The setting for The Village by the Sea by Paula Fox (ages 10-12) is in an old quiet house on Peconic Bay near Long Island. Tangled shrubbery crowds its foundation, and its long porch is cluttered with empty rocking chairs and stained cups and saucers. It is the home of Aunt Bea and Uncle Crispin, and it is here that their 10-year-old niece, Emma, must stay for two weeks while her father has surgery. There is tension from Page 1 as Emma frets about her dad's health along with her pending visit with unfamiliar relatives. As she is to learn later, her aunt is not called Lady Bonkers for nothing.
Aunt Bea is like Dickens' Miss Havisham, reclusive in a messy house with curtains closed to sunlight. Emma's first meeting with her is cautious, and the reader worries with her. She enters the house, her eyes straining to see in the dimness. "(Emma) senses movement on her left hand and . . . heard the steaming whisper of pouring tea. An arm covered in dark cloth descended, and the teapot clanked as it hit a table where a woman sat . . . the single sound in a shadowy room."
It gets worse. Aunt Bea is mean. Readers will cringe for Emma because immediately it's clear that something is not right with this older, childless woman. Instead of lashing back, Emma flees to the sanctuary of the beach where she meets Bertie, a lively new friend who is spending the summer with her grandmother. Together the girls create a miniature village from shells, driftwood and flotsam.
Fox won the Newbery Medal for "The Slave Dancer," in which 13-year-old Jessie is shanghaied aboard a slave ship in New Orleans. Like Jessie, Emma, too, is forced into an alien, hostile environment and expected to cope. She succeeds. Out of anger toward Aunt Bea and her loneliness for her parents, she creates something beautiful.
Meanwhile, you want Aunt Bea to get "fixed," to be victorious over her mysterious problem. Her final act of terror is a disappointment only because you realize the depth of her trouble. It is unfixable. We don't need to be told how devastating sour anger is or that the resentment is useless. Fox has demonstrated once again her understanding of people, the intricate quirks that can make one's life a tragedy or a celebration.
When 12-year-old Brandon finds out his Navajo grandfather, Shinali, is coming from the reservation to live with his family, he is not thrilled. It means that he will have to share his room, which probably means no more cranking up the stereo AND he might have to take down some of his rock star posters. This was not good news.
There is good news, however, in Racing the Sun by Paul Pitts (ages 8-14), a beautiful, funny and often heart-tugging story about a boy coming to terms with his heritage and doing so with pride.
Years earlier, Brandon's parents had left the reservation. They wanted to seek "the American dream--two cars in the driveway, a TV in each bedroom, and a pool in the back yard (instead of) the Navajo dream--an old pickup truck, three sheepskins in every hogan, and a herd of goats in the backyard." Brandon is blase about his roots and supports his dad's name change from Kee Redhouse to Keith Rogers. They visit the relatives every year on their "way to somewhere else," but after a couple of hours of feeling uncomfortable, they always leave.
Pitts lives and teaches on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Montazuma Creek, Utah. Without being sentimental, he writes with authority and compassion. His portrayal of Brandon, an Indian living in white society, is on the money.
Shinali, the grandfather, takes an impassioned responsibility toward Brandon, an endearing theme, particularly because it typifies Native American culture. The old man is dying of cancer, and he wants one last chance to reach his grandson. Through storytelling, prayer, meditation and song, Grandpa passes on his love of land and ancestry.
Pitts skillfully details the trials of two people separated by age and background. When Shinali wanders into the mall where Brandon is hanging out with his friends, Brandon is ashamed of the gray-haired man with the bun at the back of his head and wearing turquoise earrings. "Hey, catch the time traveler from frontier days," a buddy jokes. "One of your relatives have escaped from the barbed wire, Cochise," laughs another.
Brandon's shame turns to anger then to tears. But under Shianli's gentle tutelage, he gradually softens and begins to feel differently about himself. They reach a deep level of mutual admiration and love. Brandon's new self-esteem leads him on an adventure that proves bittersweet yet triumphant for his whole family.
This is a fine story with a message for kids whatever their heritage: Respect your elders and be proud of who you are. A glossary of Navajo words helps the reader understand the vocabulary sprinkled throughout.
THE VILLAGE BY THE SEA by Paula Fox (Orchard Books: $13.95; 147 pp.)
RACING THE SUN by Paul Pitts (Avon Camelot: $2.50, paper; 150 pp.)