Thursday, February 27, 2014

Thoughts in a Journal

Paper Covers RockPaper Covers Rock 
by Jenny Hubbard

"Lose an arm in the tow, 
shed the shell, breathe
farewell in the waves."  (p 130)

"Poetry is a way of seeing the world with your feelings." (p 148)

The book opens with the narrator explaining why, after two years of letting the journal his father gave him when he went away to boarding school lay fallow on his shelf, he is now writing in his journal. The narrator, Alex Stromm, is writing the journal for himself spurred to do so by the death of his friend and classmate, Thomas Broughton, from drowning. Alex's thoughts, feelings, and overall reaction to this event comprise the rest of the novel. The story he tells involves another friend, Glenn, and a special teacher, Miss Dovecott, who is just a few years older than Alex, the junior student, and who encourages his writing especially his budding efforts at poetry. As he records his thoughts in the journal his relationships, both school and family, become clearer. There are a few touching moments such as Alex's letter of condolence to Thomas' parents that opens, "I have been wanting to write for a couple of weeks now, but I did not know exactly what to say or how to say it, so I have put it off. Now I realize that I will never know exactly what to say or how to say it. . . " (pp 64-65) Both the poetry and the prose in the book limn a young student of above-average ability. The writing ability helps Alex express his feelings about both love and death as he tries to move forward in his school life. Near the end of the book he writes, "...and he'll leave it as others have left it, as others will leave it, boys stepping into who they are without ever having known who they were." (p 163) , suggesting he still has work to do, and he is developing the maturity to do so.

The book is laced with literary references, primarily to Moby-Dick which inspired Alex's literary nom de plume of "Is Male". This is both a literary reference and a symbol of his young male hormones that are as much a reason as any for his crush on Miss Dovecott. The tone throughout is one of mystery and melancholy; mystery as to the nature of Alex's involvement with the death of his friend Thomas and melancholy as his feelings are poured out over the pages of his journal. The result is a subtle portrayal of how one teenager matures through dealing with loyalty, honor, and love in a boarding school environment.  While the novel is reminiscent of John Knowles' A Separate Peace, it does not quite match that novel's literary heft.  However, I was impressed with the author's lucid prose and moved by the slight story. I appreciated young Alex's appreciation of reading in the opening pages when he wrote in his journal, "Read to your heart's content. Though if you are a reader, the heart is never content." (p 2)

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Brian Joseph said...

I think that the literary allusions would go a long way towards making this work for me.

Interesting aspect to the book that as a journal, it picks up after a hiatus.

James said...

Yes, the allusions are key to making this an above average book of this genre.
I think it compares favorably with works like Knowles' A Separate Peace, Good Times/Bad Times by James Kirkwood, and The Rector of Justin by Auchincloss, among those I have read.