Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Well Written Book

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.
Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”
Oscar Wilde from The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Well, I’ve had enough of the latter recently (books I didn’t blog) and vowed not to read another book unless it were on a list. Not too particular about which list…just some list. So I found a list and it included The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. That worked: I had it on my bookshelf (actually a school assignment for one of my children) and it is short…AND it is well-written.

It’s one of those books that can be read on several levels. It can be a coming-of-age story read by 7th graders or it can be the experience of an inner-city immigrant minority. In a sequence of very short chapters (each chapter is only 1 or 2 pages, maybe 3 at the most), Cisneros manages to include it all: racism, sexism, community, family, classism. One of the more powerful chapters is “Four Skinny Trees”. These are the four little elm trees planted by the city by the curb in front of the house. Because of the layout, the chapter takes two pages but it is actually only 20 lines. But in those few sentences we have alienation (nature vs. city), strength (roots and ethnic background), mutual dependence (if one weakens, they all do) and persistence. Such good writing.

Our narrator is Esperanza. Her mother tells her: “I could’ve been somebody, you know?”. Are these not the saddest words? And then, “Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You want to know why I quit school? Because I didn’t have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains.” And so does Esperanza. And she has a dream - to have her own house. Not like the sad red house on Mango Street with the crumbling bricks and swollen front door of which she is ashamed but “… a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.” Where do those dreams come from? Somehow you know that Esperanza will realize her dream. Would that we all could.

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