Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Let me fall before I fly - The World of Barbara Wersba
In Barbara Wersba's books, her characters fall before they fly. And if there is a bird representative of Wersba, it is the rare and beautiful egret with outstretched wings flying across the Long Island Sound. She is, in my opinion, the most poetic of all living writers for young adults in addition to being one of the most prolific. Her output includes nearly 30 books published since the early 1960's. Each title is worth revisiting. The books are all as good as their clever titles portend. It is Wersba's simplicity combined with strong emotional content, humor and elegance that makes her work stand out. They are also hopeful stories that speak of characters who struggle through life. While these characters are outsiders, Wersba's writing conveys hope for them to manage and survive through means of alternative, fulfilling lifestyles.
Perhaps the one book that relays this theme in its most essential form is George Sand's The Wings of Courage. This was a story that Wersba discovered as a child and carried with her throughout her life. Eventually, she retold the story in her own words in an edition that was published in 1998. The story is about a boy who faces his fears and finds fulfillment against incredible obstacles. It is a story of hope that also has a sense of magic to it. At under 70 pages, this tale has much in common with Wersba's children's books written in the 1960's. But it also reflects Wersba's sentiment that runs through all of her work, including her novels for young adults. Like Clopinet, the once timid boy in The Wings of Courage, her characters are often extremely sensitive only to ultimately realize their potential outside of the expectations that exist within their family unit.
Wersba mentions Sand as far back as 1987 in her novel Fat: A Love Story. This book would be part of a trilogy featuring the character Rita Formica, an overweight aspiring writer. On page 36, Rita imagines herself as George Sand, "that terrific woman who dressed in trousers, smoked cigars and didn't give a damn what anybody thought". Also, like the character of Clopinet in Sand's book, Wersba shows an affection for egrets, by having her characters observe them during an important romantic moment in the book. Additionally, Rita's original object of affection in the story is for a man whose last name is Swann. This all relates back to Sand's story about a boy with a love for studying birds who finds himself through becoming a naturalist.
Wersba, born in 1932, lived in California until age 12 when she moved to New York with her mother when her parents got divorced. She claims that she was unable to relate to her parents and sought out older people to serve as substitutes. She found such people in the theater and began acting at a young age. The theme of an outsider relating to an older person would be one of the prominent themes in her work, most notably in The Dream Watcher, her first novel for young adults. Clopinet, in Sand's book, also has the assistance of an older mentor, before setting out completely on his own.
One of the first plays Wersba saw in New York as a young girl was Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. The production starred Eva La Gallienne, an actress that Wersba was enamored with and proved an inspiration for her in her early career as an actress. Some 40 years later, Eva La Callienne would star in Wersba's play, an adaptation of The Dream Watcher. The themes in The Glass Menagerie would also reflect those in her own work. As for the irony in this situation, Wersba remarks in her 1998 autobiography, "these coincidences, which are not really coincidences at all, have shaped my life entirely. I no longer find them strange, choosing to believe that there is a synchronicity to life, a merging of inner and outer events, that involves us all." Perhaps this sentiment is also reflected in another adult character in her books, Arnold Bromberg, who repetitively states "The Universe Is benevolent". This character with his somewhat impractical leanings, artistic abilities, love for Bach and ambitions for starting new businesses probably most resembles Wersba. Using benevolence as a guiding spirit, the courageous Wersba went from acting to writing, later owned and operated a General Store, opened a writing school for women and started her own small press publishing company.
Strong women run throughout Wersba's work. There are eccentric actresses and girls who appear to be "tomboys". These young women are not your typical beauties and they often dress more like men than like woman as in Tunes for a Small Harmonica or Just Be Gorgeous. She also showcases gay characters and overweight characters in a non-judgemental and charming manner. Many of her characters also portray a love for dogs, which is borrowed from Wersba's own love for animals.
Perhaps it is because I am from Long Island, but the books Wersba wrote while living there in the 1980's are amongst my favorites. Wersba moved to Sag Harbor with her partner, a woman named Zuc, and continued to live there after Zuc's passing. It was in Sag Harbor that Wersba began to foster in a love for nature and wildlife. Her first book that takes place on Long Island, Crazy Vanilla, also has a lot to do with her interest in photography. The Rita Formica stories, set in Sag Harbor, would follow. Her last two books published for teenagers also take place on Eastern Long Island and again are representative of subjects close to the author's heart. Life Is What Happens While You're Making Other Plans is about a boy's crush on an actress and his own personal journey to find a career in the theater. Whistle Me Home focuses on the romantic relationship between two adolescent girls.
Fat: A Love Story has two of Wersba's most likeable characters although this novel is probably one of her most criticized for portraying a romantic relationship between a girl and a man who is twice her age. The story is realistic and told with a theatrical verve which is one of Wersba's trademarks. Rita's narration is both funny and sadly dark. For example, in describing her eating problem, she states "You are familiar, I suppose, with the old cliche that fat peole are jolly? Well, it's true...They are jolly as a mean of avoiding suicide and I was no exception." These extremes of desperation and benevolence make for a romance story that is both tragic and beautiful. While the relationship is unusual, the reader is still convinced and has hope that it does work out for the best.
Wersba's career has been a love affair with books. She not only wrote some of the best books for young people during the 1970's and 1980's, but was also a champion of the format, writing sensitive reviews as a reviewer for The New York Times Book Review. In 1990, her book The Country of the Heart was turned into the film Matters of The Heart. It was one of the last films produced by Martin Tahse, famous for his work on Afterschool Specials.
Wersba also had a close relationship with two important writers near the end of their lives. First, there was Carson McCullers and later it was New Zealand author Janet Frame. Wersba's last published book to date was in 2005, Walter: the Story of a Rat. Her work has been reprinted in numerous paperback editions and has been translated into several languages.
Now, nearly 80, I like to imagine Wersba as she describes Clopinet in her retelling of The Wings of Courage. "...like a migratory bird that follows some inner rule of nature, coming and going with the seasons, listening to the rhythms of life." Or in her own words, from her autobiography, "...a great swan flew over my head on a passage unknown, its wings making a humming sound on the winter air....The Journey continues." As a reader, Wersba's characters give me hope that there is goodness in the world despite obstacles. Through thick and thin, it is the spirit of this writer than resonates and sticks with me. There is a magic to her work, a spirit that sings to me and may give me the courage to break away.