Monday, May 08, 2006

Karana, Gene and Finny, and the beautiful Luna

This is the time, I think, when all well-meaning teachers are scrambling for organizing their curricula, taking care of the family, squeezing in days at the beach—all at the same time. Well, I have been doing all these except for trekking to the sea, which I’m dreaming to go back to before school finally starts. Anyway, I am starting the year with a Realism/Novel Study block for my (very intellectual, deep) ninth graders. In the Hastings, New Zealand Waldorf Curriculum that we have, the Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell is recommended. After reading this Newbery Award-winner though, I asked myself, is this really what my class needs? So the quest for The Novel began.

Since I do not have all the time in the world to read every YA book I could get my hands on, I chose two other titles: John Knowles’ A Separate Peace and Julie Anne Peters’ Luna.

After reading all three, I am at a loss all the more. I read countless reviews and scholarly critiques of these books, all giving merit to the said titles. I also consulted friends (both writers and teachers) as to what they think is the best one. Surely they had their own pick. But now, I am still confused and undecided. I want to do all three if I could! Karana, Gene & Finny or Luna? Who’s the best voice for my class to “listen” to? Through whose point of view should they meet the world this year? Which novel can they see their own selves in, with the same issues the characters are facing?

To answer these questions, I will be writing a brief study of each novel, hoping that in the process, I would be able to come up with the right answer.

The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell

This Newbery Award-winner is about a fifteen year-old Indian girl named Karana who “lived alone on the Island of the blue Dolphins.” She was left in the island when her people sailed off to another country. There in her island, she learned how to survive on her own—building her own home, taming wild animals, searching for food—and lived her own share of adventures alone. The plot is (painfully dragging for me—personally I prefer twists and turns and undertones) linear and would undeniably represent the Realist movement in literature, which is one of the focus of study for the block.

My apprehensions? I find Karana’s story too simple for the probing minds of my ninth graders. I had to visualize each of my students in the classroom as we discuss Karana. What did I see? They would get her for sure. They would even admire her. But the thing is, my class’ spirit is “bigger” than Karana’s. Don’t get me wrong. Karana is a strong girl. But then in the world of my students, Karana’s world is so remote from theirs.

Of course, there are elements in this novel which symbolize the world my class is in. For example, when Karana was able to tame Rontu, the wild dog that slew her younger brother, she learned to love Rontu as it became her companion in the island. I could come up with “readings and symbolism” for this, which my class would hopefully appreciate. The wild dogs, the Russians—all enemies to Karana—are also present in the life of today’s adolescents. No doubt about that.

The objectives of the block are: to awaken to the polarities of subject knowledge through both heart and will; to work with accurate observation, objectivity and detail; and to work with the discovery of assertion and a sense of place in the world. The elements of the novel especially point of view and setting as well as the traditions of realism should be focused on. O’Dell’s book actually fits this.

However, when we talk of ninth grade polarities, we mean that these students’ “inner soul forces” become extremely active. The students at this stage are “at the mercy of strong, uncontrolled feelings and emotions, which swing like a pendulum, from one extreme to the other…everything is black OR white, wonderful OR abysmal, joyful OR full of sorrow…”

Unfortunately, Karana’s character is far from being at polarities. She is very steady, her soliloquies are “quiet”, and her inner turmoil is a paradox: she is lonely at times but she resolves this; she fears her future but she trusts in it. In other words, Karana is perfect for being a very stable character.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

You have probably read this novel before and you would perhaps agree with me that it is a masterpiece, indeed. It is a haunting tale of two friends—sixteen year old Gene and Phineas/Finny—both students at a boys’ boarding school in New England during the early years of World War II. These boys are complete opposites of each other: Gene, also the narrator, is “a lonely, introverted intellectual” while Finny is a “handsome, taunting, daredevil athlete”. Gene eloquently tells us the story of their friendship, especially about what transpired in school during summer. Although Gene treasures his friendship with Finny, he oscillates from affection for his best friend to envy and resentment of him. At one point, Gene feels that Finny intends to wreck his studies: “..sure, he wanted to share everything with me, especially his procession of D’s in every subject. That way he, the great athlete, would be way ahead of me. It was all cold trickery, it was all calculated, it was all enmity…” Gene believes Finny was jealous of his academic achievements. But then after Finny does something to prove this belief wrong, Gene thinks, “…my understanding [was] menaced. He had never been jealous of me for a second. Now I knew that there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us. I was not of the same quality as he…”

The scenes, the thoughts of Gene are quite extreme. He struggles to understand his friend, strives to figure out the truth of their actions. Then something happens that changes everything. Again, Gene is left thrashing in the pool of his emotions. He asks himself and the reader, was my action right or wrong? Was Finny just or not? Somewhere in the novel, we would find out that what Gene does causes Finny’s world to crumble into pieces which Gene himself would desperately try to pick up.
I loved this book for its quiet voice. It made me pause and ask questions. Does it meet the block objectives? Yes. Does it meet the class theme of polarities? Perfectly. Would my students like it and learn from it? Absolutely. It is also a plus that this is a classic, something that I want my class to begin the year with.

What’s stopping me from going for it then? Well, it could have a (it does, according to some scholars) homosexual reading. Is my class ready for this? I think so. As I’ve said, they’re a mature bunch. Then again, great literature is great precisely because its universality opens it up to various readings and critiques. One problem though, it costs 399 pesos J.

Luna by Julie Anne Peters

This award-winning book tells us the story of seventeen year-old Liam through the eyes of the narrator Regan, Liam’s sister. Liam struggles with his true identity: he’s an outstanding student, popular for his good looks and accomplishments and a good son. But Regan knows Liam’s secret: he is Luna, a beautiful girl, by night. Liam is a transgender. He believes and feels that he is really a girl—trapped in a boy’s body. Regan is the only one who knows this and accepts Liam unconditionally. This is really more Regan’s story than Liam/Luna’s, as she struggles to deal with the challenges of accepting and understanding her brother, which confuse and tear her apart in the process. It undeniably explores teenage sexuality issues without screaming it to your ear. More importantly, it shows us the realities of an adolescent: having imperfect parents, friends who reject them, a society that refuses to accept them for what they really are.

So again does Luna meet the objectives? Yes. Does it explore the theme of polarities? Yes…This novel is brilliant, beautiful and very, very true. My only apprehension is that it is considerably a contemporary work. I want the class to begin with a classic as much as possible. Also, the issues tackled in the novel might “upstage” its craftsmanship and style.

The Verdict

Karana’s a good choice. Luna will open new doors. Gene and Finny? I think these two boys will hit the target, right on the mark. A Separate Peace wins. I think studying this novel will be both an objective and meaningful experience for me and my class. Craft is evident, the author’s gift is clear. Though the two other novels also have these qualities, A Separate Peace has the depth, that subtle exploring of issues coupled with eloquence and beauty of the characters’ experiences.

I am not saying that this novel will be “loved” by the class. In the first place, it was set during the war, a period so remote to their world. But I look forward to the imminent debates and heated discussions if not to the gushing appreciation these kids usually have for novels they have really, really enjoyed. Choosing A Separate Peace also means I need to work much harder and study more. Well, bring it on. This process made me re-learn something very important: love what you do and it will love you back.



  • At 11:27 AM, Blogger ellipse said…

    i agree wholeheartedly. a separate peace IS the best choice. =)

  • At 7:06 PM, Blogger color_blind said…

    coming from you----THAT is a validation! :) yay!


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