Sunday, May 8, 2011

Anonymous Children: Betti On the High Wire

My last 2010 Cybils Middle Grade Novel finalist was so popular in my house that it was chosen by the fourth grader as our April family book club book (Belly Up).  This one may be a harder sell; Lisa Railsback's Betti on the High Wire is a realistic book about an international adoption; the high wire is metaphorical which I suspect will be a disappointment to my boys.  After all, Alex Rider walked a high wire without the benefit of living in a circus camp.

Babo, renamed Betti by her American adoptive family, is a refugee child from an unnamed war-torn country.  The oldest in her small band of lost children, she deputizes the elderly Auntie Moo by taking care of the other children, telling them stories and encouraging them to run away from the strange Melon People from foreign countries, who sometimes choose a child to take home. Betti is astonished when she and her friend George are chosen, because she had a bad eye and he has a missing arm. She is determined not to like her new life and to return to her known and beloved Auntie Moo.  Railsback writes Babo as a standard literary child, who carefully narrates her misunderstandings so that the readers always know what she refuses to understand -- that her parents are dead, that she won't be going back, that her new family loves her, that George is willing to assimilated by his nearby family.

Railsback deliberately never identifies where Babo comes from; it could be any violent place on the planet. We don't know her language, her alphabet, her culture.  An afterward explains this choice -- there are so many places like this in the world that picking one might seem to ignore the others.  It didn't work for me, though; it seemed to disrespect Babo, who shouldn't have to be an avatar of all displaced children; she considers herself unique and important, the child of two circus superstars.  Depriving her of any identifying culture or background makes her seem smaller and sillier -- clearly the America around her is better than the poverty-stricken nothingness she left behind, so her reluctance to engage can only be because of her childish fears of impermanence, such as any foster child might feel.  I never got any sense of her adoptive family's location either, adding to this sense of displacement.  Maybe somewhere on the East Coast, with a Betsy Ross elementary? C+

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