Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Littlest Big Kid Grows Up: A Coming of Age Trilogy

The Littlest Big Kid
The Jitterbug Girl
Head Over Heels
by Donna Van Straten-Remmert
Littlest Big Kid (Kindle edition) at Amazon  (Feb. 1999)
Jitterbug Girl (Kindle edition) at Amazon   (Jan. 2011)
Head Over Heels (Kindle edition) at Amazon ( Jan. 2012)
Publisher: RemArt

Reviewer: Eva Kosinski

One of the things I look for in the books I read is, for lack of a better phrase, "reader immersion."  Does the author take the reader into the book, into the mind of the characters, into the situation and let them ride along with the characters as they live their lives in the book?  This is a somewhat rare thing, because in order for it to work well, the author needs to understand enough about human nature to stay within the familiar (not familiar surroundings or situations, but familiar humanity).  If the responses of the characters are wildly different

 from the reader's expectations (for example, when an author hasn't given enough information about a character for the reader to have the correct expectations), there is a disconnect that happens,  distracting the reader from the inner world of the book to ponder why on earth the character chooses to act in this unfamiliar way.   Authors are able to bring readers into situations and lives that are nothing like their own, but only when they build an understanding of the characters and make them predictable within that world.  These are the books that we can't put down until we finish them.

Donna Van Straten Remmert has managed to do this in a genre where it's not often done -- the memoir.  So many memoirs do not take the time to show us the depths of the main character when they themselves are the main character (perhaps because humans tend to ignore the familiar in their own lives, while noticing details in the lives of others, a bit like the situation where one lives near the Rocky Mountains but never goes there like the tourists do).  The genre is loaded with authors telling the story of their lives (first I did this, then I did that,
and here's what the people around me said about it) without ever letting the reader fully identify with them, because that would require a good deal of self-awareness and willingness to let the reader know everything about them, warts and all.  This trilogy, "The Littlest Big Kid," "Jitterbug Girl" and "Head Over Heels"  has the ability to take the reader into the 1930's, 40's and 1950's, as well as into that little-known territory in this day and age, the large family, letting the reader understand what it would be like to live in times completely different, and far more naive, than our own.  For the baby boomer generation, it's a step back into a very familiar world, but for those far younger who don't "get" where their parents and grandparents are coming from, it's still familiar.  The more things change the more they stay the same when it comes to human nature.

"The Littlest Big Kid" starts (after setting the stage) with the birth of Donna in 1937.  This book is the world seen through the eyes of childhood.  The voice is that of a child, complete with missing certain ideas that an adult would put together and a child would not.  We look at Donna's family as Donna looked at her family, and we are there, at the kitchen table, in the living room, out in the yard, watching the rest of the family, going to school, asking impertinent questions, getting into trouble, and the rest.  She was one of two "little kids" (three year old Donna and a one-year old sister) with two older siblings, when a newborn changed the dynamic again;  as three-year old Donna tells us "I have to be a big kid now because my baby sister Patsy needs my crib."  Donna the author does an excellent job of "channeling" Donna the three-year-old, and some of the situations are quite comical, familiar to anyone who's ever been three years old in any age.  The details of everyday life (and little Donna's "take" on them) are laid out as though we were watching them ourselves, at a time when scarlet fever and polio were common, and when Monday was laundry day, Friday was baking day, etc.

In "Jitterbug Girl" it's 1951, and Donna is a teenager, a high school girl, sorting out which guys are "dippy" and which girls are "stuck up," trying to sort out if it's a "sin" (the family is Catholic) if she neglects to tell her Mom exactly what happened after the dance, whether it's a cool idea to "find a man" and get married, how to become popular in high school, and how to cope her first visit to the Doctor with "the curse." The chapter "Shocking Words and Bad Grades" is bound to ring a bell with some readers, as will the paranoia of the 50's communist scare and stocking up supplies in the basement in the event of a war with Russia.  Experiments with smoking and drinking and the stories that one only tells their parents years later also are described in the voice of the teenage Donna (sounding much like today's teens).

"Head Over Heels" begins as Donna leaves for college, and follows her through her time in school, travel, and other adventures away from home.  Remarkably, although the reader knows she's an older Donna now, at times the voice of that infinitely confident three year old still peeks through, and the no-nonsense common sense approach to the world around her is there in spite of all the push and pull of new ideas, new opportunities and, perhaps, a bit of romance.

When I ask myself if the books are "dated" because of the times described, which were so different in many ways from our own, I decide that it is not.  The author does such a good job of describing the situations, I suspect anyone fifty years later, given the same options, would make many of the same choices (because a good job has been done setting the character, her choices seem completely sensible, even when they sometimes aren't).  I'd highly recommend this book to anyone who'd like to take a very personal trip through not-so-recent history, anyone who believes children today are completely different from those who came before, and anyone interested in seeing how effective writing can bring the reader into another dimension/time.  I'd also love to hear responses to the book from young readers.

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