Shattering the sounds of silence
Karen Cushman's voice is something to be reckoned with, whatever century she happens to be writing about. She won a Newbery Honor in 1995 for her first novel, Catherine, Called Birdy, and the 1996 Newbery Medal for The Midwife's Apprentice, both set in medieval England. Cushman has also written 19th-century historical fiction with books such as Rodzina and The Ballad of Lucy Whipple. In her latest work, The Loud Silence of Francine Green, Cushman tackles a new time period the mid-20th century. Her funny and poignant novel is sure to strike a chord with readers who remember the McCarthy era, as well as those who are reading about it for the first time.
Cushman's heroine, Francine Green, is a quiet, well-behaved eighth-grader as the 1949-50 school year opens. Events and her friendship with one brave, outspoken girl, Sophie Bowman, combine to change Francine and help her find her own voice. BookPage caught up with the author, who lives with her husband Philip on Vashon Island, Washington, to find out more about her much talked-about new novel for middle-grade readers.
Born in Chicago, Cushman moved to California with her family when she was 10 years old. The inspiration for The Loud Silence of Francine Green came several years ago, while she was taking a train from San Francisco to Los Angeles. "I let my mind wander and a picture of a girl emerged who was not encouraged to speak up at home or at school," Cushman says. Through her friendship with Sophie, Francine eventually finds something worth speaking up for.
Like her two primary characters, Francine and Sophie, Karen attended Catholic school in Los Angeles. She recalls not being encouraged to ask questions, to speak up, or to think for ourselves. "I thought such a setting would make Francine's story stronger her family, her culture, her church and her school all wanted her to be quiet and obedient." And the fact is, Francine Green doesn't speak up much. Her parents aren't interested in her opinions, the nuns at school punish girls who ask too many questions, and the House Committee on Un-American Activities is blacklisting people who express unpopular ideas. There's safety in silence, and Francine is careful never to call attention to herself. But all that changes when Sophie Bowman comes to school and becomes Francine's best friend. Had she never met the opinionated and passionate Sophie, Francine would grow up to be dull and blind to the world, notes Cushman, who says that Sophie reminds her of her husband, Philip.
Sophie transfers into Francine's class at All Saints School for Girls and immediately attracts trouble or brings it on herself (Francine is never quite sure which). What she does know is that Sophie spends a lot of time being punished, which means standing in the wastebasket in Sister Basil's classroom. But, thanks to Sophie and a few other key figures her father, a writer, and Mr. Mandelbaum, the Bowmans' actor friend Francine finds herself thinking about things that never concerned her before. She grapples with issues such as free speech, the atom bomb, communism, the existence of God and the way the nuns treat the girls at school. Eventually, through her friendship with Sophie, Francine discovers that she not only has something to say, she is absolutely determined to say it.
For Cushman, the research process for this mid-century novel was somewhat different than her medieval works. "The most significant difference was the availability of primary sources: newspapers, magazines, movies, TV programs, records and photos from 1949-1950, a luxury I didn't have for, say, the year 1290!" It was a time when Americans were frightened as communists gained control in Eastern Europe, China, North Korea and Southeast Asia. Some Americans joined the Communist Party themselves, attracted by what they saw as a way to take a stand against the oppression of workers. While many left the party after learning more about the destructive aspects of communism, the stigma of being Red remained with resulting witch hunts and blacklists.
"With the rights and freedoms we are guaranteed by the Constitution comes the responsibility to protect those rights and freedoms," says Cushman, who believes her book about the McCarthy era is especially relevant today. And through the story of Francine Green, she offers a compelling look at what can happen when one girl finds the courage to speak out for what she believes in.
Deborah Hopkinson's new book for young readers, Into the Firestorm: A Novel of San Francisco 1906, will be published in September.