Sunday, September 17, 2006

Fragile Currents

When you step into one of the many deeply moving, heart-achingly beautiful novels that Jacqueline Woodson has given the world--If You Come Softly, Hush, Miracle's Boys, I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This, From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun, Locomotion, and others--you enter the fragile currents of adolescence... that special time of becoming.

It's a time of searching for truth, exploring painful new emotions, and learning how to relate to the world and others, as well as to one's self and one's own emerging sexuality... unpredictable and mysterious currents which Woodson explores in honest, soul-searching, and sometimes controversial ways.

In Lena, the sequel to I Hadn't Meant To Tell You This, Woodson tells the story of two sisters, Elena Cecilia Bright, 13, and Edion Kay Bright, 8, who flee from a sexually abusive father in Ohio.

The story opens as Lena and Dion hitch-hike from Chauncey, OH, fleeing the only home they can remember. Chauncey is where Lena's best friend still lives, a sensitive black girl named Marie who had befriended them despite their differences in color.

But Chauncey is where their father lives, and the girls are running away to escape his abusive advances, carrying nothing more than backpacks filled with blankets, some old clothes, and the dream that they'll find a home with their mother and her family somewhere in Kentucky.

Lena's determination keeps the two girls moving, searching for a place where they can feel safe each night. As the older sister, Lena wants to protect Dion from the emotional ravages that she's been forced to endure. She wants to find a home, a real home.

So the girls take to the road, lying to the police and well-meaning waitresses and truck drivers about who they are and where they're going, even though Lena knows "every single lie you tell just makes you remember the truth harder."

On the road the girls can't risk telling anyone that they cut their hair short or that Lena binds her small breasts with an Ace bandage each night so the men who give them rides from one town to another won't get any ideas.

In Chauncey, they trusted Marie. But Marie is only a memory, someone who read poetry with Dion and believed in Lena's ability to become an artist. Sometimes Lena and Dion hope to see her again. Maybe even call her when they stop moving from place to place long enough to pick up a phone.

Each day takes them further from Chauncey and from their best friend, and it isn't long before Lena finds her strength wearing out, her toughness eroding. Each day, as her strength ebbs, it gets harder and harder for her to tell another lie.

The closer the girls come to Kentucky, the clearer the truth becomes: after their mother's death from cancer, they received no letters of condolence, no phone calls of sympathy or help from that side of the family. Eventually it dawns on Lena that no one will welcome them into a home of their own.

The plot intensifies as the weather grows colder, sleeping outside becomes harder, and Lena becomes even more acutely aware of the risks that hope for a decent home has led her to take. Without friends or family, lacking reliable sources of income or food, facing the coming winter, and worried about her younger sister, Lena knows she must do something soon.

It's not until the girls are picked up by kind-hearted Miz Lily that their luck changes. Warmed by Miz Lily's kindness and food, a warm bath and a soft bed, Lena and Dion find what it is they want most in the world. Yet because of their inability to trust anyone--even someone as kind as Miz Lily--what they want (and need) most in the world remains just beyond their grasp.

Safe in Miz Lily's house for the night, Lena risks calling Marie to say they're ok, and learns from Marie what's happened in Chauncey. Their father has disappeared, and Marie's father (after Marie tells him their story), has had a change of heart and suggests the girls return to Chauncey to live with them.

But these changes are too much for Lena to grasp. Even though she goes to bed hopeful after giving Miz Lily's phone number to Marie, and even though she wants to believe Marie's father will agree to accept them, by morning hope seems "like just another lie." She leaves Miz Lily's with Dion, continuing to believe in the fantasy that has sustained them for so long--that they'll find their Mama, alive, in a local hospital.

Miz Lily, who raised eleven kids herself, knows something isn't right. After dropping the girls off at the hospital, she returns home (but not before asking a friend at the hospital to keep an eye on them). When Marie calls Miz Lily's house later that morning to tell Lena that they can stay with her and her father, Miz Lily is there to take the call. And she returns to the hospital to tell the girls the news, then drives them to the airport so they can fly back to Chauncey.

On the plane home, Lena recalls "Mama told me once that if you remember all the places you been in your life, you'll have a better sense of where you're going."

It's the same with each of Woodson's books.

As she probes the fragile currents of the adolescent heart, she offers readers the kind of stories that help us discover a better sense of where we're going, and reminds us of the hard, honest struggle that we must make as writers to get there.

For more information about Jacqueline Woodson, check out these resources:

Jacqueline Woodson's website:

An interview at

Author Chat at the NYPL:

1 comment:

jo'r said...

Nice review. I’ve read several of Woodson’s books and, like wordswimmer, I found them deeply moving and thought-provoking (including "I hadn't meant to tell you this." Woodson's a wonderful author to meet and hear in lecture, too.