Sunday, October 15, 2006

Deep Diving

Some authors are blessed with a gift for characterization. They dive so deeply into the lives (and hearts) of their characters that you feel as if you're diving with them, slipping inside the character’s skin so deeply that you can feel the character’s pulse beating beside your own.

In her newest book, All of the Above, Shelley Pearsall, the award-winning author of Trouble Don’t Last and Crooked River, dives into the lives of a handful of teens in an inner city neighborhood in Cleveland OH.

The story begins with a tour of the neighborhood along Washington Boulevard: “...past the smoky good smells of Willy Q’s Barbecue, past the Style R Us hair salon, where they do nails like nobody’s business, past the eye-popping red doors of the Sanctuary Baptist Church, you’ll finally come to a dead end.”

At the dead end is a school, and within this school are a handful of students in a Math Club folding small pieces of paper into the world’s largest tetrahedron.

Tetrahedrons are “geometric solids with four faces,” according to Mr. Collins, the math teacher in whose math class readers first meet the story’s four main characters–James Harris III, Rhondell, Sharice, and Marcel.

Listen to each character's voice in these early introductions:
James Harris III: I don’t listen to nothing in Collins’ math class. Only thing I listen for is the bell. That bell at the end of class is just about the sweetest sound in the world. The whole class, I sit there waiting on that bell and watching the hands of the clock jump from one little black mark to the next. You ever notice how school clocks do that? How they don’t move like other clocks do; they jump ahead like bugs?

Rhondell: All the way home on the bus in the rain, I roll the word tetrahedron around in my mouth. I keep my face turned toward the steamed-up bus windows, and I let my lips try the word over and over without using my voice. Tetrahedron.
I wonder if this is one of those words that might get me into college someday. It sounds as if it could. Inside my mind, I keep a whole collection of college words for someday. Words like epiphany, quiescent, metamorphosis...
Sharice: Six people are already in the math room when I get there on Monday. This kinda surprises me a little. I take a look around the doorway first ‘cause if it’s only me and Mr. Collins, I don’t plan on sticking around. But then I see Ashlee and Deandra from math class. They are hanging all over Terrell (how desperate can you be?) And passing a bag of chips back and forth.
Marcel: Marcel the Magnificent, that’s me. After our math club meeting, I head on over to the Barbecue. Slap a big slab of ribs on a plate. Take fifteen orders at the same time.

“How you want your ribs done, ma’am, heat or no heat? Hot sauce or mild?”

“We got Blast off to Outer Space Hot, Melt the Roof of Your Mouth Hot, Tar in the Summertime Hot, Red Heels Hot, Mama Thornton Sings the Blues Hot, and Just Plain Ol’ Hot. Which you want? Yes, ma’am. Two Singing the Blues coming up. Napkins and forks on the right side. Fire hose on the left. We aim to please at Willy Q’s Barbecue. You have a good day, too, ma’am.” I slam the order window shut.

Ahhh. Feet up. Butt down.

In these initial glimpses, you can feel the pulse of each character immediately. You know who these characters are... and who they’re not. They’re not what you might have expected: dead-end kids attending a dead-end school in a dead-end part of Cleveland. No, they’re kids with attitude and personality, with hopes and dreams.

What comes through in each of these excerpts, aside from each character's unique personality, is the depth of love that Pearsall feels for each of them. She cares deeply about her characters, and in caring... manages to show us why we should care about them, too.

Look at James, for instance. Gruff, impatient, almost defiant, wanting to be anywhere else but in school. Yet he’s observant, he notices things, small things, like the way the clock hand advances ... and the need to be doing something else besides spending time in Collins’ math class.

This combination–defiant, yet sensitive–makes for an interesting mixture, a way of shaping our feelings about him, so that we expect James to stand up for what he wants, even if it’s dangerous to stand up, and yet we understand that he has a sensitive side, too, a side that makes him vulnerable, hence exposed to danger. That means that we fear him... and fear for him... at the same time.

And look at Rhondell. Dreaming of college on the bus ride home, dreaming of college words all the time, but saying them to herself, not wanting anyone to know her dreams, scared of what might happen if anyone finds out about them... or, worse, scared of what might happen if they don’t come true.

Notice how Rhondell collects college-level words, and plays with them in her mind as if they were precious stones, the key to her future, which is just a dream now. And the one word-- "someday"--letting us feel her longing for a future that’s better than the present she’s in now.

Rhondell's dreams are what help us understand and sympathize with her, just as her fear of dreams not coming true helps us understand what’s important to her... what she wants more than anything yet can't tell anyone for fear the dream might be lost once it's exposed to the light.

And then there’s Sharice who will have to learn how to stand on her own feet... or drop into the abyss and be forgotten. What will she choose? Does she have the courage to make friends, to share her heart and dreams with others?

And Marcel, sweet-talking, full-of-himself, oozing confidence, ready to sell customers his daddy’s barbecue ribs and sauce, a hard worker, but not so hard that he can’t let himself take a break when the line of customers slackens.

But is he all show? What’s he really made of? That’s what the reader wants to know. When the test of his character comes, it comes straight at him. What will Marcel do?

At the core of each character is a pulsing, beating heart, and each heartbeat breathes life into this story about what people are truly made of and how courage and perseverance can be found on Cleveland's inner-city streets.

In diving deeply into each character’s inner world, Pearsall tells a story that’s true to life. Some characters reach for dreams and get them, while others never get the chance to reach... yet remain standing, nonetheless. Together, their voices serve as a rich tapestry of lives linked in mysterious ways.

In the end, it's hard to leave Washington Boulevard. That’s because Pearsall has taken us deep-diving into the hearts of characters who we end up loving as much as our own friends and neighbors, their hopes and dreams mingling with our own.

For more information about Shelley Pearsall and her work, visit her website at

And for a librarian's review of All of The Above, take a look at A Fuse #8 Production at

1 comment:

jor said...

Good to visit with wordswimmer again after the recent death of my old computer, R.I.P.

Your thoughts on the Pearsall characters were poignant, and draw us in to wanting to know how they each develop within the story. I've gained lots of good reading tips like this from wordswimmer.

I went back and looked at last weeks interview with Sandy Salisbury, too. That was well worth the visit--a real bonanza for a writer fan of Sandy's. Thanks.