I took Lena, Jacqueline Woodson's stunning new novel, with me to a café the other day. My tea got cold. In fact, I forgot where I was and even who I was while the pages turned by themselves. Woodson's story consumed me. Then, as the last passages poured into my heart, a friend tapped my table and said hello. Coffee steamed in her hands. Reality. Café. Oh, yeah...
"What are you reading? You look absolutely transfixed by this book."
"LENA, the latest from one of my favorite authors. It's about two sisters who escape their abusive father and go on the road in search of a new home."
"Oh, but it's not!" I told my friend. She sat down at my table, ready to be convinced that a book about hurt teens could be anything but depressing.
Pickle. Conundrum. Paradox. How to explain that sadness could become joy when explored by a careful writer? How to convince my friend that teens needed to read this sort of angst? Yet how was this angst transformed for the story's characters as well as its readers?
Thankfully, I had Jacqueline Woodson's words and spirit with me at the table. I'm not sure if I have encountered any other writer for teens who deals with these perplexing issues with more grace. She's a shaman of story. She weaves words, and they unravel in our hearts lovely, lyric words that sing like poetry.
Readers of Woodson's I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This have met Lena before. She is Marie's friend, the one who confessed secretly to Marie that her widower father abused her in his loneliness. Beyond the tender unfoldingoffriendship between Marie and Lena (who had both lost their mothers), I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This bravely scrutinizes the schoolyard politics that ignite when a wealthy and respected black girl (Marie) befriends a lost white girl (Lena) who was labeled "white trash" as soon as she enrolled in her new school.
Lena explores the other heart in that memorable friendship. Lena's life is complicated. When her younger sister begins to suffer from their father's nighttime abuse, Lena confronts the situation head-on. She prepares an escape methodically storing necessities under an abandoned car, purchasing backpacks with her pennies, stowing her younger sister's favorite little pillow, which their mother sewed before she died. On the road hitching rides, Lena and her sister pretend they are boys when circumstances dictate. Lena hides her growing breasts under a tight bandage. She doesn't hide her smarts or her heart, though, and that's what gets them through the cold winter nights they spend sleeping in boxes behind grocery stores. "Where are we going, Lena?" her sister asks.
Lena isn't sure where they are going. She half convinced herself that they were heading to their mother's childhood home in Kentucky, in hopes that the extended family there might take them in. But the closer they get to Kentucky, the more doubts surface within Lena. Maybe her mother ran from them just as Lena and her sister are doing now from their father. Since her mother died, the only family Lena has ever known, the only belonging she's ever felt, has been deep in the middle of her friendship with Marie.
As winter grows colder around them, truth crystallizes in Lena's heart. Home. Friendship. Marie. Peace. Laughter. Trust. Running away from all that might not be the right thing to do. Maybe Marie and her family could help protect Lena and her sister from their father.
Watching Lena on the road, listening to her talk to her sister, witnessing her wrestle with the pain in her heart is a lesson in grace for readers. Lena has a calm gentleness, a brave wisdom. Even though she runs, she is not running from pain. She faces it, almost as if she's listening to it for guidance. As she explores this pain in her heart, Lena uncovers the joy and strength that live there, too.
In 115 pages, Jacqueline Woodson gives us an important truth: When we face pain with tenderness and honesty, we make room for love in our hearts. That's the transformation. That's the answer to the pickle, and it isa paradox of sorts. Life is hard for all of us sometimes. Lena has more than a handful of the hard stuff in her life, but in the crucible of her own heart that pain becomes hope and possibility.
No, Lena is not a depressing book. Woodson's words are a celebration!