Friday, February 17, 2017

Reading Through History: Amy Moves In (1965), Laura's Luck (1965), and Amy and Laura (1966) by Marilyn Sachs

When Marilyn Sachs passed away at the beginning of January, I was reminded immediately of how much I enjoyed her 1968 children's novel, Veronica Ganz. Back in 2015, when I reviewed the book, I wrote that it was "refreshingly unburdened by the contemporary notion that every book is poised to make or break the reader’s entire childhood by its portrayal of unpleasant happenings." I appreciated the book so much because it told the truth about how kids sometimes behave, and it treated the negative aspects of life as ordinary, run-of-the-mill occurrences that happen to everyone, and not as terrible tragedies that ruin kids' lives forever, or that must be overcome with the help of Very Special Adults. As I read through the three books in Sachs's Amy and Laura series, I felt that same sense that Sachs wished to present the truth to her audience, without exaggerations that make life seem better or worse than it is.

In Amy Moves In, Amy Stern struggles to fit in after her family moves to a new neighborhood. She tries to befriend an interesting girl in her class at school, and though this girl turns out to be a bully, Amy is afraid of what her classmates would do if she pursued a friendship with someone more worthy, but much less popular. When her mother is involved in a serious accident and must stay in the hospital for a prolonged period of time, things get more difficult for Amy, as the family adjusts to life with Aunt Minnie, who runs a household much differently than Mama.

In Laura's Luck, both Amy and Laura are sent to summer camp so their aunt can have a vacation from caring for them before their mother is released from the hospital in September. Laura, who is bookish and unskilled at sports, is not happy about going to camp, and her first few nights are absolutely miserable. After a stint in the infirmary with a sprained ankle and a friendly nurse for companionship, Laura comes out with a better attitude and a new cabin assignment to help ease her adjustment. As she works to become a valued member of her cabin, Laura also begins to see the value in camp. 

Finally, Amy and Laura sees the Stern family piecing their lives back together after Mama finally returns home. The girls are sad to see their mother confined to a wheelchair, and their father has insisted they do nothing to cause their mother any displeasure at all, including arguing in the house or participating in activities at school of which she would not approve. 

What stands out to me in all three of these books is Sachs's honesty and sincerity about the triumphs and tribulations of Amy's and Laura's lives. Her stories do not feel manufactured, and they do not manipulate the reader toward having any particular emotion or learning any particular lesson. Rather, Sachs present the events of everyday life the way they really happen - randomly, unpredictably, inconveniently -  and her characters react reasonably and realistically. Because the characters are so believable, the reader is completely invested in the fate of both girls from the moment they are first introduced, and after a while, the plot almost doesn't matter, because the appeal of the stories is simply spending time with the characters. Though Amy and Laura are frequently at odds with one another, the reader is always sympathetic to both sisters, because Sachs allows full access to their thoughts and motivations and gives each character a balance of good and bad qualities.

I was surprised when I read Veronica Ganz to learn that it is set in the 1940s, and that fact was even less obvious in these books. Veronica actually appears in Amy and Laura (as a cause of trouble for Laura in her new post as hall monitor), so it's clearly meant to be the same time period, but there are very few details dating the books to the 40s specifically. In fact, so many aspects of the stories feel timeless, or at the very least more modern than the 1940s. Some of this is probably because of the writing style, which matches other books for kids from the 1960s and 1970s, but I think some of it is also because the characters' emotions are so real and therefore so relatable for kids from every generation. 

This is a great vintage series for realistic fiction lovers, and a wonderful portrait of the complicated relationships between sisters. It is one I will recommend without hesitation to my own girls in a few years! 

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