FYI - I am serving on the Cybil's Poetry group again this year, this time Round One. I want to remind you that anyone can nominate a favorite book that was published from Oct. 16th, 2015 to Oct. 15th, 2016, when nominations close. Go HERE if you're interested!
As serendipity goes, I had an arc of this verse novel from Candlewick Press, just out this October. I read it last week, and it has been nominated in the Cybil's poetry category. Verse novels are as diverse as stand alone poems are, always interesting to read an author's approach. With more being written in these recent years, I am sorry not to be in the classroom in order to see how they might affect the writing of my students, many of whom loved poetry and all types of writing. Would they try a short story in verse? Or a non-fiction research essay? It feels as if these verse novels will affect students in both their knowledge and opinions of how poetry can work for them as writers.
To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party - Skila Brown
I've lived at the foot of the Rocky Mountains for a long time, and in the winter there are always stories of people lost. It's frightening to imagine. They are often alone, have driven off an embankment far enough down so that no one spots the car, or decided to go snowshoeing and are lost in a sudden storm. But they do have a good chance of being rescued because of technology and rescue groups.This was not true of the plight of the Donner party in 1846.
Skila Brown has written a lovely, but heartbreaking verse novel about the Donner Party. We know of this story in Colorado, but she has made it a new telling through the use of poetry and by having the story told with one voice, Mary Ann. She is the second to oldest daughter of the Graves family at nineteen years. There are twelve in this family, one "in-law" married to the oldest daughter, a mother and father and the ten other children from seventeen years to an infant. They are a real family from this history, and the story is taken from accounts written by members of all the Donner group and others who met them along the way.
Through Mary Ann's voice, Skila Brown uses the poems to introduce characters--the strong and scared, the kind and mean. Taken together we begin to see how the adventure will go, with Mary Ann's excitement and support of her father as they begin, and walk and walk, then walk some more. The poems lengthen when a particular quiet scene is shown, adding the details of setting and people’s interactions. Then they shorten as the challenges continue to appear--quick, brief lines, like when one breathes fast with stress. There is beauty shown in brief words, comparisons with Mary Ann's past, and her first impressions.
Attention to word placement adds to the movement, this never-stopping journey: “The days seem/agonizingly long” (large space) “frightening short”. It's hard to imagine walking hundreds of miles, and the poems show the repetition of scenery. It becomes endless prairie, no-relief of horizon desert, mountain up-and-down canyons. Finally arrives the snow, the endless snow. In a story where although one already knows the sad end, the poems stand alone as this small group walks: they dance to a fiddle, watch the food dwindle: “Father unwraps the beef, carefully slices/each of us a piece, as big as a finger.” The uncomfortable predictions are there all along this journey made of hope, grit, and finally resignation. One favorite line comes as they choose to move up into the mountains, seeing storm clouds, but hoping that the snow will only last a day. It did not.
"Everything's being slowly painted white./as if we're climbing up into winter." It’s a poignant story told again in verse.