Sunday, April 24, 2011

Book Review: Throwing Shadows by E.L. Konigsburg (1979)

Throwing Shadows is a collection of short stories published by E.L. Konigsburg in 1979. Each story is told in the first person, from the perspective of a young person who, during his or her story, has a significant encounter with another person which changes his or her life.

The stories are as follows:
  • On Shark's Tooth Beach. Ned Hixon, son of Hixon of Hixon's Landing gets into a competition of sorts with President Bob, an older man who claims to be a former university president. They search for fossils of shark teeth all along the beach, and try to outdo each other in size, number, and uniqueness.
  • The Catchee. Avery, an African-American boy, finds himself to always be the unlucky one who gets caught doing something wrong, or stuck in the middle of a misunderstanding. His older brother, who has noticed this special talent of Avery's, helps him to see its value.
  • In the Village of the Weavers. Ampara, who is a tour guide for visitors to her native Ecuador, tells the story of her friendship and rivalry with an enterprising boy named Anthony.
  • At the Home. Phillip tells of his experience listening to (and recording) Miss Ilona, a resident at a nursing home, as she tells the story of how being ugly saved her life.  He also becomes a popular fixture at the home, as other residents beg him to hear their stories as well.
  • With Bert & Ray. William pushes his mother toward a career selling antiques after dealers Bert and Ray teach her how to run house sales. This helps her to overcome the subservient attitude she developed before her alcoholic husband died.

What really struck me more than anything else about this book was the diversity of the different narrators. Some authors sound the same no matter whose point of view they are writing from. Konigsburg's characters are as different from one another as any real people, and though these stories are just quick peeks into the worlds of these characters, the  reader feels as if he/she gets to know each one in depth. Ampara and William have interesting accents, which help to differentiate their voices from the others', but even without those obvious markers, these characters are all so well developed there can be doubt that each one is a separate entity.

I also really loved  the way the stories fit together, not just thematically, but in certain details as well. The theme of a boy's voice changing appears in more than one story, as does business partnership between mother and son, and the notion of older generations passing on wisdom to the new. I especially appreciate how Konigsburg's stories aren't just about kids interacting with kids - rather, she spends a lot of time writing about kids interacting with the many adults who populate the world, outside of just relatives and teachers. These stories are very real because they focus on tiny slices of life that are both specific to an individual and universally applicable. I am in awe of this book, and I hope it remains in print so a new generation of kids can come to appreciate its brilliance.

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