Thursday, June 24, 2010

Civil War Coming-of-Age Novel Proves That Beauty Abounds Even in the Ugliest of Circumstances

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

At some point in my schooling, I wrote a report on the Civil War. I don't remember the exact subject I researched, but I do recall coming upon a very grisly detail related by a Union soldier who had been held at Andersonville prison. Nothing else in that report stuck in my mind. This did. Even now, I remember it clearly: The former POW said that while incarcerated, he became so starved that when he saw an ill prisoner vomit, he scurried over to the puddle to pick out the undigested pieces of corn that lay in the other man's puke. Then, he ate them. Gratefully. That revolting vignette told me everything I needed to know about Andersonville.

Disgust kept me from reading another word about the prison - until Scholastic sent me a copy of Ann Rinaldi's 2001 middle grade novel, Numbering All the Bones. The story takes place in 1864 on a plantation just outside of Andersonville, Georgia. Our heroine, 13-year-old Eulinda, has lived at Pond Bluff all her life. Although she's a house servant, her "high yellow" skin proves that her father wasn't just another field hand. It's not like Mr. Hampton Kellogg - the man she calls "Master" - would ever admit that he's her father, but the lightness of her complexion is enough to gain her elevated status among the plantation's slaves. Unlike them, Eulinda can read, write, and speak like a lady. Her presence is tolerated both inside the house and in the slave quarters, although her "namby-pamby" self can't decide exactly where she fits. A slave friend urges Eulinda to "make yourself come true" (46), but Eulinda can't bring herself to leave the comfort of the house for the squalor of a life in the quarters.

When Eulinda happens upon a shocking scene - there's a prison camp practically in her backyard! - she knows it's time to prove herself. Just the possibility of her older brother, Neddy, having to endure such a place spurs her to action. Little does she know just how caught up she will become with events at the prison. Especially when the famous Clara Barton comes to town. Eulinda will have to dig into the deepest recesses of her soul to find the strength to face the horrors of Andersonville, the courage to bury the bones of her past, and the temerity to forge her own future.

Although I've read countless stories about places like Auschwitz and Dachau, I've never encountered one about the place Rinaldi insists "was, in reality, a death camp - maybe the only real one to exist on American soil" (165). The author's descriptions of the suffering at Andersonville are as moving as they are horrifying. Eulinda's shame over the situation and her subsequent attempts to make things right, prove how heroic ordinary people like Clara Barton were in their simple exhibitions of humanity. While there is much heroism in this story, it is, at its heart, really the tale of a girl struggling to find her place. It's about facing truth, accepting the past, and moving on. Really, it's about one thing - growing up.

Eulinda is a completely sympathetic character with a voice that's strong and clear. She won my heart over and over and over again. I still find Andersonville a disturbing subject, but this book (like many Holocaust novels) shows that beauty can be found even in the ugliest of circumstances. A touching, memorable novel, Numbering All the Bones is not to be missed.

(Readalikes: Reminds me of many Holocaust novels, including The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne and a little of Black Angels by Linda Beatrice Brown)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for scenes of war-related violence and suffering

To the FTC, with love: I received this book from the generous folks at Scholastic. Thank you!

3 comments:

  1. This book looks excellent. I love everything I've read by this author.

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  2. I read this one years ago. As I read your review, much of it came flooding back. I have enjoyed many of Rinaldi's books.

    T had a great time at the pool and is now resting comfortably. Thanks for sharing him!

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  3. This sounds excellent, though maybe not quite as compelling as Black Angels.

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