The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books Image
Big Picture Image
Elly Simmons, 1998.
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Go and Come Back written by Joan Abelove. Jackson/DK Ink, 1998. [192p]
ISBN 0-7894-2476-2  $16.95   Gr. 8-12

"They both wore no beads, no nose rings, no lip plugs, no anklets. They didn't pierce their noses or their lower lips. They didn't bind their ankles or flatten their foreheads. They did nothing to make themselves beautiful." In addition to being undec orated and devoid of the body fat required for true beauty, the two New York anthropologists who are visiting Alicia's Peruvian jungle village, Poincushmana, for a year's work on their dissertations have a lot of strange ideas, and many of the Isabo peopl e enjoy watching them make mistakes and ask stupid questions. But there are tensions as well, especially revolving around the stinginess of the "old white ladies." The villagers "save" by sharing everything they have and depending on others to do the sa me, whereas the strangers "save" by withholding resources the villagers want or need, from beads to rice. Moreover, Alicia and her people accept primal facts of sex and death with a forbearance ("whatever it would be" is a favorite expression) that unset tles the anthropologists.

Alicia's mother simply dismisses the foreigners ("Do not think of them as people"). Yet Alicia slowly becomes involved in a kind of friendship with one of them, Joanna, and determines to teach her manners (lying, for instance, to save face with kinsmen) , cleanliness (bathing twice a day in the river), generosity (figuring out what people want before they ask), and a better understanding of life generally: "They knew so little and they asked so much." Slowly, the two women do begin to learn, and they a re certainly comparison gainers next to the government officials who come to draft village men, or the missionaries who make fools of themselves in only one night's stay.

Supporting the quotable lines and cinematic scenes in this first novel is a substructure of solid elements. Alicia's narrative voice, which could have become a gimmick of viewpoint reversal, relies instead on wit and consistency for ultimate effect; her observations naturally suit the adolescent she is, and young adult readers will recognize and empathize with her point of view. The characters are never functionalized to make a statement, but are individualized for true empathetic connection. The situ ational aspects of humor and tragedy are skillfully counterpointed: on the one hand, we laugh at the dual perception of dental floss as tooth cleaner and fishing line; on the other, we grieve with Alicia and Joanna as they struggle with conflicting expre ssions of sadness over the death of a baby Alicia has adopted. Alicia's lifeways make more sense than the Anglos', of course, since this is her story, but the authorial tone never mistakes cultural adulation for respect. This is not a noble savage story , nor is it a noble anthropologist story. In clearly limited ways, it is a meeting that becomes an exchange, and the titular expression for goodbye in Isabo-go and come back-assumes strong new meaning in application to precarious new trust. The ending r ests gracefully on understated symbolism as Alicia herself, in an unexpected airplane flight over her home, attests to unexpected ways of viewing the world. We are not misled, however, into believing that New York and Poincushmana will ever encompass the same kinship group.

Joan Abelove, who has a doctorate in cultural anthropology, asks many provocative questions in this novel. Who is qualified to portray whom? What is ignorance? When is it acceptable to laugh at others? And the reader must throw in a query, too. Is i t presumption to assume the voice of an ethnic other, even to make fun of one's own culture? Too often American fiction for youth has portrayed other cultures from the outside, and clearly this author is not Isabo (which, a note makes clear, is a fiction alized name for a real people; it also mentions that the village may no longer exist). Yet she lived for two years in the setting of her novel; she may not be an insider, but she knows enough to know what she doesn't know. And, paradoxically, she has s hed light on insiders by representing their attention to what she does know-being an outsider to them. The viewing of the norm through an outsider's eyes is a perennially appealing device that should draw teens right in as well as give them some food for cultural thought. Reading this novel is like feeling wind rush through a stuffy room. We are taken by surprise. We breath deeper for the freshness of observing our own culture from the outside, for seeing two characters so like and unlike ourselves be gin to expand, and for experiencing new possibilities of vision: "Maybe they were learning how to be. Whatever reason it would be." Maybe we can, too.

--Betsy Hearne, Consulting Editor

Big Picture Image
April's Bulletin cover illustration
by Elly Simmons from
Go and Come Back,
Copyright 1998. Used by
permission of DK.

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This page was last updated on April 1, 1998.