Monday, August 1, 2016

Book Review: The Loud Silence of Francine Green

A Fair Trade Book

Title: The Loud Silence of Francine Green

Author: Karen Cushman

Date: 2006

Publisher: Random House / Laurel Leaf

ISBN: 978-0-385-73720-3

Length: 217 pages

Quote: “Imagine my pleasure when I opened my present, Christmas morning, when it was 82 degrees here in Los Angeles, to find the plaid mittens-and-scarf set you sent me. What would I have done without it?”

In the school year 1949-1950, Francine, the narrator, is quietly rebellious; Sophie, her neighbor and new best friend at Catholic school, is loudly rebellious. Sophie gets into trouble by doing things like asking the nuns whether it’s really appropriate to pray that their team will win a game. Francine has been trained not to call attention to herself like that, although she thinks Sophie has a point. The students watch educational movies about how children become more popular by conforming to all the styles that are current at their school, their year, so that they don’t stand out in a crowd and people can like them.

Then the girls start paying more attention to events in the grown-up world. The Soviets, the Great Enemy, are building bombs; the Cold War could heat up any day. Mean people paint ugly words on the windows of a nice Jewish family. Sophie’s father’s old friend Mr. Mandelbaum, a Hollywood writer, gets onto one of those infamous “blacklists” of the McCarthy years. “Commie” is already in use as a generic word kids use for anyone they dislike or distrust; no points for guessing what the girls’ sympathy for nice Mr. Mandelbaum gets them called, until they start to think they’d rather even be that than be like those haters who are harassing Mr. Mandelbaum.

The baby boom is under way, and nice kids like Francine and Sophie don’t realize how they’re being influenced to lead what will later become a Youth Rebellion that puts parents and children on opposite sides of a Generation Gap. Neither, in this book, does Cushman seem to notice that. The way the Old Left exploited right-wing paranoia to gain sympathy and become even more illiberal than the Old Right, would become noticeable…oh, by the 1980s, say. In 1984 one of my teachers composed a little rhyme that has probably stuck in everyone’s memory: 

“Oh how the minority, 
Gaining authority, 
Becomes the majority 
And hates the minority.” 

He must have been about the age of Francine and Sophie, but masses of Americans that age never even noticed the philosophical flipflop. Many baby-boomers and members of Generation X, motivated to please their slightly senior co-workers and employers, never have let themselves notice it. What sort of ideas are likely to evoke exactly the same reaction, in schools these days, that Francine and Sophie so resented seeing nice Mr. Mandelbaum and the nice Petrov family receive? Not Old Left ideas, you can be sure. In order to enjoy middle age one must enjoy irony, and it’s wonderfully ironic to notice that, these days, teenagers like Sophie are not the ones backing Bernie Sanders; they are the ones backing Rand Paul.

As the school year grinds along Sophie’s father, suspicious by association, loses his job. “Gee, that’s tough,” Francine’s father says. “I doubt Bowman’s a Red. Just a little pink, maybe,” but, all the same, he wants Francine to stay away from Sophie now. Francine’s mother offers to send Sophie’s family a casserole, to show sympathy; “Knowing my mother’s tuna casserole, I didn’t think that would be much of a treat,” Francine observes. She won’t have a chance to rebel by claiming Sophie as her best friend forever, though.

In the early 1950s suspected “pinkos” really could be hounded from town to town by McCarthyites, who hoped to reclaim American morality by teaching their children “to hate all things reddened with Communism” and raucously protesting any employer’s decision to hire a “pinko.” “Bully” was not yet a term of contempt—too many people still remembered how, at the turn of the century, “bully” was slang for “excellent” and some still used it that way, though more were saying “swell.” “Crybaby” was a term of contempt. Nevertheless, the Old Left observed, “Americans root for the underdog to win”…and that’s where modern, large-scale crybullying was born. Before Sophie’s father would have reached retirement age, there’d be a backlash of sympathy for the “pink” liberals who argued that it was possible to reject revolutionist Marxism without rejecting every single socialist scheme anyone had thought up etc. etc. Those who’d survived blacklisting, like Dalton Trumbo, Pete Seeger, and quite a few other writers and thinkers, would be considered heroes…well, by the 1980s the ones who were still active were at least heroically active seniors.

It’s not politics that makes me say this: for me, the very last page or two of The Loud Silence of Francine Green broke my suspension of disbelief. Up to that point I was following the story…I had to wonder, though, whether Francine’s last few lines are really what someone finishing grade eight in 1950 would have said, or even what someone like Francine would have done, or been allowed to do. How much did students at Catholic schools in that period ever really have a chance to tell the nuns? Did they get to make speeches this long? And how much of a sense of closure did they get if they tried telling the nuns anything? The Youth Rebellion did not, after all, really flare up for another fifteen years. People like Francine did steer the United States leftward, but at this period they had to do it in very subtle, even sneaky ways, dropping just an occasional hint into a children’s story here, a popular song there. The Loud Silence of Francine Green just seems too much like 1960s or even 1970s teen novels, rather than teen novels that were actually read and published in the 1950s.

But it’s fiction, and for all I know it may be based on the memories of some real person who might have been considered too much of an “outlier” to be able to publish her story in 1950.  And it’s Karen Cushman; the characters are as plausible, on the whole, and as enjoyable, as Lucy Whipple or Catherine (called Birdy).

What I physically own is the teacher's edition, with discussion guide, as shown above. Other editions are cheaper and, if you send $5 per book + $5 per package for shipping to either address at the very bottom of the screen, a basic paperback or hardcover copy is what you'll get. From this total of $10 we'll send $1 to Karen Cushman or a charity of her choice. You can add as many other books to the package as will fit for the same $5 shipping charge.