Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Paper Hearts

I'm going to be that person.  The person who doesn't heap praise on a book along with everyone else.  The spoilsport.  The mean lady.

Let me be clear: Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott is a fine book.  However, it is not an extraordinary book, and I do wonder at all of the five-star reviews when I found the narrative to be lacking in many ways.


I think that many book reviewers feel that they must give five stars to any book about the Holocaust.  I often wonder about this phenomenon.  Do readers feel that if they criticize the book, they are criticizing its message?  That to say, "This wasn't written as well as I had hoped" means that a reader doesn't honor the memory of those who died?  That's not true.  On the other hand, we should be critical of books that discuss crimes against humanity.  I expect a lot of something that deals with the mass genocide of millions of innocent people, and if it doesn't live up to what I expect, I'll tell you.

Paper Hearts is a great book to introduce teens who've not read about the Holocaust to the horrors of Auschwitz.  Verse novels are very popular at my library with reluctant readers, and to get them to read about this shameful event in our history would be a major victory.  This gives an excellent glimpse into what it was like to be a prisoner in the camps, but I have problems with the structure and pacing of the book itself.

Wiviott has chosen a dual-narrative style for Paper Hearts, and for me, it didn't succeed.  For alternating points of view to work, they have to sound at least somewhat different from one another.  Our main characters, Fania and Zlatka, sounded the same.  In fact, the first time we switched points of view, I was extremely confused, because suddenly the narrator had even more brothers with different names.  The names are at the head of each chapter to indicate who is speaking, but with the first switch (at least in my copy), the formatting had the girl's name near the spine, so it was easy to miss as you turned the page.  I mean, unless you read right to left.  As I read, the voices never differentiated themselves: it was one girl speaking under two names.

There are some really fascinating thoughts in the beginning about each girl's belief in God falters because of what she experiences, which call to mind what Elie Wiesel explores in Night, but nothing really comes of this internal, spiritual struggle.  Had the girls explored this feeling of betrayal by God more, it would have given the narrative a lot more heft .

I love books in verse for many reasons.  They often succeed in addressing difficult topics because the author is forced to strip away any extraneous prose that would distract from the topic itself.  I'm not a fan of Ellen Hopkins (in fact, I could probably write an essay about why I don't read her books), but I know that many teens are.  They relate to the topics, the books are easy to read because it's not a wall of text, and some of her poetic devices are, I begrudgingly admit, rather clever.  Sometimes.

Alas, I do not think that the verse format used in Paper Hearts gave the book any sort of literary or emotional edge.  It's a story that could have been done in prose as well, and with less confusion between characters.  The verse didn't stand out to me as being particularly evocative, and while Wiviott did play with some forms (notably during the train trips), it almost felt like an afterthought.  The line divisions were arbitrary, as though dropping a word to the next line here and there was the artsy thing to do, and not a necessary act for the integrity of the style.

And that leaves us with the plot, which, when you take away all the trappings of verse and POV switches, isn't exactly anything you haven't read before if you know anything about concentration camps.  Again, if you don't, and this is your first time, prepare yourself.

Paper Hearts is based on a true story, although the author had to invent pretty much all of the dialogue and minutiae of day-to-day life for our two protagonists.  I think she tried too hard to work the paper heart event into her narrative, because it was when the girls started this project that the book fell apart for me.  Up until the point when a group of Jewish girls get together to make a forbidden birthday card for one of their own, the narrative was a harrowing and intense story of teen girls in Auschwitz and how hard they worked to survive.

About three-quarters of the way through, Zlatka realizes that Fania's birthday is approaching.  She hatches a plan to steal forbidden items like paper and scissors to create a folded paper heart birthday card, which the girls work on and all sign.  Wiviott includes transcriptions of their wishes in the book, which was very nice.  Fania keeps it close during the march to Ravensbrück and then the Soviets come and the end.

Wait, what?  The book is called Paper Hearts, but the titular heart only shows up near the end and then it's like "Well, time for the historical notes!"

My opinion of this is probably colored by the fact that I also just finished the excellent and emotionally devastating Girl in the Blue Dress by Monica Hesse, so I cannot help but compare the two.

If you are looking for a quick read, Paper Hearts will do, but it doesn't have the emotional impact of other books about the Holocaust.  I'd recommend Rose Under Fire, Girl in the Blue Dress, or any memoir on the topic over Paper Hearts.

3 comments:

  1. I haven't come across this one before. Interestingly, child Holocaust/ Holocaaust era fiction is very popular in my school, where there is not a single Jewish kid and a lot of Muslims.I'm very picky. I don't, for example, care for The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas. It's "meh" for me. My favourites are Morris Gleitzman's Once series.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's been a long time since I read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas ... I remember really enjoying it (as much as one enjoys such) but I have a feeling that were I to read it now, I definitely wouldn't like it as much.

      I have a lot of tweens who really love Gleitzman's Once series. If you can get a copy of Girl in the Blue Dress, do try it. I'll be reviewing it soon. I'm not sure what the release schedule is like in Oz, though.

      Delete
    2. Also also, Holocaust fiction is very popular with my tweens as well. I had one girl wax poetic about HOW MUCH I LOVE TO READ ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST and I was like, Um, dial it back a bit there. I understand the enthusiasm for reading, but it came off a bit ghoulish.

      Delete