Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

In a series of interconnected stories, a portrait of Beatrice Hempel emerges. Her mother is a Chinese immigrant and her father was mixed caucasian American. It took me a while to warm to Beatrice, who is rather baffled by life, bumbling along in her role as a young teacher in a junior high school. I was won over by her good-natured honesty in her interactions with her students. In the second story, Accomplice, I cheered her courage in choosing This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff for her Grade 7 English class study. When challenged by a parent who objects to the use of profanity in the book, she defends her choice eloquently.

Beatrice isn't sure she is cut out for the teaching profession. In Yurt, a story about a teacher who comes back to visit after taking a year of stress leave, Beatrice muses that a teacher has no time for wallowing in wretchedness. "The curriculum was always marching on, relentlessly: the scrambling dash from one unit to the next, the ancient Egyptians melting into the ancient Greeks, the blur of check marks and smiley faces, the hot rattling breath of the photocopier, book reports corrected shakily on the bus, the eternal night of parent-teacher conferences, dizzy countdowns to every holiday, and the dumb animal pleasure of rest. One could be quite unhappy and never have the chance to know it." She finds herself looking "longingly at a patch of ice on the pavement," realizing that "if she were to fall and fracture her leg in several places, then she wouldn't have to go to school."

One story takes us back to Beatrice in her early teens and the final story is an encounter years in the future with a former student. The stories together give glimpses into the events that shape Beatrice's journey through life. Very satisfying for readers like me who love intimate character portrayals and lyrical language. I enjoyed her writing so much that I'll include another quote:

"At the entrance to the library, Ms. Cruz sat behind her enormous wraparound desk. It resembled a sort of cockpit, its high sides studded with librarian paraphernalia, Ms. Cruz wheeling expertly about the interior in her ergonomic chair. The desk had two levels; the lower level was intended for the librarian's use as she tried to do her work, while the higher level was meant for those standing around the desk and bothering the librarian.

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