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May 26, 2010

Book Notes - Gayle Brandeis ("My Life with the Lincolns")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

A couple of years ago I read Gayle Brandeis's novel, Self Storage, and was impressed at her seamless combination of engaging narrative and social as well as political consciousness. Her new young adult novel My Life with the Lincolns shares the same trait.

My Life with the Lincolns centers around 12 year-old Mina Edelman, who is convinced that her family is the reincarnated Lincolns. Set in Chicago in 1965, civil rights is a central theme, and Brandeis portrays the era with clarity and a strong degree of humanity through the eyes of her young narrator.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"Brandeis has created an appealing, quirky protagonist, still childlike in her sensibilities and understanding. Convinced that she is going to die young, like her almost-namesake Willie Lincoln, she diagnoses the pain in her developing breasts as incipient heart failure. She worries that her mother will go crazy and her father will be assassinated. Middle-school readers will know better but enjoy this humorous first-person glimpse into her misconstrued world. Adults don’t see so clearly, either. In her first novel for young readers, the author goes beyond usual stories of the civil-rights movement, demonstrating well-intentioned but tone-deaf gestures of white supporters and the discomfort of change."

In her own words, here is Gayle Brandeis's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, My Life with the Lincolns:

As I was writing My Life with the Lincolns, one song would regularly stick in my head. It wasn't a song, exactly—in truth, it was a jump rope chant:

Lincoln, Lincoln, I been thinkin',
what the heck have you been drinkin'?
Looks like water, tastes like wine,
Oh my gosh, it's turpentine!

This little rhyme played over and over again in my skull, and eventually made its way into the book. My character Mina believes her family is the Lincoln family reincarnated and it's her job to save them from their fate, which, in her eyes, means keeping her dad from getting killed, her mom from going crazy, and herself, Willie Lincoln reborn, from dying at age 12. After remembering the jump rope chant, she removed the turpentine from the garage, just to be safe.

The book is set in 1966 Chicago, when Martin Luther King, Jr. came to the city to spearhead open housing marches through the Chicago Freedom Movement, his one Northern civil rights campaign. Mina and her dad get involved in the movement, with consequences for their whole family and community. I did a lot of research about the period, including the music of the time. A few of the songs released that year slipped into the novel.

In one scene, Mina and her sister Tabby ride their bikes over to their school, where a summer program they're not enrolled in is taking place. Some girls are doing choreography to "These Boots are Made for Walkin'" in the grass, and Mina feels jealous as she watches them strut around.

Later in the summer, Mina and her father get increasingly enmeshed with an African American woman named Carla who is deeply involved in the movement, and her son, Thomas. Mina's dad invites Thomas to live with them in Downers Grove, a suburb west of Chicago, to test people's reactions and pave the way for open housing marches in their town. Thomas listens to "white people music"—in one scene, he plays "The Sound of Silence" on a jukebox; in another, he strums "Blowing in the Wind" on his guitar and Mina can hear it as she's trying to sleep:

He was singing, but not like Bob Dylan's whine. His voice was low and deep and slow; I could feel it rumble in my chest.

"Is that song about passing gas?" Tabby asked.

"No, you silly," I said. "It's a very serious song."

"I just blew wind," Tabby said, giggling.

It was a warm evening, but I pulled my comforter up over my sheet. I didn't like what the song was saying. That we didn't know the answers to anything. That it was all blowing in the air around us. That there was nothing very solid for us to hold on to. I grabbed my thigh, just to make sure I was still there.

Here are some other songs released in 1966 that didn't make it into the book, but feel relevant:

"Paperback Writer", the Beatles. Mina fancies herself a writer, and puts out a little newsletter, The Lincoln Log, at her father's furniture store.

"Summer in the City", The Lovin' Spoonful. Chicago had a particularly hot summer in 1966. When Mina and her dad go to see Martin Luther King, Jr. speak for the first time at Soldier Field, Mina's dad ends up passing out from heat exhaustion.

"They're Coming to Take Me Away Ha-Haaa!", Napoleon XIV. Mina's worried this will happen to her mom, just as Mary Lincoln was carted off to a mental hospital near the end of her life. My own mom was suffering from paranoid delusions at the end of her life; she killed herself just a few months before My Life with the Lincolns was released (possibly to avoid going to a psychiatric hospital, herself). It makes me very sad she never got to read the book (and now when I read it, there are all sorts of resonances with her story that I didn't realize I was putting in to the novel.)

"Strangers in the Night", Frank Sinatra. My ex husband and I had considered this our song after seeing Sinatra live the day we got married in Las Vegas. By the time the book came out, I had a different agent, different editor, and different husband than I had when I started writing it, so this book marks a real time of flux. It is wild to me how someone can start as a stranger, become central to your life, and then become a virtual stranger again. This song makes me cry now.

Wow, I wasn't expecting this list to get so personal, but that's what music can do—take you right to the heart of your life. That's what writing can do, too, even if you're writing about fictional characters (sometimes especially if you are.) And hopefully writing will take you into the heart of the world at the same time.

I'll close with a song I didn't know about when I was writing the book, a song I haven't even heard out loud yet, a song I just learned about when I was reading a blog post reviewing My Life with the Lincolns, a song written two years after the others on the list, 1968, the year I was born. "Abraham, Martin & John" was first recorded by Dion and later performed by an eclectic slew of people--Marvin Gaye, Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Bon Jovi and Tori Amos among them. I like that the writer Dick Holler linked Lincoln and Dr. King in his own creative work, that he used the song to both celebrate and mourn great fallen leaders, that he found a way to marry art and social responsibility through his music. I like that the song has a life far beyond its origins. That's more than I dare hope for for my little book, but I would love for it to strike some similar chords within readers. And if parts of the book get stuck in a reader's head, insistent as a jump rope rhyme—well, that would be pretty cool, too.

Gayle Brandeis and My Life with the Lincolns links:

the author's website
the author's blog (Fruitful)
the author's blog (Mama, Redux)
the author's Wikipedia entry

PhiloBiblos review
Publishers Weekly review
Reading Chick review
Sarah's Reads reviews
School Library Journal review
Some Novel Ideas review

Fictionaut interview with the author
Kids' Stuff interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for her novel, Self Storage
Reading Chick interview with the author
Talespinning interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists