“Shades of Gray” by Carolyn Reeder: Courage wears many faces

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This book is available at the American Center in Hanoi. The plot is following.

Will Page lived with his well-off family in Winchester, Virginia (a southern state) before the Civil War wiped out his loved ones. Now homeless, grieving and angry with the Union Army, Will has to live with his poor relatives in Piedmont, Virginia. Will’s father fought bravely in the Confederate Army, but Will’s guardian, uncle Jed, refused to take sides in the war. Thus, Will considers uncle Jed a coward and a traitor, a feeling shared by most of Jed’s neighbors.

At his uncle’s farmstead, Will is in the middle of his inner conflicts. Will’s family used to have slaves and didn’t have to do any real physical work. Now he has to share the labor work with his uncle’s family. Working alongside his uncle, Will gradually (and begrudgingly) comes to admire his skill and wisdom. He realizes that his uncle’s family actually have paid a high price for not joining the war. Embraced by his uncle’s family, Will begins to understand how others view the war. He decides to stay with his uncle’s family, despite an offer to live in a better place.

——The American Civil War (1861-1865) and the New South (southern U.S. states after 1865) are popular themes for historical fiction. However, the story tells adolescents’ thoughts and the American character in a vẻy natural and compelling way. Like any education novels, it focuses on many character-building themes.

First, it talks about courage. Will’s journey to find the true meaning of courage is both daunting and relentless. Initially, he thought that fighting valiantly for one side meant courage. However, living with his uncle’s family, Will realizes that courage also means standing up for one’s belief, even if it is radically different from others’. Courage also means treating the neighbors with respect and kindness, despite being misunderstood and criticized by them.

Second, bullying can be overcome with tolerance and grace. As a newcomer, Will has to defend himself and his cousin from the local children’s teasing and bullying. Sometimes it means playing cool and self-deprecating jokes. Sometimes it means sharing fishing skills, laughing off the grudge with a handshake. To any of us who has experienced bullying in childhood, this book is both a flashback and reflection on our own.

Third, it is about empathy and appreciation for hard work. Before, Will family had everything done for them, and especially they had plenty of books. Here in the countryside, everyone is struggling and working hard; Will does not let his ego voice any discomfort. In fact, with eagerness and joy, he grasps the skills of hunting, fishing, fixing the fences. He becomes best friend with his illiterate cousin and teaches her to read.

The novel’s pivotal moment is when Uncle Jed decided to nurse an injured former Union soldier (a Yankee), to Will’s indignation. After defying his uncle strongly, Will learns that not every Yankee was bad; that, during the war, many Yankees secretly defied their burning-barn orders, sparing some portion of the Confederacy crops and barns. Again, not everything is black and white, but has many shades of gray.

Anyone who loves the U.S. southern culture as much as I do will appreciate the cultural attributes in this book. For example, you will see familiar Southern food like beets, beans, and gravy; people will call “dinner” for “lunch”, and so on. The new South countryside is simply idyllic.

Having less than 160 pages and told in the 3rd person omniscient point of view, this coming-of-age novel is approachable to 6-7th graders and young adults alike. I recommend it to anyone with intermediate English proficiency and with an interest in American history and southern culture.

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