Laurinda’s Rating: 3.75/5
The 1983 winner, Dicey’s Song, is the second book in a series which explores the lives of four children after their mother Liza succumbs to mental health problems. In this book, the children, led by the titular Dicey, have taken up residence with their grandmother and are adjusting to life in a new town and with a responsible adult. Their previous experiences have greatly impacted them. Dicey holds herself aloof from anyone not part of the family, James downplays his intelligence in an attempt to fit in, Sammy’s self-control in school eventually leads to fights outside of it, and Maybeth struggles academically.
Slowly, as the family builds new ties with “outsiders”, they make progress on their individual issues. Dicey makes friends with Mina, daughter of a local African-American preacher, following an incident in English in which Mina defended Dicey from charges of plagiarism. James researches how to teach reading in order to help Maybeth and in turn gains an outlet for his intellect. Sammy expends energy with a paper route, and, combined with Gran’s visit to the school to beat everyone at marbles, starts to fit in. Maybeth, with the help of Mr. Langerle the music teacher, builds her piano skills and begins to make academic gains under James’ tutelage. They also gain legal security when Gran legally adopts them.
The book concludes with Liza’s death in a psychiatric ward in Boston. Although sad, her death allows the children to move forward and to continue growing in their new home. The ending, while not exactly happy, is fairly neutral, imparting the sense that life goes on no matter what happens.
Dicey’s Song poses interesting questions about interpersonal relationships as well as about mental health. I particularly enjoyed the conversations between Ab, the grandmother, and Dicey. Ab stresses the important of holding on to people, not allowing relationships to drift away. She learned that from bitter experience, as, following the loss of one son and the daughter, she withdrew from the town and interacted minimally with the outside world. It’s gratifying to see Dicey start to take that advice. Dicey’s Song also asks whether it is better to have a mother alive but catatonic or dead; there are no easy answers, but Dicey explains to Gran that, even though they knew that Liza would never recover, it still made a difference knowing she was alive.
The main factor preventing this Newbery entry from receiving a higher rating was its over-reliance on description. This slowed down the pacing and led to some judicious skimming on my part.
Overall, this is an excellent book that sensitively covers many difficult topics. Its rich character development makes it shine; you genuinely care what happens to all of the characters, even the secondary ones. I particularly recommend this for children of parents who struggle with mental illness and those who live with someone other than their parents.