Friday, November 17, 2006

"History Lesson for Girls" - Aurelie Sheehan

If there is a cozier feeling than seeing a book you think you’ll love and then reading it and loving it just like you knew all along you would, I don’t know what it is. A book like “History Lesson for Girls” restores my faith in the world and in people.
I read Aurelie Sheehan’s book in two afternoons, and now I wish I had stretched it out a while longer – even though it would be impossible to hold on for more than another couple of days – but I couldn’t wait to follow Alison Glass and her best friend Kate Hamilton in their “perambulations” on horse back, as well as the ones they made up for their lost heroine of olden days, Sarah Beckingworth.
Now, if you’re not into first person narratives of young teenagers, maybe you won’t be as awed as me by “History Lesson for Girls”. Then again if you’re not, you probably won’t appreciate many of the books I’ve written about here (which means, by the way, that you suck).
Set in 1975, in the waspy small-town of Weston, Connecticut, Sheehan’s book covers almost a whole school year of thirteen-year-old Alison’s life, whose painter mom and poet/university English teacher dad, have just moved to this picture perfect New England hideout for wealthy men and their bored wives. Getting adjusted to Weston seems, at first glance, like it will be harder for the girl’s parents: even though Alison suffers from scoliosis and has to wear a Frankenstein-like contraption called a Milwaukee Brace to force her S shaped spine into a more conventional orientation, she gets “saved” by Kate Hamilton even before she sets foot in her new junior high – or maybe its Peaches and Jazz, the ponies, who do the saving. Riding in nearby trails, crossing icy streams and racing their hearts out is what turns Alison and Kate into best friends (that, and sneaking to smoke Winstons together). They even create a girl named Sarah Beckinworth for a school project about Independence War era Weston: just like them she is brave, fierce, self-sufficient and a heck of a rider.
Alison’s mom, on the other hand, ends up being sucked into a grand scheme for the town’s jubilee organized by a very color coordinated group who call themselves the Women of History, despite being a bona fide bohemian, while dad mopes around believing that hypocritical expressions such as “helping the community” are only the first step down a very frightening road that will end up, surely, in Republican Party membership.

But let’s not forget this is the seventies we’re talking about, the decade that most sordidly popularized an unhealthy mix of politics, religion and sex. Even while the young girls escape the constraints of time – theirs is a timeless friendship – the parents prove too weak to resist society’s pull. A case in point is Kate’s father, Tut (not his real name), a self-appointed Egyptian shaman, turned millionaire thanks to his book “Pyramid Love” whose message is that buying is holy or as he puts it a “ spiritual basis to acquisition”– or Alison’s mother who drags her daughter through yoga, faith healing and other new-age pursuits hoping to set her spine straight.
I’ll leave the plot twists and bittersweet ending alone for those willing to give the book a try. I liked especially how the leitmotif of history is not obviously (or at all) tied with the girl’s story, how there are some loose ends and things left unexplained. Even if our narrator is now grown-up, she doesn’t feel a need to spell it all out – in this, and also in its tone and rhythm “History Lesson for Girls” closely resembles Life.

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