The Shipping News

book 2

Well, it’s finally happened.  I’ve found the 2nd novel that I just can’t bring myself to give what I consider a fair shake.  Here’s my general reading rule:  I’ll give the author 50 pages, maybe even 100 to hook me into the story.  If I’m not “in” by then, I’ll move along.  So far, the only novel I haven’t been able to stand by for 50 measly pages is E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India.  I’ve read other Forster just fine, even liked A Room with a View, but for some reason I just can’t make myself proceed.

Now, I have some pretty decent reading chops.  I’ve read Tolstoy, handled Hardy, “got” Joyce,  and adore Dickens.  While not necessarily voracious, I am a regular reader with a somewhat discriminating taste.  Yeah, I’ve read ALL the Game of Thrones books and hung out with the likes of Anne Rice, Ken Follett, Stephen King, and John Jakes.  So, I’m not a snobbish reader, either.

When I picked up the Pulitzer Prize winner by Annie Proulx, The Shipping News, I was particularly excited because this novel is featured as part of the curriculum for high school pre-AP English courses I teach.  This novel not only snagged the Pulitzer, but also the National Book Award and the Irish Times International Fiction Prize.  So, I was all fired up to add some new life and a new read to my teaching repertoire.  I was hoping for something to atone for the perennial student “favorites” The Scarlet Letter and Julius Caesar.  Bless their hearts, it’s a rough reading year…Anne Bradstreet, Thomas Paine, and that ilk.  Maybe I set myself up for disappointment.

I regret to report I didn’t even make it out of the first chapter of The Shipping News.  I felt book shame, no doubt.  This is GOOD stuff, must be EXCELLENT stuff and I can’t see it.  The diction is not breathtaking to me; it’s breathless and frenetic.  The premise of  “a vigorous, darkly comic, and at times magical portrait of the contemporary American family” (this is on the back of the book) got drowned by the total lack of connection for my students…not with the central character, not with his age, lifestyle, not with the exposition of the story.  I simply could not find the appeal for my students.

It’s not often that I use my TEACHER VOICE here, but sometimes I just have to wonder what the devil curriculum writers are thinking.  Now, before you haul off wondering who am I to rant about what folks write into their teacher training programs, you need to know that I’ve been in the education foxholes since 1991 and have written curriculum professionally since 2005.  I know a thing or two about how adolescents read, about what works, and what doesn’t.

At this point, I’m shipping The Shipping News on out.  I’m going to shelve it for a few months and try to approach it again, not as a teacher, but as a reader.  Perhaps then it won’t make my brain ache with skepticism.  I just picked up an old friend, Anne of Green Gables, to pacify me and get me back in the right frame of mind for the start of a new school year.

This year, I’ll be teaching the level that gets to experience To Kill a Mockingbird  and Romeo and Juliet, so I have plenty of time to change my mind.


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