The Boys in the Boat: A New York Times Bestseller

The Boys in the Boat

by Daniel James Brown


In 1933, a group of eager University of Washington freshmen sit in a rowing shell for the first time. Over the next three years, these boys row thousands of miles in their quest to defeat their rivals at the University of California. Their success in American regattas catapult them to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where their defeat of Germany foreshadows the great war to come.

Reasons to Read this Book:

  • Great American heroes: Everyone likes a good, old-fashioned, red-white-and-blue tale. This is definitely one of those. What makes it better? These boys are the pulled up by their own bootstraps, American dream type. Brown focuses on Joe Rantz, the number 2 man, and the hardships he experiences as a child and young man, including the early death of his mother, abandonment by his father and stepmother, and living hand to mouth throughout his college years. The story is much more inspiring than it would have been if the Olympic crew consisted of Harvard or Yale old-money boys. It’s a good versus evil story too: the Allies and the Axis powers, but six years premature. I got a lot of the same vibes from this story as from the Kurt Russell movie Miracle about the 1982 hockey team defeating the Russians (I highly recommend this movie! Read more here).
  • History: The Greatest Generation includes these boys who defied Hitler and his new Germany several years before the United States entered into World War II. Brown demonstrates the events in Germany in parallel with the training of the Husky crew. It’s eerie to read about the lengths the Germans went to in order to sterilize the front they showed to the world and how greatly they tried to prove that the post-World War I Germany was peaceful and welcoming and clean. Hitler, with the help of his propagandist Goebbels, fooled a lot of people for a long time! Brown also inserts short anecdotes about people who enter the crew’s story: a German family in the town where they stayed during the Olympics, only one of whom survived the war, and a soon-to-be-famous racehorse named Seabiscuit.
  • The power of a team: Throughout the book, Brown looks into the minds of each of the men on the Washington crew that becomes the American crew. When they row poorly, it’s because they aren’t paying attention to each other. When they row well (and multiple people, coaches, etc. say that this team is the best crew they have ever seen, so we’re talking really well!), they are in tune with each other and literally cannot be beaten. At the end of their careers, Joe Rantz, Shorty Hunt, and Roger Morris, had never lost a race (the Olympic crew didn’t form until 1935, so the other boys rowed in different boats at Washington). After the Olympics, the boys remained like family, spending reunions together multiple times per year, calling each other on the phone, and rowing together each decade following the Olympic victory. The boys together added up to much more than each individual’s contribution.

Final Thoughts:

You know I’m a sucker for any good nonfiction. (More here.) While there were some slow parts, and one would think that reading about a race wouldn’t be exciting, you’d be wrong! This would be a book that I would reread, so you know it’s worth it!

Mrs. Ethridge’s Report Card:

My Rating: A-

  • “minus” because it took me a while to really get into it–like 50 pages.
  • appeals to a wide variety of readers

Clean Factor: A

  • nothing beyond a few disturbing mentions of atrocities committed by Hitler and his men.

Application: A

  • Book clubs: lots of discussion points; clean
  • School/Classroom setting: excellent to pair with American history class, alongside fiction in an English class; good example of nonfiction and research methods


Photo credit/Amazon link:



All the Light We Cannot See: A book with water on the cover

All the Light We Cannot See

by Anthony Doerr


Marie-Laure grows up blind in Paris, learning the city by studying a tiny model made by her doting father. Werner spends his childhood in a German orphanage, teaching himself radio engineering as he roams his mining village with his sister. World War II turns their lives upside-down and leads to their collision in the walled seaside city of Saint-Malo.

What Works:

  • Sympathetic view of Germans: watching Werner grow up shows the humanity of the German people. It’s easy to look back on history and demonize the “evil Germans” without seeing the individuals, the men who left wives, families, and normal jobs to fight for their country (just like the American boys did). I’m not saying that the German people as a whole should get a pass on all of the atrocities that happened under their noses, but I do think it’s important to see the viewpoints of others. Werner, especially, aids in doing so, because when he enters the war, he is barely more than a child himself. Even though he’s a “bad guy,” I couldn’t help but root for him and hope that he would make it out of the war unscathed.
  • Parallel stories: While the flashback may be (over-)utilized by writers, it is obvious why it is a common storytelling mode: no one can argue with its effectiveness. Doerr begins the story at the end, and then moves back and forth between “real time” (the bombing of Saint-Malo) and the past (the growing-up years of Marie-Laure and Werner). This story takes moving around in time a little farther in that the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner do not intersect until near the end of the novel. The reader has to keep up with four different storylines. This could be a “what doesn’t work” point, but in this case, it does work!
  • Use of art, literature, and technology: Doerr references Clair de Lune, a piece of a piano suite by Debussy (listen here) as well as Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea throughout the entire novel. Marie-Laure’s father adds his own craft in the replicas and puzzle boxes he makes for his daughter. I could nearly hear the Debussy music as I read, especially near the end, and the tension building in 20,000 Leagues as Marie-Laure reads parallels the tension building in her own story. The new technology of the radio plays a huge role in Werner’s life particularly, and is the cause of salvation for both Werner and Marie-Laure.

What Doesn’t Work (in this case, really, the “slightly-less-beloved-parts-of-this-book”):

  • My main problem is that the chapters are so short, which sometimes makes the stories a little difficult to figure out, but that also helps the story to move along faster.
  • I don’t love the thread of the story revolving around the Sea of Flames, because it adds a bit of mythology and “this can’t really happen”-ness to the novel. However, it causes the eventual intersection of Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s stories, so I’ll let it pass. 😉
  • The denouement: I’m not going to say much, because I don’t want to ruin the book for you, but the ending leaves a lot to the imagination; Doerr ties up some loose ends, but leaves many others for his readers to chew on a while!

Final Thoughts:

This book is going on my “recommend to pretty much anyone” list. Doerr manages a truly unique story set during World War II, which I find remarkable. So many times we see World War II and the people involved in it as just part of one big, simple conflict; Doerr focuses on two seemingly insignificant people caught in the fray and demonstrates how important those individual lives are. Even in the darkness of such a terrible thing as war, the light comes from the good in people; we just have to look a little harder to see it.

Mrs. Ethridge’s Report Card:

My Rating: A

  • A lovely story focusing on the individuals that get caught up in larger movements, and how individuals can fight against their circumstances.
  • An ending that isn’t necessarily tied up in a pretty bow makes a better book in my opinion.

Clean Factor: B-

  • language: a few words, but fairly clean considering this is a war story
  • sexual content: a short, as not-graphic-as-you-can-get rape scene
  • violence: it’s a war novel, of course.

Book Clubbishness: A

  • This month’s pick! I’m interested to see what the others have to say.
  • My G’ma sent me this book, and her picks always seem to be a hit in book club. 🙂


Looking for other World War II stories? WWII historical fiction–and nonfiction too really–is just about my favorite! Other reviews on the subject: The Nightingale, God’s Smuggler.

2016 Reading Challenge

Photo credit/Amazon link:


2016 Reading Challenge (& 2015 Challenge Revisited)

So this post is a little late (almost a month into 2016 already??), but here is what I accomplished in the 2015 Reading Challenge:

  1. A Book You Own But Haven’t Read (There are literally piles of these at my house…evidently I couldn’t pick one!)
  2. A Book that was Made into a Movie Still Alice by Lisa Genova
  3. A Book You Pick Solely because of the Cover Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
  4. A Book Your Friend Loves East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  5. A Book Published This Year Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
  6. A Book by an Author You’ve Never Read Before In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
  7. A Book by an Author You Love Pioneer Girl by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  8. A Book at the Bottom of Your “To Be Read” Pile Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
  9. A Book with a Color in the Title Gray Mountain by John Grisham
  10. A Book Set Somewhere You’ve Always Wanted to Visit The Second Empress by Michelle Moran
  11. A Book You Started but Never Finished (Again, literally piles of these. Sigh.)
  12. A Book with a Lion, a Witch, or a Wardrobe (I’m currently reading All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which most definitely has a wardrobe in it!)
  13. A Book with a Female Protagonist The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
  14. A Book Set in the Summer Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
  15. A Book of Poems Julie Andrew’s Collection of Poems, Songs, and Lullabies selected by Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton
  16. A Book You Learned About Because of this Challenge The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  17. A Book That Will Make You Smarter Killing Reagan by Bill O’Reilly
  18. A Book with a Blue Cover The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
  19. A Book You Were Supposed to Read in School but You Didn’t (I’d like to say that I read everything I was assigned in school, but I’ll just say I read most!)
  20. A Book “Everyone” But You Has Read Wonder by R.J. Palacio (didn’t get a review written, but this would be a great read-aloud for older-elementary and maybe even junior high kids)
  21. A Book with a Great First Line (planned on reading some Thomas Hardy, but didn’t get to it)
  22. A Book with Pictures Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
  23. A Book from the Library Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James
  24. A Book You Loved…Read it Again! Harry Potter (all of them) by J.K. Rowling (I reread all 7 books, and then watched all 8 movies, but didn’t review them! In a nutshell: excellent!)
  25. A Book that is More than 10 Years Old March by Geraldine Brooks
  26. A Book Based on a True Story The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

I managed to read a book in 21 of the 26 categories, plus I blogged about several nonfiction picks here. I can definitely say that I read more than 26 books this year, which was my overall goal. I did enjoy having a framework to look at and I do think it helped me to make more varied choices.

My plan is to continue, and I will also try to make blog posts more frequent. I would love to have more posts like the nonfiction one where I can review multiple books at once. I’m working on a kid fiction/family read-aloud post currently. 🙂

Now, on to 2016!

I liked the list put together by Bringing Up Burns, so I’m going to use her list again this year. Some of the categories are the same, but there are lots of different ones too.

What are your favorite books you read this last year? I’d love some recommendations for my 2016 list!

Happy reading!


#10: A Book Set Somewhere You Always Wanted to Visit

The Second Empress: A Novel of Napoleon’s Court

by Michelle Moran


Napoleon Bonaparte bulldozes his way across Europe, seizing cities, countries, and power. He is the most powerful man in the world, but two things are not his: royal blood and an heir. His wife of 14 years, the Empress Josephine, has not given him the child he desires, so Napoleon divorces her and marries Maria Lucia, daughter of the King of Austria and a Hapsburg princess. Within a year, a son is born, but unfortunately for Napoleon, an heir does not guarantee that power will remain in the Bonaparte family.

*This review is based on the talking points at this month’s book club meeting.

What Works:

  • 3 narrators. Since the point of view changes from Pauline, to Marie Louise, to Paul, the reader gets a fair, realistic view of Napoleon and all of the events that happen in his court.
  • Depiction of Napoleon. By employing 3 narrators–none of whom are Napoleon himself–Moran gives the reader differing views of Napoleon that work together to help the reader come to her own conclusions about the emperor. I think it was wise to stay away from Napoleon as a narrator; leaving his thoughts out of the novel make it much more realistic. I think it would have been very risky and probably would have not been nearly as good of a story had Napoleon had his own voice.
  • Use of actual quotes and letters. All of the quotes at the beginnings of the chapters are true, as are the letters included in the novel, minus a few identified by the author.

What Doesn’t Work:

  • The cover art. We generally agreed that the picture looks like it’s from a bad romance novel. I know about the judging a book by its cover thing, but with as much research as this book obviously required, a better cover would make a huge difference.

Other Points of Discussion:

  • Napoleonic Code. Napoleon’s real influence in history is in his legacy of Napoleonic Code. In Louisiana, this is especially interesting since we still function under these laws. While most people consider Napoleon to be a military genius,
  • Marie Louise’s decision to marry Napoleon. Generally, the consensus was that Marie Louise’s decision was selfless, even though it would have been very difficult to make. It’s interesting to see how those in the royal class had such different lives than what we have today. Every decision really was political, even though it seems like they all lived in the lap of luxury without any thought to anyone but themselves.


As far as historical fiction goes, this is a decent example. Moran does not gloss over the less-than-savory bits and utilizes verified historical facts (including letters and such) in a satisfactory way. While this isn’t going on my list of favorites, it was worth a read and gave me an interesting view into a time period I haven’t studied much, especially not since college. Moran writes strong characters, especially the female ones, which is a nice contrast to Napoleon himself. As a result of reading this novel, I am interested in Moran’s other works, which I guess speaks for itself as a recommendation!

Mrs. Ethridge’s (condensed) Report Card: B-


Photo credit/Amazon link:

#17: A Book That Will Make You Smarter

Killing Reagan

by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard


Bill O’Reilly’s biography of Ronald Reagan spans his entire adult life, from his move to California to become a movie star, his rise to political power, and his death at age 93. Like the other books in this series (Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy, Killing Jesus, and Killing Patton–all of which I have read except the last), O’Reilly parallels the life of the protagonist–Reagan in this case–with his assassin. This particular one is different in that Reagan’s is only an attempted assassination. However, O’Reilly delves into the possibility that the assassination attempt and subsequent surgery and recovery greatly impacted the rest of Reagan’s life (and presidency) and very well could have contributed to the eventual onset of Alzheimer’s disease in the former president. Killing Reagan also looks at the relationships Reagan had with two women: his wife Nancy and his “political soul-mate” Margaret Thatcher.

What Works:

  • Present-tense, narrative style. Using present tense gives the reader a sense of involvement and immediacy. It reads less like a text-book and more like a crime documentary.
  • Chapters that move between Ronald Reagan and John Hinkley, Jr. Like in his other books, O’Reilly devotes time to the assassin as well as the victim. It’s interesting to see these men and see their points of view instead of seeing them only as a man behind a gun. John Hinkley, Jr.’s mental state paralleled with Reagan’s policies on mental health are especially interesting.
  • Well-researched facts. In the afterword, O’Reilly states that any facts in the book have at least two confirming sources. Also, many (many, many) quotes from Reagan, his staff members, Margaret Thatcher, and other people demonstrate the authenticity of the story. Also, I feel that O’Reilly is generally unbiased in his treatment of Reagan, telling the reader the good, bad, and ugly about the former president.

What Doesn’t Work:

  • Lack of variation in sentence structure and syntax. I noticed this more while reading this book than others of O’Reilly’s. The writing style consists of mainly short, declarative statements, which definitely drive the action of the story. But it gets a little bland after a while. Also, the adjectives that are used tend to be repeated in sections, which makes me think the editors missed opportunities for more descriptive text.
  • Less tension than in others in series. Since Reagan doesn’t actually die from the assassin’s bullet, there is less apprehension about an inevitable death. The tension in this book comes from global events like the Cold War and the Falklands War, among other issues that Reagan dealt with during his administration, along with his decline due to Alzheimer’s disease.


I read this book in the span of 24 hours. I think my fascination with this subject is because although I have a background in history, I don’t know a whole lot about very recent history. Many of the most important events in Reagan’s presidency happened in my very early childhood, so while I don’t necessarily remember them, I can wrap my head around how recently they took place as well as how Reagan’s policies and actions have influenced other events that I can remember–and things that are happening today. Many of the people in Reagan’s White House are still politically active now (or recently have retired from public service).

I recommend this book to anyone interested in politics of any kind (or side!) as well as to people who think they don’t like nonfiction. I’ve about decided that well-written nonfiction is my favorite genre!

Mrs. Ethridge’s Report Card:

My Rating: B

  • quick, interesting read full of proven facts
  • not as good as previous books in the series

Clean Factor: C

  • a few language issues, typically in a quote from an actual person
  • Reagan was known as a playboy in his younger years, so…

Book Clubbishness: B

  • good length, easy to read
  • several points for discussion: Nancy Reagan, Alzheimer’s disease, Reagan’s children, etc.


Photo credit/Amazon link:



#8: A Book at the Bottom of Your “To Be Read” Pile

Fever, 1793

by Laurie Halse Anderson


Fourteen-year-old Matilda Cook helps her mother and grandfather run a Philadelphia coffeehouse. (Who knew those were all the rage centuries before Starbucks?) One day, a yellow fever epidemic begins in the sweltering, mosquito-infested city, and life completely changes within the course of hours. Matilda and her grandfather flee the city and the disease, leaving Mrs. Cook fighting for her life. But both Matilda and Captain Cook fall sick as well. After her convalescence, Matilda returns to her family’s coffeehouse, where she has to decide between the easy road (taking herself to the orphan house), or fighting to preserve her family’s livelihood.

What Works:

  • Strong female protagonist: What girl doesn’t like reading a story about a girl power? It’s especially compelling for a character like Matilda who lives in a time when women (and even more so girls) had little standing in society. Matilda definitely strains against the limits put on her, but also learns how to live within those boundaries while remaining true to herself. Her coming-of-age set against the backdrop of such a difficult circumstance demonstrates Matilda’s strength and character.
  • Historical facts: The yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793 is historical fact, as are many pieces of Ms. Anderson’s novel. While Matilda’s story is a fictional one, all of the events surrounding it are true. Ms. Anderson includes a history section at the end of the novel, which really helps the reader understand the reality of what Matilda experienced.
  • Grandfather: I think Grandfather/Captain Cook is my favorite character, just because he is so stereotypically grandfather-ish. He is gentlemanly, chivalrous, and generally adored by everyone who meets him. I admire that he stayed with Mrs. Cook and Matilda after his son died and helped them make their own way in a man-centered world. His final acts display the great love he has for his granddaughter.

What Doesn’t Work:

  • The romance: Not that Matilda’s relationship with Nathaniel Benson doesn’t work, but it didn’t really do anything for me or for the action of the novel. I totally understand why Ms. Anderson included it though, because what 14-year-old girl doesn’t want to hear about the cute guy another girl has a crush on? 😉


I have read several of Ms. Anderson’s other young adult novels, and the quality of this one is no less excellent than her others. (If you haven’t read Speak, you really should! Or you can watch the movie, where Kristen Stewart actually does a pretty good job portraying Melinda.) This novel would be very useful as a companion novel to American history study in a junior high setting. I could also see a book club having a good discussion around this novel. It provides several talking points about historical events as well as the characters themselves.

I think I will add Ms. Anderson’s historical fiction trilogy to my reading list. Chains, Forge, and Ashes (not yet released).


P.S.-The title of this post could be misleading, I suppose! I decided to classify this book as “at the bottom of my pile” because I didn’t have it on my reading list–I just picked it up one day at the library. Besides, I needed a book for that category so I could check it off my list!

Photo credit/Amazon link:

Nonfiction Picks

I have read several nonfiction books lately, so you get one big nonfiction post! Over the last few years, I have come to enjoy nonfiction, probably because I have discovered so many well-written nonfiction writers. When a writer/researcher/historian takes on a nonfiction subject and writes in a narrative, novel-esque style, the story really comes alive–so much better than textbooks! (See here, here, and here for more nonfiction posts.)
Here are 3 more you can add to your to-read list:

God’s Smuggler
by Brother Andrew
Andrew tells his incredible story of ministering in communist countries in the Cold War era. Dutch-born Andrew serves in Asia during World War 2 and returns home disillusioned, injured, and directionless. All of these “handicaps,” however, disappear when Andrew responds to God’s calling on his life and becomes a missionary to countries behind the Iron Curtain. Many of the episodes that fill this book are so unbelievable that they have to be true–no one could have made them up! Brother Andrew’s life is one big miracle and a testament of faith and trust in God. It also makes you wonder why it’s so hard to invite your neighbor to church!

Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times (Also, Call the Midwife: In the Shadows of the Work House and Call the Midwife: Farewell to the East End)
by Jennifer Worth
A friend suggested that I watch the PBS/BBC adaptation of Call the Midwife (which is lovely, by the way). Then I discovered it was based on memoirs, so of course I had to read them too! This is one instance where I give HUGE kudos to the producers and writers of the television show, because they follow the stories recounted by Mrs. Worth nearly to the letter. The book is more medical and less personal, so in that regard, I actually prefer the TV show. The characters are more developed when you can see them in living color, so to speak. But the book(s) relate the realities of medical care, living conditions, and society in post-World War 2 London, which is much more third-world than progressive, world-leader than one would expect. This is not for the faint of heart; if a biology book gives you the heebie-jeebies, then this not for you!
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
by Erik Larsen
The most I had ever heard or read about the Lusitania was a sentence in a history textbook. I knew a German U-boat torpedoed and sunk it, and that it propelled the United States to enter World War 1, but that was about it. Erik Larsen’s talent lies in taking that one sentence and spinning it into an intriguing and compelling personal story. The ship doesn’t actually sink until around 2/3 of the way through the book; Larsen uses the first half or so to recount the stories of the various passengers, the captain of the U-boat, President Wilson, and the secret British intelligence Room 40. I especially enjoyed the chapters following the sinking of the ship and the epilogue; knowing “the rest of the story” contributes to understanding the importance of the sinking of this ocean liner. Larsen even delves into the conspiracy theory that posits that British military intelligence allowed the Lusitania to be hit in order to get the US into the war.

Erik Larsen is probably one of the main reason that I currently enjoy nonfiction so much–Devil in the White City and Isaac’s Storm are both excellent books, and I have several of his others on my to-read list.


I just realized that even though these books are strikingly different from each other, they all center around the World Wars! So much for my attempt at reading diverse subject matters!

Happy reading,


Photo credits/Amazon links: , ,

#13: A Book with a Female Protagonist

The Language of Flowers

by Vanessa Diffenbaugh


Victoria Jones grew up in the foster care system and ages out right as the story begins. She has no job, no education, and nowhere to go, but on a whim, demonstrates her skillfulness with flowers to a local florist and lands herself a job designing bridal bouquets and the like. As Victoria continues to work in the florist shop, she earns enough money to live somewhat comfortably, but an encounter with a certain vendor while at the flower market causes Victoria’s present to collide with her past. Grant is the nephew of Victoria’s almost-adoptive mother. The two become friends, but Victoria’s lack of ability to trust and love threatens to destroy the stability that she has created in her life.

Quick Review:

I really enjoyed this novel. It is a quick, easy read (it just took me a few days) and it engages the reader right from the beginning. Two things in particular held my attention:

1-The information about the foster system from the point of view of a foster child

Yes, I know it’s a fictional character, and I know Victoria’s experience is unique, but Diffenbaugh’s writing does show some flaws in the system. The lack of relationships that Victoria creates as a child haunt her as an adult in her literal inability to form trusting relationships.

2-The forgotten language of flowers

While Victoria has no understanding of how to relate to other people, she essentially uses her knowledge of flowers to express herself since she has no other method of doing so. Simply knowing the meanings behind flowers and the idea of communicating via bouquets, etc. provides plenty of interest on its own. Throughout the novel, however, the flowers almost become a character themselves; without the flowers, Victoria has no voice and no power. Flowers speak for her when Victoria cannot speak for herself.

This book would make an excellent book club choice or a slightly-weightier beach/vacation read.

Mrs. Ethridge’s Report Card:

My Rating: A-

  • well-developed characters
  • unique concept
  • I specifically enjoyed the Flower Dictionary the author included at the end.

Clean Factor: C

  • language: a few instances of R-rated words, typically when Victoria gets frustrated
  • one slightly descriptive bedroom scene

Book Clubbishness: A

  • good length, easy to read
  • lots of talking points, including foster care, parent/child love, etc.

Photo Credit/Amazon link:

#5: A Book Published this Year

Go Set a Watchman

by Harper Lee


Jean Louise Finch arrives in her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama for a two-week visit from Manhattan. She fits herself back into the small-town life: she goes out with her sometimes-boyfriend Henry, attends ladies’ tea with her Aunt Alexandra, spends time with her father Atticus and her uncle Jack, and sleeps in her childhood bedroom. On this visit, however, Jean Louise drops in on a meeting of Maycomb’s leaders and discovers that her father may not be the man she thought he was.

Reasons to Love GSAW Like You Love TKAM:

  • Episodic chapters/stories that stand alone
    • In TKAM, several story lines exist—Boo Radley, Mrs. Dubose, Tom Robinson. They all intersect to illustrate different lessons learned by Scout and Jem. However, many of the episodes in both novels could be read almost as short stories. One that comes to mind, for example, the TKAM scene where Scout’s teacher explains prejudice in regards to the Nazi treatment of Jews, but completely misses the fact that she teaches in a segregated classroom. Similar bits exist in GSAW as well. On a slight tangent, this technique exemplifies Ms. Lee’s writing style; from the very beginning of GSAW, it reads just like TKAM (except it’s in third person instead of first!).
    • It is easy to see the parts of GSAW that Harper Lee reworked to create TKAM, specifically in flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood. Some descriptive sentences are nearly identical in the two novels. The characters initially drawn in GSAW retain the same features and quirks in TKAM. It is impressive, however, that Ms. Lee took the only briefly mentioned trial of Tom Robinson and wove such a classic story from just a few sentences.
  • Witty and poignant one-liners

I wrote down so many quotes! Some of my favorites:

      • “The course of English Literature would have been decidedly different had Mr. Wordsworth owned a power mower.” –p. 143 (HAHAHAHA!)
      • “Every man is an island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman is his conscience.” –p. 264
      • “It’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are.” –p. 269
      • “Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends” –p. 271
  • Teaches without being preachy
    • All of the lessons that the reader learns throughout the novel, they learn alongside Jean Louise. By standing in her shoes, the reader can see things from her perspective and participate in conversations that Jean Louise has with Calpurnia, Uncle Jack, Henry, and Atticus. Things are “logic-ed out” and conclusions come out of well thought-out and lengthy, two-sided discussions instead of just through summary narrative.
    • I love how Harper Lee bookends the lessons Jean Louise learns during her time in Maycomb with two instances of Scout entering a car. At the beginning of the novel, Jean Louise gets into a vehicle, hits her head on the door facing, and summarily complains about how cars aren’t made how they used to be. Similarly, at the end of the novel, Jean Louise again enters a car, but this time “she was careful not to bump her head” (p. 278). Such a simple discussion of automobile construction perfectly illustrates the theme of the novel: sometimes you have to change what you do to fit the current situation. This doesn’t mean you change your beliefs (quit driving the car), you just have to adjust them to unique situations (you duck your head).
  • Real, authentic, dimensional characters
    • Uncle Jack: Although he plays a very small role in TKAM, Uncle Jack is one of my favorite characters because of the adult way in which he relates to Scout and Jem. He speaks to them on their level. In GSAW, Uncle Jack is the voice of reason, and ironically he is extremely eccentric. When Jean Louise loses her mind over the courthouse meeting, Uncle Jack helps Jean Louise understand the truth behind what she saw.
    • Aunt Alexandra: While the adult Scout has learned how to interact with Aunt Alexandra, the childhood fear of her remains. Aunt Alexandra’s role in GSAW gives more depth to her character (she was a little flat in TKAM). She demonstrates how strong a southern woman can be while still playing the traditional role of upstanding caretaker and hostess.
    • Jean Louise: While it is weird to see Scout smoking cigarettes and using less-than-ladylike language, it’s really not all that far-fetched. (Anyone recall “pass the damn ham?”) Harper Lee did an excellent job of creating six-year-old Scout from this grown woman who came first from her imagination.
    • Atticus Finch: Atticus is the big surprise to everyone. In GSAW, Atticus does seem to be racist (given where and when he grew up, it’s not surprising though). HOWEVER, even if Atticus does harbor some idea that whites are superior to blacks, it DOES NOT trump his belief in justice and right and wrong and the rights that people have. In the short discussion of the Tom Robinson trial (in GSAW, he is found innocent, interestingly), Atticus took on the case because he believed Tom to be innocent—it had nothing to do with the color of anyone’s skin. Atticus’s convictions remain the same throughout his entire life, but Scout sees a wider view of his actions and beliefs as an adult than she does as a child. It stands to reason that the child Scout would see her father as the model of perfection, knight-in-shining-armor type, while the adult Jean Louise sees him as an adult, with all his flaws and faults.

Final Thoughts:

After hearing about the publication of GSAW, I was apprehensive because I thought Harper Lee probably only published this novel as a result of coercion and/or someone taking advantage of her. Furthermore, after seeing some of the reviews, I really wasn’t sure what to expect, and I hadn’t set my expectations very high. (For the record, I only read headlines, none of the reviews or articles themselves, so this review is totally my own opinion and not colored with anyone else’s.) The novel pleasantly surprised me. I feel that Harper Lee waited until the atmosphere of the country was right to publish. While it’s not the final, edited, polished novel it would have been with some additional editorial insight, the “bones” hold up to scrutiny.

I don’t think that GSAW will ever be a classic like TKAM, but I think that it deserves an open-minded read. It provides interesting insights into the writing process, the creative abilities of the author, and also a glimpse into the climate in a small, southern town during the civil rights movement. Many of the situations Ms. Lee deals with remain relevant today, which is always the mark of a good, well-written book.

Mrs. Ethridge’s Report Card:

My Rating: B+

  • Beloved characters, distinct writing style, lovely descriptions
  • “Rough” novel leaves some gaps (and some spelling mistakes, etc.)
  • Not quite a “classic” like its sister

Clean Factor: B

  • Fairly rough language by multiple characters
  • Topics of racial tension, etc may not be suitable for all audiences
  • Otherwise clean

Book Clubbishness: A

  • Plenty of controversial topics to discuss
  • Connection to TKAM, characters, setting, etc provides even more discussion

Educational Potential: B

  • AUTHOR’S CRAFT! You can really see the writing process come to life when you look at the chronology of the books versus the order in which they were written, the descriptive passages, and the character development.
  • I wouldn’t use this in a high school classroom like TKAM; I think it would work better as an independent read or in a college situation.

Photo credit/Amazon link: