Carnegie List 3/8
(Manny’s narration) I had never heard of pansies. Flowers do not grow where landmines are buried. I studied the picture on the packet and those flowers reminded me of the faces I saw in my dreams. They had big frightened eyes and no mouths. I dropped the paper on the seat and picked up my singlet. I needed to run again. That was the feeling I had inside me when I thought of the faces. But, before I ran, I saw that there was handwriting on the back of the packet. That is what stopped me from running.
my desire is
to be understood
my soul is filled
but when I open my mouth to
set them free
on my lips.
(The Stars at Oktober Bend, Glenda Millard. P32.)
Alice Nightingale is ‘forever 12’. She searches inside herself and out for the truth about what happened the night she went counted the stars at Oktober Bend. Words don’t come easily when she speaks, but when she writes they give flight to her thoughts. Thoughts about the mother who left, and the father who died, and the grandfather in prison.
Manny James has memories inside him he would rather forget. Memories of his little sister, and life in Sierra Leone. He finds a poem and connects it to the red-haired girl who stands under the stars and throws her poems to the world. Manny wants to learn more about Alice, but he must contend with the prejudices of people who think the Nightingales are nothing but trouble.
Together, they search for the truth about themselves beyond their circumstances.
Don’t be fooled by those short sentences – the use of language in The Stars at Oktober Bend is genius. Alice’s voice is superficially childish. She suffers from ‘theasurus syndrome’ – misuse of long words where a short one would do – and repeatedly uses words and phrases she has read in the family Bible. It soon becomes apparent that Alice has a gift for observation, and for crafting apposite metaphors. Alice also has a gift for poetry, and the book is worth reading for Alice’s poems alone. Read carefully – every poem contains a line or an image which tells you something you haven’t yet learnt in the text.
Alice is searching for the truth about what happened on a night when she was 12. The reader gathers clues with her – from her beautiful language, and from the revelations of other characters. This reminds me of stream of consciousness in Modernist literature, where thoughts occur as they would in real life. She questions whether she will, as the doctors say, be ‘forever twelve’. This is interesting in itself – Alice is caught on the cusp of adolescence, the cusp of abstract thought. When Alice meets Manny, she questions to what extent she will be able to enter a relationship.
While Alice searches for answers, the present day is not forgotten. There is Alice’s emerging relationship with Manny, the behaviour of a couple of local boys and their threats towards Alice’s brother Joey, and Manny himself. There is also the question of Gram’s bad lungs, and how much longer the Nightingales can hide away from the world.
Alice has acquired brain injury. I am sometimes wary of novels which deal with health conditions. There has been discussion about this within the YA Twitter community. There is nothing worse than a novel which invites people to sob over a person coming to terms with their health condition. This is not equal representation. The tone of The Stars at Oktober Bend is spot-on. Alice is a character, not an information leaflet. In terms of Alice’s brain injury and seizures, the reader is told only what the need to know for the plot. Alice’s development as a character is not about her health condition, but her relationship with herself and the world. This does not mean the brain injury plays no part. It means it is one aspect of Alice’s life. It does not define Alice.
Not only does Alice have difficulties with her health, she faces prejudice from the outside world. Millard portrayed this beautifully, from the man who tries to underpay her for her work to the ballet teacher who insists Alice’s seizures ‘disrupt’ the lessons.
I loved how Alice and Manny had similar development, despite having opposite problems. Alice wants to remember; Manny want to forget. Generally, the book looks at how the world responds to people who ‘with issues’ – be it poverty, bereavement, abuse or anything else you can dream of. The resounding message was we are people regardless of what has happened to us, and this, I think, makes the book both important and memorable.
Old Barn Books
Page Count: 266
Have you read a book in written in poetry or unconventional prose? Did it affect your reading of the story?