Behind the Scenes at the Museum

BehindTheScenesAtTheMuseumKate Atkinson caused a stir with her first book – Behind the Scenes at the Museum – by winning the Whitbread Prize in 1995.  Since then she has continued to win awards for her stories, but noted in an interview:

{her ideal situation would be} “to have enough money … [to] write and not be published”. {She doesn’t like reviews or critics.} “It’s a very uncomfortable thing for a writer, we’re very tender.”

When critics assaulted her for winning for her first book – over seasoned authors – Hilary Mantel (Bring Up the Bodies) defended the first-time author with a scathing op-ed piece in the London Review of Books titled – Shop!   After reading Atkinson’s latest success – Life After Life – I was curious to read her first book.

With the same theme of examining a life from birth through the voice of the narrator, Behind the Scenes at the Museum reflects the historical perspective and self-examination that later became the unique twist of rebirth in Life After Life.  In this first novel, however, the life of Ruby Lennox continues as everyone around her seems to die, and the story is dense with details that sometimes mask the clues that later reveal surprises in Ruby’s life.

Ruby’s story begins with conception and throughout the book she assumes a dual role.  Spanning the late nineteenth and twentieth century, Ruby tells her own story and that of the women in her life – her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.  She also acts as the omniscient narrator with access to the future fates of her sisters and lovers, revealed in chapters titled “footnotes.”  Atkinson withholds two major surprises in the telling – one about Ruby herself and the other about the father of a major character – no spoilers here.

As the scenes shift from each woman’s fate, their commonalities create a thread through relationships and hardships – all affecting Ruby and her life.  Atkinson neatly notes:

“The past is what you take with you.”

If I had not read Life After Life first, I’m not sure if I would have enjoyed this one as much.    Atkinson’s style takes some getting used to, and Behind the Scenes at the Museum has obscure moments that are sometimes confusing.  But I could hear Ursula (the narrator from Life After Life) singing in the wings – waiting to be born.

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The One and Only Ivan – 2013 Newbery Medal Winner

9780061992254_p0_v4_s260x420With dignity and sensitivity, Ivan, the captured silverback gorilla, narrates in his own voice in Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan.  Based on the life of a real gorilla who was captured as an infant in the Congo, raised in a home until he became too large to manage, and then sent to a circus-themed mall in Washington state, Ivan’s story reveals hope and strength.

In Applegate’s fictional adaptation of Ivan’s life, she creates loyal friendships with Stella, an aging elephant, and Bob, a stray dog who acts as sidekick and conscience.  The janitor’s daughter supplies Ivan with paper and paints,  inspiring him to practice his artistic talent; his pictures of banana peels sell in the mall’s gift shop.   Although Ivan and Stella have endured years of confinement in a concrete and metal box in a shopping mall near a highway – mostly in denial of their appalling conditions, their apathetic existence changes when a new baby elephant, Ruby,  initially resists and subsequently surrenders to the trainer’s claw prod.

Applegate  sprinkles her narrative with phrases that you might find useful to quote:

“Humans waste words. they toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot.”

“They think I’m too old to cause trouble…Old age is a powerful disguise.”

“I always tell the truth…although I sometimes confuse the facts.”

Determined to save young Ruby from the life of humiliation and loneliness that he has endured,  Ivan uses his artistic talent to attract media attention that eventually leads to a new life in a zoo.   The real Ivan found a new home and celebrity with a large group of fellow gorillas at Zoo Atlanta, until he died last year.

Although Applegate mentions only a few of the horrors, she does not soft-peddle her views on the capture of wild animals or their isolation from their home turf in captivity. An articulate Ivan, with the soul of an artist, challenges both children and adults to consider the treatment of wild animals.

I always look forward to the Newbery Medal Award.  This year’s winner, as usual, is just as much for adults as for children.

Reviews on Other Newbery Winners: