Monday, February 13, 2012

Postcards From No Man's Land, Printz Award, 2003

Postcards From No Man’s Land is an introspective coming-of-age story. Pieces of Jacob’s life and Geetrui’s weave together to create a satisfying narrative. The style is very mature, with a broad vocabulary and deep themes. To a unpracticed reader, the book may be boring, offensive, or hard to understand. One reviewer said, “It’s just this sort of book that causes YA readers to shun books with an award medal on the cover.” I disagree. It’s the sort of book that is literary, methodic and meaningful. Yes, it’s very different from the fast-paced active stories that teens are used to reading for entertainment, but it’s not inferior.

The voice is authentically teenage most of the time–self-centered, angsty, energetic, and eager. However, much of the vocabulary seems contrived. At one point I put the book down, thinking, this prose is ridiculous. The passage that struck me this way is as follows:
“How often with the aid of a couple of mirrors he had scowled from every possible angel at that offensive hooter, that hideous snout, that swollen trunk, that tumescent nasal evacuator. He would sometimes squeeze and manipulate the end of his embarrassing blower between finger and thumb, like a sculpture molding clay, hoping to reshape it into at least a presentable, if not a handsome conk.”
Jacob’s internal dialogue is far too literary for his age and personality, which may contribute greatly to the negative reactions to this book by other reviewers.

The format of switching between two stories is straightforward, although I spent far too much time trying to figure out how the two stories were connected. The dual-narrative format could also be an obstacle to less experienced readers. The format especially tripped me up at the insertion of other accounts of the 1944 battle from page 152 to 185; these accounts seemed out of place and unnecessary.

The two main characters are fascinating. While other characters are not fully round, they accurately represent what the two main characters could practically know about them. The reader meets the side characters as Jacob and Geertrui do. Emphasis is on their emotions and impressions rather than the actual description of the characters. For example, Geertrui does not initially tell us what the older Jacob looked like, only that “He had eyes that made me melt” (16).

Two settings serve to further the themes, contrasting an old Dutch village and new Dutch city. The descriptions are vivid, so it’s easy to imagine Geertrui’s house, the hotel turned military hospital, Daan’s apartment, the museum, the river, the little shops and restaurants in Amsterdam, and the graveyard.           

Themes in Postcards From No Man’s Land include identity, self-discovery, sexuality, self-honesty, grief, bravery, and integrity. I appreciate Chambers’s open discussion of issues like sexuality, euthanasia, and moral dilemma,  but Postcards addresses so many issues that it starts to feel like a heavily didactic story. This may be on purpose. In the story, Daan equates education with corruption (not meaning dishonesty or vice, but meaning distortion and alteration of form), and makes a valid point that new education inherently challenges old ideas and norms. I can't say how much Daan’s opinions about love resonate with me.
                        “There are no rules about love. Who you love. How many people you can love. Like love is some kind of commodity  . . . . Love is not finite. It is not that we each have a limited supply of it that we can only give to one person at a time. Or that we have one kind of love that can only be given to one person in the whole of our lives. It’s a ridiculous thing to think so.” 

I did struggle through this book, but the last few chapters completely changed the way I view it and personally connect to it. Although I could have done with a hundred less pages, I absolutely believe Postcards From No Man's Land deserved an award for its skillful narrative, authentic characters, challenging ideas, complex emotional journey, and advanced themes.

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