeper in love. I wonder if I read it again now, if I would like it more than I did then? Woodson is amazing and I have three more of her books on hold at the library now.

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  2. This book seems hard to resist because it sounds unique. This is a really beautiful review. I LOVE the way you think and write.

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  3. Oops ... That comment was from me. I didn't realize I wasn't signed in.

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