Cassie's family has just moved to the shore, where her father and brothers have always worked as fishermen. Cassie doesn't like the change, or the cause for the change (money troubles just barely mentioned), or the fact that her Papa has died since they moved away. She doesn't like that her family is loud and unusual, she doesn't like that she doesn't have a space of her own in the new house, and she doesn't like how she feels out of sync with the rest of her family. When Cassie's Gran comes to visit, she begins to recover from the loss of her Papa, from the loss of her home, and begins to figure out to grow up in this world. Cassie Binegar is a fairly traditional coming-of-age, angsty pre-adolescent story, and parts of it are lovely. Cassie wants to be a writer and is working on a poem that could be inspiring to young writers reading the book. MacLachlan uses beautiful language, and the relationship between Gran and Cassie is a thoughtful reflection on wisdom and generational love.
My concern with this novel is that it tries awfully hard. At first, I liked the charming way Cassie speaks and writes:
Cassie Binegar (whose name rhymes with vinegar) sat on a sand dune by the sea, being angry. I AM ANGRY, she wrote in big letters in the sand. "What's written becomes truth," her fourth-grade teacher had once said, and Cassie believed him. ... Cassie sighed and smoothed over the letters with a sweep of her hand and wrote I AM INFINITELY ANGRY. Cassie like the word infinity. It was a big word with a big meaning. It was an i-n-f-i-n-i-t-e word. (3-4)Later, though, the language felt forced as did some of the situations. I understand that a little novel for little people (only 120 pages) can't do a whole lot with character development, but it's unlikely that one character would have an adult cousin who wears feathers (a lot of feathers) and an uncle who always wears hats and speaks in rhymes, and a friend whose mother has a house full of plastic plants. Cassie actually ponders the Why behind the feathers and the hats, but the reader is not given any reason for such oddities, except that they are symbols for how we all have different ways of hiding from the world during difficult times. And I guess that's my point: should a book for 9 or 10-year-olds have that much symbolism? Or maybe I should put it this way: should a character's circumstances be so obviously forced by the author to meet some external symbolic meaning? Or maybe one last question: should a book for young people appear to be overtly courting the adult members of the Newbery Medal Committee?
So, this brings us to the Read This . . . Not That feature. Patricia MacLachlan is a fine, lovely writer, and her Sarah, Plain and Tall is a beautiful example of serious writing for young people that works. So, though Cassie Binegar isn't bad, I would recommend MacLachlan's later work and especially Sarah, Plain and Tall. Why? Well, Sarah, Plain and Tall did win the Newbery Medal in 1986, and it is likely because of passages like this:
We climbed the bank and dried ourselves and lay in the grass again. The cows watched, their eyes sad in their dinner-plate faces. And I slept, dreaming a perfect dream. The fields had turned to a sea that gleamed like sun on glass. And Sarah was happy. (37)It is such a simple, beautifully rhythmic book that doesn't stretch itself too thin, doesn't try too hard, and always, always tells the truth. In fact, just flipping through it makes me want to read it again. Do share it with a child you know, please.