YALSA 2016 Hub Challenge: The Boston Girl

Remember your open-jawed response to The Martian, starring Matt Damon, being slotted in the ‘Best Comedy or Musical’ category for award season purposes?  Those who have read the novel on which the movie is based, seen the movie itself, or even glimpsed a 30-second preview for the movie know this to be a blatant mislabeling . . . deliberately done so as to give The Martian a greater chance at winning.

Well, we have another cataloguing controversy on our hands!  (All the librarians reading are nerding out with the pedantic nitpicking of it all).

The Boston Girl: A Novel was not originally intended to be classified as YA.  Diamant herself has confirmed it (screenshots below); WorldCat files it under ‘adult fiction’  — yet it is included in the YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of the ALA) 2016 Hub Challenge, which is designed to “encourage librarians, library workers, and YA lit enthusiasts to dive into the award winner and honor books and YALSA selected lists with the hope of providing excellent readers’ advisory and even discovering a new favorite title or exploring a genre outside of your comfort zone.”Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 9.45.48 PM
All books listed for the Hub Challenge, non-fiction, fiction, and graphic novels alike, are all award winners in some YA award category.

The Boston Girl is also being consistently reviewed as young-adult fiction — including this review at The Dallas Morning News and this one at SFGate.

SFGate’s reviewer Joan Frank goes so far as to defend the YA classification thusly:

A kind of opaque wholesomeness glazes the story and its elements; hence its young adult quality.

I realize I may risk starting a brawl (already under way online) about differences between YA literature and other kinds. Space limits force me to leave that to others. Meantime, however, be assured: “The Boston Girl’s” wise, canny matriarch, journalist, counselor, author, human rights champion, chronicler of a century of Jewish life in Boston and around the nation, is supremely brave and bighearted — a marvelous role model no matter how you parse it. I’m giving the book to my granddaughters. Three cheers for Addie Baum.

“People don’t talk so much about bad memories.”

Perhaps it is the narrative conceit itself that lends itself to optimism.

The Boston Girl is told from the perspective of 85-year-old Addie Baum, who tells the story of her life to her 22-year-old granddaughter, who has asked her the loaded question: “How did you get to be the woman you are today?”

Think about the conversations you’ve had with your own grand-parents (or other aging family members).  Even in the most open and communicative of relationships, no one who loves someone wants to tell that someone, ‘yup, life pretty much sucks and then you die.’

Abbie does, frequently, touch on her ‘bad memories,’ but ultimately, though her memories take her granddaughter on a roller-coaster journey from joy through sorrow and back again ad infinitum for 300-some pages, the novel ends on an extremely hopeful note (there is no Tuesdays with Morrie last-pages death, we promise!).

“Maybe I don’t want to get married.”  The moment I said that, I ran behind where Celia was sitting so Mameh couldn’t slap me.  But she just laughed.  “Are you so stupid?  Marriage and children are a woman’s crown.”

I said, “Like for Mrs. Freistadt?”

Mameh didn’t have an answer for Mrs. Freistadt.  She lived across the street.  One day her husband came home from work and said he couldn’t live with a woman he didn’t love, so after twenty years and four little girls, he just walked out.  Just like that.

Oh, Craig . . .

But, despite its overall positivity, The Boston Girl does not suffer from the ‘feminism 101,’ School House Rock after-school special, over-simplification that many lesser YA novels do.

Through Addie’s eyes, the reader sees a (possible) suicide, a (possible) rape, and a (definite) abortion.  No punches are pulled here, but all of these moments, with the notable exception of the abortion, are left open to the reader’s interpretation.

Did Addie’s sister, Celia, purposefully slash her wrist because she was unhappy in her marriage/traumatized and weakened by her past as a child laborer?  Was Addie raped by her ‘date’ Harold?  Leaving these questions to the reader demands more from her/him — not less — whatever age that reader may be.

Though some may say that this ‘wink wink’ style of handling the grittier parts of the story brands the novel even more definitively as YA, I beg to disagree.  One of the major problems that I have had with so many of the modern YA novels I’ve read has been the way in which they push an agenda with an uncomfortably heavy hand . . . seemingly taking twisted pleasure in being ‘edgy:’ like George Carlin monologuing about the “Seven Words You Can’t Say On TV.”

“How did I get to be the woman I am today?”  It started in that library, in the reading club.  That’s where I started to be my own person.

Any librarians out there will also greatly appreciate The Boston Girl‘s unashamed reverence for the library’s transformative power.  I was personally thrilled to hear Addie list Willa Cather amongst her favorite authors (though I may be biased given that I spent countless hours dissecting her O, Pioneers for my undergraduate thesis).  Books, and the intellectual community they create, are revered by Diamant and her characters.

“Don’t let anyone tell you things aren’t better than they used to be.”

Perhaps The Boston Girl‘s biggest selling point, in this societal moment of infatuation for all things vintage, is its skillful balance of respect and rejection of sentimentality for said past.

In The Boston Girl, Addie sees her loved ones die from the flu without the medical care they could have received in the contemporary setting reached by the end of the novel.  She stands by helplessly while her best friend self-induces a miscarriage by douching with bleach in the decades before Roe v. Wade.  Addie, and Diamant, know that though far from perfect, things are much better than they used to be.

That’s all for this week!  Next week, we’ll be reviewing a non-fiction Hub Challenge book (selected from YALSA’s Award for Excellence in Nonfiction) Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir.  Join us!  And comment, comment below!

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4 responses to “YALSA 2016 Hub Challenge: The Boston Girl

  1. As I noted before, the Hub Challenge includes titles both from the Alex Awards, which select notable adult titles with teen appeal, and this year added titles from the Amelia Bloomer list, which also honor adult books with teen appeal. There’s no debate about whether this was a adult book or not.

    • I wonder why on earth so many reviewers are reviewing it as YA . . . I think there’s a whole movement within the reviewer community to claim books and their genres as fluid and based on how the reader experiences the text (as in, if I read it and believe it to be romance even though the author (or more accurately, the publisher) intended it to be slotted under literary fiction, etc. I think there’s also a need for lists like the Alex Awards and the Amelia Bloomer list that start to blur these lines . . . it can only bring more readers in . . . especially those who are squeamish about reading outside their age group.

  2. Thank you so much. It’s such a great pleasure when a thoughtful reader understands what I was aiming for. As in “… balance of respect and rejection of sentimentality for said past.”
    BLOG ON.

    • Ms. Diamant, thank YOU so much. I read The Red Tent many years ago when I was first exploring my feminism and (obviously) loved The Boston Girl . . . now I just have to make my way through the list of the rest of your books. 🙂

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