Two smart, lively and complicated twelve year olds, Kirsten
McKenna and Walker ("Walk") Jones, take turns narrating this
contemporary stand-alone in fresh, memorable and
idiosyncratic voices. Choldenko's celebrated and
Al Capone Does My Shirts, relied on time and
placeAlcatraz in the Capone erafor much of its effect and
power. If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period could take
place in almost any American private middle school in the
suburb of almost any present-day American city. The novel's
focus is decidedly internal rather than external, and the
reader lives inside twelve year old heads for the duration.
But Choldenko's unwavering interior focus isn't gimmickry:
it illuminates her young characters' imperfect knowledge of
the world and of themselves, and reflects the
self-absorption typical and probably necessary to their
Choldenko's artfulness and thoughtfulness are also apparent in the novel's exploration of what have become stock YA issues: body image, race, teenaged shadiness and meanness, and clueless parents. Kirsten often fortifies or comforts herself with chips, ice cream and candy bars and reports having gained thirty pounds over a miserable and lonely summer. While her thin, attractive mother is concerned enough to take Kirsten to a psychologist for help, and the mean girls at school call her fat, Choldenko refrains from letting the reader know if Kirsten's is a cosmetic or a health problem, or ultimately her problem at all.
In the same way, Walker describes his mother's efforts to keep him far away from a trouble-making cousin. Although the nature of the cousin's recent activities is revealed at the conclusion of the story, we never learn what he's done in the past to alienate his aunt. Much of the novel's suspense and surprise derive from what the characters do not know: the source of Kirsten's parents' marriage-rupture; the reasons for Kirsten's painful estrangement from a lifelong friend; or the explanation for Walk's friend Matteo's willingness to cooperate with a female bully.
In Al Capone Does My Shirts, Choldenko creates a moving and mysterious character in the young narrator's disabled sister in part because the girl is described without any reference to autism: She is who she is without labels or explanations. If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period's first person narratives prove equally humanizing to the tough and uncomfortable questions that the reader, white Kirsten and African-American Walker ultimately must confront: How much does race matter and why does it matter? Choldenko makes certain that Kirsten and Walker recount and work through their experiences at a deeper than skin deep, gut level. The loneliness and universality of their first person voices unite them and us. Choldenko never lets her readers know too much or characters know enoughabout themselves, their families or other peopleto stop thinking, questioning or growing. Instead, she continually reasserts the power of the heartfelt moment to destroy, to confuse, to transform, and to renew.
This review was originally published in January 2008, and has been updated for the April 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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