Monday, March 6, 2017

Some Kind of Courage

I have held off writing about this one for a long time. I purchased it in a Scholastic book order over a year ago, in the beginning of 2016. I read it merely because it was the only "new" book I could get my hands on at the time. The Newbery Medal had recently been awarded and I felt compelled to get a jump start on titles for the upcoming year. Some of the books I really wanted to read had not yet been released and I have zero access to ARCs. Since I first read SOME KIND OF COURAGE, I have finished roughly 30 other books published in 2016 by some truly incredible authors. Still, SOME KIND OF COURAGE by Dan Gemeinhart remains one of my personal favorites from 2016.

SOME KIND OF COURAGE is set in Washington state, in the late-1800's. After both of his parents (and younger sister) die, Joseph Johnson sets out to recover his family horse, Sarah. Sarah has been swindled away from him by a dirty horse trader. Sarah is all he has left of his family and it is his responsibility to take care of her. Getting Sarah back however, proves to be more difficult than Joseph could have ever imagined. Along the way, he encounters bears, Native Americans, raging rivers, and even a mother in labor! Joseph is accompanied by Ah-Kee, a Chinese speaking boy who has been separated from his own family. Each obstacle they overcome brings Joseph closer and closer to his horse.

It's difficult to pin down exactly why I love this book as much as I do. While my affection for historical fiction has been growing over the years, it is still not a genre I gravitate toward. And I've never really been into westerns. But for some reason, SOME KIND OF COURAGE works for me. I found Joseph to be a very endearing character and I loved his relationship with Ah-Kee. The adventures they encounter are exciting, funny, unpredictable, and paced nicely. This was an easy page-turner. I think my real love for this book however, stems from the reactions I have witnessed from students while reading it. I have read this with two different classes of 5th graders now and many of them have recommended it to other friends. I gushed about this book to a coworker and they too, read it with a group of 5th graders and enjoyed it as much as I did.

I have read reviews that found Joseph's voice to be too good. Too wholesome, and Boy-Scouty. To each their own. I tend to disagree. Yes, Joseph is guided by a strong moral compass, instilled in him by his late mother and father. Doing them proud is all he feels like he can do to honor them. Because of this, I found his voice to be very genuine. Besides, he is not always perfect. He makes some harsh choices along his journey and acts in some unholy ways by the book's end. He has an inner voice that wrestles with this throughout, doing what is right and doing what is easy. But he continues to be guided by his mother and father's wisdom. Because of his determination to do what is right, given his bad, unfortunate circumstances, students have an emotional desire to see things work out for Joseph.

And I don't think this emotional reaction comes from cliched cheap tricks either. Kids today are a tougher audience than they were when I was 12 years old. You can't just kill off the dog in the final chapter and expect children to cry anymore. Kids have so many avenues for entertainment in today's society and many shows they watch and books they read approach material in a more mature way than was done years ago. Kids tend to be a bit numb to plot twists like the death of a major character, because it's done so often now. Suffice it to say, there is an art to making readers care about your characters. Consider Gemeinhart's recent novel SCAR ISLAND, which I just wrapped up reading with my 5th graders. Despite being in a similar heart-breaking situation, my students did not connect with the main character of that story. My 5th graders cared deeply about Joseph and Sarah.

When picked apart, some of the subplots of this story lose their punch. There is a scene where the boys are attacked by a bear and just as the tension rises to a fever pitch and you wonder how in the world they are going to get out of the situation (SPOILER)... Ah-Kee approaches the bear and talks a blue streak in Chinese. The bear is confused and leaves! Later, when Joseph and Ah-Kee barely survive a raging river, they stumble upon a picturesque cabin housing a mother in labor. (SPOILER)... Ah-Kee steps right in and takes care of her and even delivers the baby! I admit, despite my affection for this story, both of these situations seem like stretches of the imagination. Both scenes generated quite a rise out of students, but when stripped down, they could have been handled differently.

I tend to disagree however, with complaints over Gemeinhart's treatment of Native Americans in the story. At one point, Joseph and Ah-Kee stumble upon an injured Native American teenager. Joseph describes him in the following way: "He bared his teeth like a wolf and snarled a word low and mean in his native tongue." Some reviewers take offense to Joseph's comparison of the boy to an animal, but I find this to be a reach. Joseph is a boy living in the late 1800's with little to no experience interacting with Native Americans. Some reviewers have pointed to the Native American chief's willingness to loan Joseph a horse at one point in the story, as being out of character. I happen to appreciate the way Gemeinhart connects their two plights. This shows of compassion in the chief. I'm not sure why this would be considered uncharacteristic.

Despite a few over-the-top moments of belief suspension, I still love this story. I love Joseph and Ah-Kee's friendship and how Joseph has to rely on facial expressions and body language because of the language barrier. This theme of language is present in many of Joseph's interactions with characters other than Ah-Kee throughout the story. "A smile broke across Mr. Strawn's face, and I saw his shoulders relax. He looked past me at the three Indian men and talked to them in their native tongue. A ripple of relief ran through the crowd at whatever it was that he said."

This message of friendship and kindness beyond barriers was powerful and relevant. Joseph's mother tells him, "There ain't no problem between people so big that it can't be solved by folks sitting down and talking about it." Joseph wonders though, "if that particular piece of wisdom would work if the folks sitting down didn't speak the same language." Turns out, a lot can be accomplished by folks working together despite not speaking the same language. Joseph and Ah-Kee are proof of that. This message should speak loudly and carry some meaning in today's culture.

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