The Monday Book: A STEP TOWARD FALLING by Cammie McGovern

This is what’s known as a high-concept book. In other words, the premise that makes the plot unfold is a little bit complicated.

Belinda is a special needs girl getting ready to graduate high school. She has a fixation on Pride and Prejudice and a mild crush on a football player who dances with her at a BEST BUDDIES required event. (In other words, the football players have to go to a dance for special needs kids. Yeah, no worries there.)

Belinda winds up under the bleachers at a high school football game trying to see her crush, but meets someone else instead. And as that meeting goes very South, all the kids who see her, who see what’s happening, ignore it.

Which lands two of them in community service hours working with, yes, you guessed it, the special needs day program for adults. Where they get their lives handed to them in pieces as they realize what jerks they actually are. (Spoiler alert: there is redemption.)

A lot of the subtleties of the plot are driven by Emily, one of the two, being an academic nerd and Lucas, the other, being a football player. Cue the violins. The story is told from Emily and Belinda’s points of view in turns, and Emily spends a lot of time trying to unravel how stuck she is in stereotyping people.

The do-gooder pair wind up holding a play with scenes from PnP for the day care center, and that’s the culminating conflict of the book, which is more about exploring the shortcomings of policies for people like Belinda. The author is the founder of a non-profit for parents of special needs kids, and a lot of information comes out in the fiction.

Comes out well, I hasten to add. This is not a sermon cloaked in a story; it’s a story that delivers a good sermon. Belinda is a compelling character and her voice as a narrator is the best thing about this book. Emily and Lucas are interesting but a bit more predictable. The scene where Belinda walks away from Emily the first time she attempts an “apology” is wonderful. And the insights into a world too often hidden from view are meaningful. Thoroughly recommend this book, which provokes both laughter and thought.

The Monday Book: THE SINGING TREE by Kate Seredy

This YA novel is actually the sequel to a famous children’s classic called The Good Master. Kate and Jansci are cousins introduced in that book, when Kate is sent to live with her father’s brother’s family because she’s a spoiled city girl who has been ill.

The Singing Tree is a much deeper book, detailing the experiences of the Hungarian farmers during World War I. The book deals in childlike innocence with topics such as anti-Jewish sentiment in Hungary, the power grab of Austria, the terrible opening of the war, and how Hungarians and Germans set themselves up for future enmity.

The farm where Marton Nagy (the good master) keeps his family safe, and later shelters neighbors who lose their farms, and then houses Russian prisoners of war who work the farm while he is in the army, and finally takes in a passel of German refugee children, is a big happy place. Part of why I like this book is its sappy “Sound of Music” plot twists. (For one example, a stray cat having kittens makes Kate detour the farm wagon to an army field hospital, where missing Uncle Marton is discovered as an amnesia patient. I know, right? Eye rolling.)

And yet throughout the book are these amazing moments of writing, where true horror is simply spoken out by the beloved characters in heartbreaking poetic ways. Marton tells his family the story of Christmas 2015, when soldiers on each side of the trench separating them from killing each other the next day began lighting candles.

Light a candle for Christmas Eve, men whispered and their very words seemed to turn into tiny stars as dozens and dozens, then hundreds of candles came forth from the knapsacks to be lighted and stuck in the snow…..

Kate sighed, a long, tremulous sigh: Oh that was beautiful! What happened after?

The candles burned down, Kate, and the–darkness closed in again. Let those who made war heard the story of what happened after. Let them see.” He lifted his arm and covered his eyes.

Lots of characters fill out the pages and the plot in lovely ways, like Uncle Moses the shopkeeper and Sergei the head of the Russian prisoners, and Mother, who is described in the title. She is the tree that shelters what turns out to be more than twenty people from five nationalities on their farm. Unbelievable, except, in Seredy’s masterful style, it is.

I loved this book as a child and found additional meaning to it as an adult. Give it a read.