Sunday, February 4, 2018

Book Battle: The Glory Girl by Betsy Byars (1983) vs. A Fine White Dust by Cynthia Rylant (1986)

Living Read Girl is hosting a Super Bowl of Reading this weekend. Her instructions: "pick a pair of books to read back-to-back in whatever genre you choose and judge for yourself which one is better." What a fun idea! I decided to read two short, religious-themed middle grade novels from the 1980s: The Glory Girl by Betsy Byars and A Fine White Dust by Cynthia Rylant.


The Glory Girl is about a family of gospel singers, all of whom can carry a tune except for the main character, Anna. Poor Anna has a terrible voice and no rhythm, so whenever her family performs, she is relegated to the back of the room where she is expected to sell as many tape recordings of her family's music as she can. This arrangement, along with her father's generally unpleasant attitude, leave Anna feeling left out and lonely much of the time. This changes, however, when her Uncle Newt is suddenly paroled and sent home from prison. Though he initially doesn't show up to meet his family upon his release,  Uncle Newt lingers on the edges of their lives, occasionally interacting with Anna, who finds in him a kindred spirit who understands her feelings of isolation. When her family is involved in a serious accident, Anna turns to Uncle Newt for help, hoping he might be able to rescue her family and also reclaim his own place in it.

A Fine White Dust is about a thirteen-year-old boy with a strong sense of religious fervor. Though his parents are not believers and his best friend is an atheist, Pete can't help but feel drawn to church, and to the Man, the preacher who comes to speak at the revival. From the moment Pete comes forward to be "saved," he feels an undying love for the Man, whom he credits with bringing him closer to Jesus. As his love for the Man grows, Pete decides he will go with him on the road to bring God's word to others, only to find that perhaps the preacher is not as wonderful - or as honest - as Pete has imagined him to be.

Each of these books has a compelling plot, and they both involve outsiders who are looking for an adult figure to help them feel a sense of belonging. While Pete's relationship to the preacher seems more likely than Anna's kinship with the uncle she barely sees, I was more comfortable reading about Anna and Uncle Newt than I was with Pete and the preacher, who makes me uneasy, mostly because of how Pete almost equates him with God. Both books are tightly plotted and very short, leaving little room for unnecessary events. Of the two, though, The Glory Girl is more outwardly exciting, while A Fine White Dust is more emotional and personal.


Both Byars and Rylant are excellent at writing well-crafted and utterly credible characters. I think I felt more sympathy for Anna Glory, partly because she is a girl, but mostly because I could understand her longing to be a part of the family singing group. I didn't feel the same sense of understanding with Pete, as the kind of Christian worship he participates in is very far removed from what Catholics do (it reminded me of the film The Apostle) and I can't really understand his desire to participate in it. I did, however, believe fully in his desire to participate, and to be as close to the Man as possible because of the good feelings associated with his acceptance of Jesus at the revival. I felt bad for both characters, but Rylant does a better job of making me feel what her character feels even when I have never felt that way myself.

In terms of secondary characters, I think the strongest across both books is Pete's best friend, Rufus, who comes through for him time and again even when Pete hasn't been especially nice to him. There aren't a lot of scenes with Rufus, but what is written gives a really good sense of his role in Pete's life and of the close nature of their friendship. The accident-prone twins in the Glory family were also really appealing and their dialogue was funny and sounded like real brothers who both insult and defend each other in the same breath. But I also thought they were pretty similar to other boys in other Byars books.

 Treatment of Religion

A Goodreads review of The Glory Girl suggests that Betsy Byars hates religious people. I didn't get that sense at all. Yes, the Glorys are religious, and their father seems to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder, but I didn't take that to mean he was zealous in a negative way or that the accident was a punishment or comeuppance from God meant to show the error of his ways. Rather, the book is about two things: the way disastrous events can change a family, and the way outside influences might help a misfit child realize there is more to life than the group where she doesn't quite fit. This book was much less about religion than it was about a family that happened to be religious.

A Fine White Dust deals entirely with religion, but again, not in a negative way. Even when the truth about the preacher comes to light (which, by the way, is not as dire as my attempts to avoid spoilers make it sound), Pete is able to distinguish between the failure of a man and the failure of God. Pete also becomes more willing to look with kindness and fairness upon those who don't share his faith after the events of this book. I actually though the story would make a great jumping-off point for discussing the ways people can manipulate belief in God to suit their own purposes, and for warning against false prophets.

Quality of Writing 

The writing in both of these books is spare and concise, which I love, and I think this approach suited both stories really well. I am biased toward Betsy Byars, as I love so much of what she writes, but this was not her best book, and Rylant really writes beautifully as well. I especially like the way her story comes full circle, using the image of the fine white dust (the remains of  a cross Pete has broken in anger) to show Pete's change of heart after his brief friendship with the preacher. I could definitely see the distinctive qualities that would lead a Newbery committee to recognize this book.

And the winner is...

It's close, but in this match-up, I think the winner is A Fine White Dust. The writing is really strong, the rise and fall of the story really lovely, and Pete's emotions come across really strongly. The Glory Girl is also really good, but I think A Fine White Dust has more depth and will stick with me longer.

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