Francine Green doesn’t speak up much, and who can blame her? Her parents aren’t interested in her opinions, the nuns at school punish girls who ask too many questions, and the House Committee on Un-American Activities is blacklisting people who express unpopular ideas. There’s safety in silence. Francine would rather lose herself in a book, or in daydreams about her favorite Hollywood stars, than risk attracting attention or getting in trouble.
But when outspoken, passionate Sophie Bowman transfers into Francine’s class at All Saints School for Girls, Francine finds herself thinking about things that never concerned her beforefree speech, the atom bomb, the existence of God, the way people treat each other. Eventually, Francine discovers that she not only has something to say, she is absolutely determined to say it.
Once again, Karen Cushman follows a young woman’s progress toward her true self, this time exploring the nature of friendship and the experience of growing up Catholic in an era that is both fascinating and relevant to today’s young people. Author’s note.
Cushman takes on many issues in this novel set in Hollywood at the peak of McCarthyism, unfortunately diluting the power of any one of them. As the book opens, narrator Francine learns that her neighbor Sophie Bowman will be joining her eighth grade class at All Saints School for Girls. The deliciously named Sister Basil the Great, the principal who doubles as their teacher, quickly singles out Sophie as the student to hold up as an example, sentencing the girl to stand in the wastebasket throughout class. Cushman draws parallels between the strict authority of the Catholic school and the constraints of McCarthyism on everyday citizens. Sophie's father, a screenwriter, allows readers to see the havoc wreaked upon his peers (one, a Jewish actor being shadowed by the FBI and pressured to give up names, commits suicide), and the Russian owners of a vandalized local store voice the irony of their situation ("That's why Petrov and I left Russia, to get away from such thugs"). Yet these connections may be a bit abstract for some readers, who will more likely respond to details of Francine's daily life-taking her younger brother past Newberry Five and Ten, ordering root beer floats at Riley's or having a crush on Montgomery Clift. The author introduces the idea of Sophie's tendency to egg on controversy but never fully develops it, and Francine remains quite aloof from the world. She is less sympathetic than Cushman's previous memorable heroines (in Catherine, Called Birdy; The Midwife's Apprentice). Ages 10-14. (Aug.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.